The Greater Houston region is critical to U.S. economic health. The city houses one of the largest medical centers in the world; the largest global concentration of crude oil refining and chemical production facilities; and the largest port in the U.S. for foreign waterborne tonnage, U.S. imports and exports.
The region is no stranger to the impacts of extreme weather. Hurricanes, droughts, and extreme heat and humidity take their toll on the region’s infrastructure. Over the course of three years, Houston bore the brunt of three 500-year storms, most notably Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which tied the record of costliest Atlantic hurricane with over $125 billion in damage. When you combine these environmental conditions with the region’s rapid growth, deterioration of already strained and aging infrastructure is exacerbated.
Alongside Houston, communities around the U.S. and across the globe are working to improve their ability to bounce back from vulnerabilities, often intensified by climate change. This value of resilience is becoming widely understood as the world navigates a pandemic and communities are being tested in unprecedented ways.
Resilient Infrastructure Planning
No matter the challenge that a community faces, critical infrastructure must be designed beyond today’s needs, toward the future needs of our communities. The standard approach to design and building standards is typically focused on what has happened historically. Resilient infrastructure shifts this perspective — looking beyond what has already happened and preparing for what could come.
- Make intentional, future-facing decisions. It’s easy to do things the way they have always been done or to make decisions based on the most recent challenge. Leaders need to plan beyond the current need and balance investment costs with risk, looking beyond what has happened to what could happen. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, local leaders knew the region couldn’t simply be rebuilt exactly the same. That’s why the City of Houston made an intentional decision to invest in resilient, more robust infrastructure. Through this process, it is essential to assess areas that are vulnerable to natural disasters and other challenges, and see that the available funding addresses the needs of all communities in the region.
- Utilize data. The latest science and data can inform resilient infrastructure planning. With information such as the evolving data on floodwaters and how they perform, projections of rising sea levels, greenhouse gas emissions inventories and extreme heat estimates, infrastructure can be designed to accommodate the needs of the future. By applying more progressive design criteria, such as adjusting certain baselines to align with the 500-year flood plain, Houston is applying the knowledge collected from past events to design and construct for its future.
- Leverage smart infrastructure. Across every infrastructure sector — including water, power, roads, airports — large investments are needed to upgrade the physical structures that will become the foundation of smart cities. The data from smart infrastructure technologies creates the potential for a self-healing electrical grid, efficient traffic management, automatic water supply leak detection or smarter airport security systems. These advanced technologies, such as fiber optics embedded into road systems, should be integrated into new or updated infrastructure to deliver usable information to city managers and planners.
- Engage the community. Local leaders and architecture, engineering and construction professionals have a responsibility to understand the challenges and needs of the community they are serving. Community engagement is critical to informing resilient infrastructure plans. It’s also important to see that resiliency efforts are being communicated to residents. Communities vulnerable to flooding are often affected by projects completed upstream, and it’s likely that residents do not see this physical work. Residents need to be informed about how efforts elsewhere will impact the places they live, work and play.
- Approach challenges regionally. The implementation of resilient infrastructure demands involvement from a range of industries, city departments, community organizations and residents. Extreme weather events have no boundaries; therefore, resilient infrastructure should be assessed at the regional scale. The City of Houston recently published “Resilient Houston,” a resiliency strategy and road map for the region. It provides a framework for collective action and links existing efforts with new ones that will work together to protect Houston against future disasters and chronic stresses, such as aging infrastructure, poor air quality and climate change. A key element of this strategy is the cross-departmental implementation that will work to align priorities across the region and see that resilient initiatives are socially equitable. While every community has unique sustainability and resiliency needs, practices and lessons can be shared and adapted. For example, Houston and New Orleans often discuss ways they are approaching their latest challenges as Gulf Coast communities.
The development of new design standards for critical infrastructure projects will support sustainable and resilient infrastructure initiatives and enhance the long-term safety and welfare of all.