Stranded at the airport: Perspectives on Houston's infrastructure from an MIT DUSP professor

On September 1, 2017, MIT News ran a Story about an MIT DUSP (Department of Urban Studies and Planning) associate professor - who happens to head its City Design and Development Group - who (with a few graduate students) became trapped in the area surrounding Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport due to flooding from Hurricane Harvey. The associate professor, Dr. Brent D. Ryan (PhD '02 MIT) was able to give a firsthand account of his observations of the disaster and his subsequent thoughts on Houston's infrastructure and its relationship to the problems he encountered.

Dr. Ryan's interview for the Story consisted of a few broad questions and the perceived implications of his observations for other U.S. cities. Selected excerpts from that interview follow with limited commentary.

"Together with two master’s students, I was more or less trapped for 48 hours.  Nobody panicked, but when you think, “I'm cut off by floodwaters and I don’t know for how long,” it starts to get really scary.

We were all sitting there on Sunday thinking about the storm’s impact, asking ourselves, “How did things get this way?  What went wrong?”  In a sense, it really was a perfect storm because you have a city that's sprawling, hasn't been carefully constructed, and lacks environmental sensitivity in its development patterns — and it got the heaviest storm that you could possibly imagine....

Part two of Houston's problems is the region’s absolutely sprawling, auto-oriented development. You have parking lots, wide roads, impervious surfaces, and uncontrolled development that more or less ignores environmentally sensitive areas.  With an event like this, it becomes viscerally evident which residential areas are absolutely not safe from even moderate flooding.  Driving out, it was so sad: We were driving past all this water, stretching for as far as the eye could see with houses poking out of it."

Okay, let's summarize thus far...

  1. Houston is a textbook example of urban sprawl.
  2. Houston hasn't been "carefully constructed."
  3. Houston's "uncontrolled" construction patterns ignore environmentally sensitive areas.

Do you see where I'm going with this yet?

Dr. Ryan continued when asked how Houston might recover and adapt for the future...

"I think you need to start at the regional level first, from a life-safety perspective and from a critical regional infrastructure perspective.  It’s absolutely unacceptable that both airports shut down and major interstate highways closed.  Once that happens, the area is essentially closed to the outside world.  I think Houston needs to generate a whole new set of engineering standards in conjunction with environmental engineering analysis of the area that says, “We can't build this way anymore, and we have to rebuild a lot of places that we thought were okay.”

A secondary priority for life safety is either discouraging or prohibiting settlement in low-lying areas — and there's so much of that in Houston.... These are areas in flood-prone zones and they're not going to be safe from future flooding.  There’s no doubt about it.

But Houston is famous for having no zoning.  They're not going to tell people how they can build or where; it's all up to the market.  And the market has made a lot of decisions that are absolutely not in context and not sensitive to the environmental needs of the area.  I think Houston really needs to do some soul searching about how they govern land use and residential development."

I'm almost sure by now you know where this is going...

"Whether or not you think that climate change is an issue, there's not anyone out there who doesn't see that Hurricane Harvey just came in and destroyed or damaged half of the city of Houston.  Whatever the cause of Harvey’s strength, I think serious provisions need to be made for ensuring that the city doesn't shut down in this type of storm again.  But that serious commitment is going to have to go up against a lot of anti-government ideology, and a lot of skepticism about regional planning and regional governance....

There’s no disagreement in the Netherlands that large-scale governance is critical to providing protection from water.  It’s a country that has become a leading example in how you can use design, planning, and engineering in concert to plan effectively for these types of problems.  The Dutch are the classic example....

America's local governance and lack of regional planning really doesn't serve the United States well with respect to this kind of problem, whereas I think European and Asian governments — where there's a lot more trust in the higher levels of government and a tradition of central government abundantly funding planning and design decisions — are better prepared to deal with this.

I don’t want to label the Harvey disaster a wake-up call, because we've had a few wake-up calls already. But it's a reminder that the manifestation of climate change or climate severity can affect different cities in different ways. It's a reminder of how many of our cities and regions are vulnerable. And it’s an absolute reminder of the imperative for us to think hard about what types of measures we can generate to create more resilient regions."

As can be readily seen from Dr. Ryan's thoughts above, climate resiliency must be regional to be effective, not local.  Further, all of the measures suggested deal with legislation, building codes, zoning and environmental sensitivity.  Dr. Ryan knows this, because this is urban planning 101, not climate change adaptation.

The same reckless abandon attitude towards construction and pollution-producing industries in Houston is at the heart of the Hurricane Harvey disaster there.  This is the area requiring adaptation.  America needs attitude adaptation.

When these hurricane-soaked regions begin to re-evaluate the life-safety ramifications of their unregulated reckless pursuit of profits, we will see the beginnings of "climate adaptation" in the form of proper zoning laws, better designed and constructed infrastructure, more stringent building codes, and (environmentally sensitive) urban master planning.

Perhaps the imaginary CEE 1.103 would be better taught at DUSP by Dr. Ryan, who could bring a personal experience element to the course.

Even if transferred to DUSP, It looks like the class field trip is still going to be to either Washington, D.C. or The Netherlands.


Curt Newton's picture

Right on, Rick.  All of the

Right on, Rick.  All of the issues identified by Professor Ryan are well-established urban design principles...unfortunate that it's been all too easy to ignore them.

My one quibble with the article and his statements: no mention of the perverse incentives introduced by the US flood insurance program. Maybe the very low percentage of flood policyholders in the Houston area downplays it... I don't know.

As a south Florida resident, very much on the front lines of sea-level rise and tropical storm risks, what do you observe from your local planning groups like Southeast Florida Climate Compact?

Rick Shankman's picture

"My one quibble with the

"My one quibble with the article and his statements: no mention of the perverse incentives introduced by the US flood insurance program."

Curt, unfortunately the insurance industry is allowed to get away with policy cherry picking, so the FEMA Flood Insurance Program is the only option for the great majority in South Florida.

As for the need for "attitude adaptation" as described in the Article above, this 2012 Miami Herald story pretty well explains the continuing problems here in Florida... greed.

The counties that make up the Climate Compact you referenced (Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach) still have some of the toughest windstorm and coastal floodplain building codes in the country.  True Floridians never saw this as "climate adaptation" but as common sense.

Home lots in my barrier island town have strictly-enforced minimum elevations and (almost draconian) building codes.