Rice’s Shell Center outlines sustainable strategies for Houston

Houston’s population has grown at a staggering 32 percent since 1990, but the city’s ability to sustain such growth could be in jeopardy, according to a report from Rice’s Shell Center for Sustainability. The report found that Houstonians’ quality of life is already eroding and will continue to decline if future growth is not comprehensively addressed.

City of Houston


“Houston cannot afford to continue to be known as ‘The Great Unplanned City’ and still compete for enhanced quality of life,” said Lester King, author of the report and a sustainability fellow at the Shell Center. “Houston’s population was 2.1 million in 2010 and is expected to grow to 2.7 million by 2020, and current city planning policies do not reflect the significant changes that are already taking place because of growth.”

King’s report, “Houston Sustainable Development Indicators: A Comprehensive Development Review for Citizens, Analysts and Decision Makers,” offers a widespread look at social, economic and environmental development in the city. The report’s recommendations are based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other national and state datasets, as well as input from city government officials, academic institutions and nonprofits.

King said five of the sustainability indicators — including three related to transportation — could prove particularly useful in measuring changes to the quality of life in Houston over the next decade.


One draw for new Houstonians has traditionally been affordable housing, but the report shows that housing costs have shifted in recent years. King said 30 percent of Houston households spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing in 2010, up from 20 percent in 2000.

Even more compelling is an aggregate affordability measure that combines housing and transportation expenses, he said.

“In 2010, about 46 percent of the income in the average Houston household went to housing and transportation costs,” King said. “Based on this measure of affordability, Houston ranks 26th in the U.S. In contrast, New York ranks fourth with 37 percent and Chicago 14th with 42 percent of spending going to housing and transportation.”

King said the report suggests that the best option for reversing this trend is to improve public transportation options.

“Citizens in Houston pay more for transportation as a percentage of income than other cities of comparable size,” he said. “Our light-rail network needs to dramatically expand if we are to compete with cities our size. Chicago, the third largest city in the country, has 401 light-rail stations, and we presently have 16.”


Houstonians are heavily dependent on cars. In 2010 Houston led the nation in auto sales — about $9.4 billion — and 75 percent of residents drove to work alone in private vehicles. Without improvements in public transportation, the study found that Houstonians in 2030 will be spending a lot more time in their cars. The annual average of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita is expected to rise from 8,497 in 2010 to more than 10,000 by 2030 — a 17 percent increase.

King said reducing VMT would boost the quality of life in Houston by both reducing air pollution and the stress and anxiety of traffic congestion. Getting more Houstonians to use public transportation would cut VMT, and the study suggests that one way to do that would be to provide residents with more housing options that are closer to work.

“More than two-thirds of Houstonians live within a quarter mile of a bus stop, but neighborhoods tend to be separated from work and school, and as a result, even though accessibility to bus stops is good, trip times are long,” King said. “Most contemporary urban planners agree that locating new housing units close to jobs and essential services would aid in reducing VMT numbers and increase quality of life.”

Employment and housing balance

Encouraging developers to build housing close to job centers would be a boon for Houston, the report suggests. King said data show that Houston has 17 “business centers,” areas with a high-density of 10,000 or more jobs. About 57 percent of all jobs in the city are in these business centers, yet only 22 percent of the population lives within a quarter mile of business centers. That score is paltry compared with other major U.S. cities, like Los Angeles, where about 90 percent of the population lives within a quarter mile of a business center, he said.

King said the study suggests Houston officials do more comprehensive and sustainable development, not with zoning but with “a suite of development codes that regulate the construction and design of new development based on proximity to business centers.” For example, the city’s recent offers of $15,000 incentives to develop housing units downtown could be used to spur development near other business centers.

“Why is this incentive policy only focused on downtown when there are 16 other large business centers in Houston, all generating traffic each day?” he asked. “This is an example of Houston not performing like the fourth-largest city in the nation.”

Health and health coverage

More than 30 percent of Houston residents did not have health insurance in 2010. King said the disparity in health care coverage must be addressed if the city is to remain nationally competitive.

“It is not prudent to simply increase total jobs numbers without regard for meeting the basic needs of current citizens,” King said. “Our data suggest that Houston needs to be more proactive in attracting quality jobs that offer health care and livable wages.” The U.S. Department of Labor identified nanotechnology and biotechnology as two of the most important industries in the 21st century. Houston has strong infrastructure to develop these industries, he said.

Population changes

King said changes in Houston’s demographic makeup also suggest that Houston leaders need to be proactive in addressing quality-of-life issues for all segments of the population. For example, King said, only one ethnic group, Anglos, have declined in population in Houston since 1980. Absolute numbers of Anglos in the city dropped 36 percent between 1980 and 2010.

“From a sustainability perspective, it’s important to understand what it is that is making this ethnic group leave Houston,” King said. “This isn’t just an academic exercise; it’s a matter of remaining competitive. Cities that have been successful in maintaining or growing all ethnic groups have done so by implementing policies that have reflected improved quality of life for all residents.”

The Houston Sustainability Indicators Project

The report was created as part of the Houston Sustainability Indicators (HSI) Project, which measured how well Houston is doing in terms of development based on 25 identified sustainable-development indicators.” The report is based on a review of trends over the past 20-30 years and suggests policy changes aimed at sustaining future development.

“This report lays the groundwork for the city administration to review our development from a comprehensive perspective in day-to-day decision-making,” King said. “With regular updates to the sustainability indicators, it will be possible for citizens, analysts and decision-makers to track Houston’s progress and measure the impact of specific policies.”

King said a second report due later this year will analyze the sustainable development of Houston neighborhoods.

The report was funded by Rice’s Shell Center for Sustainability and is available online at http://shellcenter.rice.edu.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.