Spotlight on Sustainability: A fresh approach to regional planning in southern Texas

A tugboat in Galveston, TX. Photo courtesy of flickr user BFS Man.

After receiving a HUD Regional Planning grant two years ago, the Houston Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) knew it had its work cut out. The grant region comprises 13 counties and 6 million people and a wide variety of city types, from rural to coastal, suburban and urban. Yet, in such a large and diverse region, the grant has done much to coordinate local planning efforts, says Meredith Dang, the Land Use Transportation Coordinator at H-GAC.

“As a region, we’ve done a lot of planning about individual concerns – like housing, transportation and infrastructure – but not on this holistic level, so we’re using our grant to look at how the issues interact and what sort of future the region wants to strive towards.”

The grant consortium is made up of 24 local organizations, with local governments, nonprofits, and university and research organizations involved, all groups that had not previously worked together. “The scale at which H-GAC has been able to cross the lines between government and nonprofit and education through the Consortium has created partnerships that have been really groundbreaking for our region,” Dang says.

Currently, the consortium is working together to come up with development strategies through a series of case studies. Two case studies in particular have emerged as key projects for the grant.

The first involves the city of Houston, where planners are looking to piece together a set of policy tools that encourages and incentivizes walkable, mixed-use development in a dozen business centers throughout the city as well as builds a framework that speaks to the kind of development people really want. The second is being carried out in the city of Galveston, where planners hope to develop a more complete method of cost-benefit analysis for sustainable development.

“We want a more complete methodology for looking at non-monetary returns. Sometimes it’s hard to look past the costs of sustainability but we need to look at returns on things like quality of life,” Dang says. “The idea is to get a more true picture of the benefits to help us allocate city investments in a way that will in the long run give us a better return.”

Other grant initiatives have involved a robust campaign for public engagement: the opening round of community meetings alone attracted over 5,000 residents. Yet because the region is so diverse, the consortium has made sure to reach out to those who would not usually attend traditional community meetings, spearheading a concerted effort to seek out a more representative sample of public opinion at local festivals, sporting events and other gatherings.

Overall though, Dang says the grant’s biggest success is in crafting a vision for the region’s future growth as a whole and how this process can add measurably to residents’ quality of life throughout the area.

“We are really about creating a new framework for discussing growth, one that is regional, not just local. We want to expand the conversation and expand people’s choices so that they can live in the kinds of places they really want.”