Planning for Cleaner Air
By Lily Auliff
After months of research, the City of Houstons Community-wide Committee for Clean Air Development Policies submitted a set of innovative recommendations to the City of Houston Planning and Development Department for ways the department could reduce air emissions through regulatory policy. Now, committee leaders are pushing for city and community support, trying to make sure their work becomes more than just a report on paper.
The Committees Work
To prepare the Citys plan for attainment of the clean air goals, the Mayor established the Clean Air Task Force, composed of representatives from every city department. Each department, including Planning and Development, was charged with preparing its own plan to reduce internally generated NOx emissions by 75 percent, explains Robert Litke, director of the department. Because Planning and Development regulates the building and development industry, the department was also asked to review building codes and land development options that could result in significant reductions in air pollution. As a first step toward this public policy decision making process, Planning and Development convened a citizen committee to look into three areas that might improve the regions air quality.
Three task forces formed, each producing a report that outlines simple things Houston could do:
Taking It a Step Further
Although the Planning and Development Department will send recommendations to the Mayor, committee leaders want to take it further.
Were not going to send it just to the Planning Department, were sending it to the planet, says Mack Fowler, who led the heat island task force. He and David Crossley, chair of the Urban Structure group, have posted the reports on the Internet and are distributing them to elected officials and groups around the city.
Their ultimate goal is to see some of the recommendations integrated into the State Implementation Plan (SIP), the measures outlined by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) that will help Houston meet the health-based national ozone standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Within their comments on the draft SIP, the EPA even suggests that TNRCC explore additional options, such as enforceable commitments to adopt innovative technologies, such as smart growth.
Becky Weber, Associate Director for the Air Program at EPA Region 6, reviewed the reports and was impressed. I think they contain some great ideas, she says. It is our hope that some of them could be implemented to improve air quality.
These recommendations are pure New Urbanism, a key ingredient of Smart Growth that essentially says the neighborhood should be the comprehensive planning unit, and neighborhoods should be safe, convenient, and walkable, explains Crossley. The purpose is to bring the daily needs of people closer to their homes, to eliminate or reduce the length of car trips and need for transportation.
Many of the ideas are quite simple. For example, walking can be encouraged by providing shade on sidewalks, installing adequate lighting, and making nearby buildings visually appealing by eliminating blank, windowless walls. To promote bicycle use, the report suggests creating bike routes between all neighborhood centers and requiring adequate bike parking for all new buildings. Priority, shaded parking for low emission vehicles would boost their use.
The recommendations submitted by the Urban Heat Island Reduction Task force are simple as well. Studies indicate that ambient temperatures in city centers can be up to eight degrees higher than those in the surrounding countryside. The group proposes that the Planning Department adopt a series of new policies and change existing ordinances to encourage and mandate major increases in tree canopy.
Not only are trees aesthetically pleasing, it is clear to us that they are part of the solution to air quality problems, explains Fowler. The shade and evaporative cooling from trees lowers urban temperatures, lessening the formation of ozone. Trees also absorb ozone, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter.
The heat island group would like to see regulations that protect existing trees and require increased plantings on city rights-of-way, parks, administrative and maintenance facilities, and on residential and commercial property. They also suggest increasing the use of light-colored, heat reflective materials on roof and street surfaces to lower temperatures.
The Building Codes Task Force recommends specific uniform guidelines for the eight-county region that would reduce energy consumption. Each building would be assigned a maximum energy usage; those that over-consume would be penalized. The report looks to todays technology for help, suggesting that city building codes be revised to reflect available high-efficiency lighting, air conditioners, major appliances, and programmable thermostats. The task force even suggests a licensing system for building operators, who would be required to attend classes on energy efficiency.
Were at a moment where there is widespread recognition that we have a huge problem in our air quality, and that it is only part of a greater problem about the perception and reality of the quality of life in the region, summarizes Crossley. The general recommendations outlined in the reports are similar to those being explored and adopted in many parts of the country today. There is citizen desire for these ideas, but very little expressed support from elected officials. The Clean Air Development Committee is working to garner the support needed to change how Houston thinks about development.
For the complete Clean Air Development Policy reports produced by the three task forces, visit www.livablehouston.org/cleanair/