Houston’s Green Revolution

America’s oil capital embraces the sustainability movement.

When we think of America’s greenest cities, Texas’ largest metropolis doesn’t leap to mind. A recent 27-city survey, which ranked North America’s greenest cities, seems to bear this out. The greenest -- San Francisco, Vancouver, New York, Seattle and Denver -- led the way based on 31 indicators of environmental sustainability, ranging from water and air quality to land use and public transportation. Houston was ranked 16th by the survey, which was produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

But Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, is no slouch when it comes to green initiatives, even if it’s an oil town with a well earned reputation for sprawl and lax zoning regulations. The city’s new green credibility starts with its ranking as the largest municipal purchaser of wind energy in the country. Houston also is on course to retrofit all 262 city-owned buildings to reduce energy use by 30 percent. It already ranks eighth in the nation in the number of LEED-certified buildings -- it has 97.

While automobiles dominate the city’s transportation system, and will for the foreseeable future, Houston still plans to add at least three new light rail lines to its current one, build a bus rapid transit system and construct a network of bike trails. The city government further plans to purchase up to 30 electric vehicles to add to its fleet of hybrids, increase local food production and develop a single stream recycling program.

Behind this growing list of sustainable projects are two women. Mayor Annise Parker, who won the 2011 Mayors’ Climate Protection Award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the city’s new sustainability director, Laura Spanjian, who shocked friends and colleagues when she left her hometown of San Francisco in 2010 to lead Houston’s green programs.

“There is an emerging recognition that the city has the building blocks to be one of the most livable, equitable and sustainable places in the nation, and lead the next revolution: the green revolution,” she wrote recently in CultureMap Houston, an online magazine.

As bold and ambitious as these plans sound, there’s a certain amount of practicality and necessity to what Houston is doing. Parker calls reducing energy use and carbon emissions “good economics.” The numbers support her. Houston’s Energy Star-certified buildings saved the city $62.9 million in 2010, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. As 3.5 million people move to the Houston region in the coming decades, compounding already congested roadways and high energy costs, Houston can’t afford not to be green.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.