ULI Houston News

Building Healthy Places Local Spotlight: Urban Infill and Brownfields in Houston

Adele Houghton, Biositu, LLC
Aimee Schultze, Harris County Public Health

Note: This article complements the BHP Breakfast Series presentation on August 24, 2017: BHP Breakfast Series – Brownfields Redevelopment.

Discovery Green, a redeveloped brownfield site in downtown Houston.

Houston is famously one of the least dense cities in the U.S. At 8,778 square miles (sq. mi.), the metropolitan area falls in between Massachusetts (7,838 sq. mi.) and New Hampshire (8,969 sq. mi.) in terms of land area. So, the trend to revitalize the urban core over recent decades may come as a surprise to some. Houstonians are moving back to town and increasing land use density in the process.

Urban infill developments — particularly those that clean up brownfields — can benefit community health in a number of ways. They can reduce the risk of exposure to environmental pollutants; reduce public health concerns such as rodents and mosquitos; reduce the risk of chronic disease; improve air quality; and, improve public safety.

This article reviews ways that the trend to increase density “inside the loop” can enhance the health of all Houstonians.



Reduce Exposure to Environmental Pollutants

Brownfield sites are properties that are either perceived to be contaminated or have been designated by city, state, and/or federal authorities as requiring cleanup prior to redevelopment. Examples of brownfields include properties that were previously industrial sites, service stations, mechanics, or dry cleaning businesses. Depending on the type of contamination, people using the site and their neighbors can be exposed to health risks if they come in contact with the soil, water, or air. Brownfield remediation removes or encapsulates toxins, petroleum products, and other chemicals of concern that could contaminate the groundwater, surface water, sewers, soil, and/or ambient air quality on site and in the surrounding community. For example, before the historic Jefferson Davis Hospital just northwest of downtown Houston could be converted into a 34-unit affordable live/work space for artists called Elder Street Artist Lofts, an underground storage tank used to fuel ambulances needed to be removed from the property to prevent contamination of the surrounding soil and groundwater. Lead-based paint and asbestos were also removed from the building as part of the renovation.

Developments constructed on brownfield sites can both remove blight (enhancing the economic prospects for the whole neighborhood) and protect all city residents from future exposure to the environmental contaminants that are either encapsulated or removed from the site during the cleanup effort. Remediating to the highest regulatory standard (residential) can help offset concerns from future occupants of potential exposure to the pollutants that were present prior to development.

Brownfields are attractive development opportunities for some developers, because they can often be purchased for below market rates. Additional funding is available to offset the cost of remediation through entities such as the City of Houston, the Texas Railroad Commission, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the U.S. EPA. While not all brownfield redevelopments convert large industrial sites – some, such as service stations, are small plots of land – many of them act as the catalyst for reinvestment in an underserved community. Brownfield remediation projects that jumpstart development in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods may be eligible for funding related to affordable housing, Transit Oriented Development, and/or Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones (TIRZ), among other financing mechanisms.


Reduce Exposure to Mosquitoes and Other Disease-Carrying Pests

Depending on the size, location, and condition of the site prior to remediation, cleaning up a brownfield can also significantly reduce the risk of mosquito- and rodent-borne diseases to area residents.

Houston’s climate and built environment make it particularly susceptible to mosquito-borne diseases, like the Zika virus. In 2016, Houston reported 35 confirmed cases of Zika, all of which were travel-related. Local health departments are working to reduce the risk of a domestically acquired case by targeting the favored breeding grounds of the primary carrier, the Aedes aegypti mosquito: receptacles that collect water, such as trash, old tires, and buckets. Abandoned brownfields are often ideal mosquito breeding sites; because, they have historically been used for illegal dumping. In many cases, cleaning up a brownfield for redevelopment also removes the mosquito habitat, thereby reducing the neighborhood’s risk of transmission.



Reduce the Risk of Chronic Disease

By increasing density in areas combining pedestrian-friendly infrastructure (such as short block sizes, sidewalks, and bus stops) with proximity to job centers, infill developments can increase access to active transportation methods (walking, cycling, transit). The health benefits of the resulting increase in physical activity include: reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, colon and breast cancers, and premature death.

As a whole, Houstonians are at heightened risk of the types of chronic disease that can be controlled through a combination of increased physical activity and a healthy diet. In 2013, heart disease was the leading cause of death in Harris County, followed closely by cancer. In 2015, 72.2% of adults in Harris County reported engaging in periodic physical activity, compared with 70.5% in Texas and 73.8% in the U.S. as a whole. However, a similar percentage (71.1%) were overweight or obese, up from 67.1% in 2013. In comparison, 68.7% of adult Texans and 65.3% of adult Americans met the Body Mass Index definition of overweight or obese (BMI ≥ 25) in 2015.

Many infill developments in Houston promote their location in a walkable neighborhood as an amenity supporting health and wellness. The pre-World War II urban fabric where many infill developments are located in Houston boast uninterrupted sidewalks, short block lengths, mixed land uses, and existing buildings that are tailored to small-scale retail and other civic destinations. Furthermore, central Houston’s wide streets allow for the addition of one or two protected bike lanes while still accommodating two-way vehicular traffic. Infill neighborhoods are also often located on the city bus and rail lines, increasing access to active modes of transportation.

For example, recent redevelopment in Midtown, the neighborhood between downtown and the medical center, has concentrated multifamily housing developments along the lightrail line on Main Street. Midtown is also the location of the first “Complete Street” in Houston located along Bagby Street. This roadway redevelopment project encourages active transportation by balancing pedestrian, cycling, and vehicular modes of transportation.


Improve Air Quality Through Alternative Transportation

Because infill developments are located in closer proximity to job centers and other destinations, they can reduce the length of commuting trips, thereby reducing commuters’ exposure to traffic-related air pollution. These developments also hold out the promise of reducing overall traffic congestion, if the conditions are right for residents to take advantage of a short commute to use alternative modes of transportation rather than drive.

Reducing traffic congestion limits exposure to ground level ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), two components of smog. These pollutants can exacerbate respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Additionally, PM2.5 has been linked with cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Houston exceeds the limit set by EPA for ground level ozone concentrations. And, some areas of town also exceed the maximum threshold for PM2.5. In 2015, 6.5% of adults in Harris County reported having been diagnosed with asthma, up from 4.6% in 2013. While the upward trend is troubling, Harris County’s rate compared favorably with rates across Texas (7.6%) and the U.S. (9.2%). In 2014, COPD rates among adults in Houston were similarly lower than the U.S. as a whole (5.7% compared with 6.6%). While traffic is only partly responsible for local air quality concerns (industrial installations and the Port of Houston also contribute to the total emissions), coordinating active transportation policies alongside infill development projects could help improve air quality in central Houston.

The City has made strides to start accommodating a higher volume of alternative transportation users. Traffic calming mechanisms such as introducing red light cameras, reducing the speed limit, narrowing lanes, and designating bus-only lanes on some streets have been shown to reduce injury rates, particularly in pedestrian-friendly parts of town. Meanwhile, Houston City Council adopted the city’s first bike plan in March 2017; and, METRO is building on the increased ridership that resulted from revamping the bus network in 2015 by enhancing bus stops and increasing express service along major corridors.

Given concerns regarding air quality in Houston, it is essential to perform due diligence regarding the location of point source emitters such as industrial installations prior to purchasing any infill site, but particularly a brownfield site. The absence of zoning in Houston allows emitters to locate anywhere, including in the middle of a residential neighborhood. In some areas of town, the air pollution generated by industry can pose a greater health risk than breathing in the fumes from car and truck traffic. Air Alliance Houston can be a valuable partner in this respect. A local non-profit, they both share information about the location of point-source emitters and work with community groups and industry to reduce or eliminate the release of potentially harmful emissions.



Improve Public Safety

Many infill (and brownfield) redevelopment projects are located in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods with challenging crime statistics. Public safety is therefore a natural health concern for developers in these areas. Neighborhood revitalization projects can be designed to safeguard both current residents and newcomers by incorporating the four major components of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) – natural surveillance, access control, territoriality, and maintenance. CPTED projects have been found to be more likely to reduce the community’s both perceived and real vulnerability to crime, thereby increasing the likelihood of residents’ taking advantage of opportunities for active living and alternative transportation in the neighborhood.


Spur Inclusive Economic Revitalization

Finally, it is important for infill developments to avoid the displacement of existing residents. In many cases, populations surrounding infill developments are low income, minority renters that have historically suffered from poorer health outcomes than the general population due to social, economic, and environmental disparities. Revitalization projects that displace existing residents in favor of new residents who are younger, wealthier, and generally healthier than their predecessors do not benefit overall community health. Displacement simply shifts vulnerable populations from one location to another, arguably harming their health by destroying the community’s social and cultural history and the residents’ social safety net.

A number of land use strategies have been developed to encourage neighborhood revitalization without displacing low-income residents. However, many public policies implemented in other parts of the country are not applicable to Houston, because of its regulatory environment. Instead, in Houston, displacement can only be avoided if all stakeholders (the City, the development community, and neighborhood community groups and nonprofits) come together to create a shared vision for revitalizing a neighborhood without losing its unique character. Several such strategies are being pursued by a local coalition in Houston’s Third Ward, which has seen accelerated private development in conjunction with the recent $34 million renovation of Emancipation Park. For example, the Emancipation Economic Development Council recently received a $460,000 grant from the Kinder Foundation to support neighborhood efforts, including employment opportunities for Third Ward residents, the creation of a Community Development Corporation to fund affordable housing, and several feasibility studies aimed at retaining existing residents and spurring local economic revitalization. Their goal is to harness the energy and investment pouring into the Third Ward for the benefit of all residents – existing and new.






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