Houston 2020 Visions

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Houston: Growth, Challenges and Opportunities

Houston is one of the fastest-growing and most diverse places in the country. In 2017, the Houston metropolitan area’s population reached an estimated 6,892,427, adding approximately 259 new people per day and ranked second in the nation in terms of population growth. This trend is predicted to continue over the long term; the moderate growth scenario for the Houston metro area predicts approximately one million new residents per decade over the next 40 years. Furthermore, over the past three decades, the Houston area has transformed into one of the most ethnically diverse places in the United States, with a population that is 37% white, 37% Hispanic, 17% black and 8% Asian.

Houston has always had a reputation as a city of big ideas. Whether as the center of the nation’s oil and gas sector or as “Space City.” These historical focal points remain key to the city’s and region’s future, but shifts toward the Texas Medical Center (the largest medical complex in the world), the continued development of world-class restaurant and cultural arts scenes, and a growing innovation economy are changing the way Houston is seen both inside and outside the region. Indeed, Houston will be transformed by many visionary projects coming to fruition in the next few years:

  • Bayou Greenways 2020 is a public-private partnership with the goal of forming a network of linear parks and trails along the bayous, adding 150 miles of hike-and-bike trails connecting to parks and communities.
  • The Houston Botanic Garden is scheduled for completion in 2020 and will represent another significant investment in Houston’s park system.
  • Transit riders eagerly await the completion in 2019 of Houston’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) project connecting the Uptown/Galleria shopping district to the Northwest Transit Center, a major transit hub in a growing part of the city. This project will likely connect in some way to the Texas Central Railway’s planned high-speed rail to Dallas. 
  • Building on the momentum of the Amazon HQ2 bid, Rice University recently announced plans to create an innovation district anchored by a hub at the former Sears building, in close proximity to seven colleges and universities, a METRORail line, the Museum District and the Texas Medical Center.

All of these developments in transportation, green space, and technology are possible due to Houston’s growth and vibrant economy – but they all started with a vision of what might be possible and took root because of the city’s dedication to invest in that vision. 

Houston’s growth has also brought with it a number of pressing challenges. The regional transportation network has not kept up with the rapid population growth, leading to congestion and aging infrastructure. For five years straight, Houston residents have named traffic congestion as the biggest problem facing the region. Opportunities for improvement lie in several transformative projects in the pipeline for the region. The Texas Department of Transportation’s $7 billion North Highway Improvement Project will reconstruct and realign three highways in the downtown area. The final details of this project will reshape multiple neighborhoods. The Houston City Council recently approved an updated Bicycle Master Plan, which envisions an ambitious expansion of the city’s bikeway network. However, funding and implementation remain a challenge, and it is unrealistic to expect that highway projects and bikeway projects alone can solve the city’s transportation problems.

Houston also suffers from a shortage of affordable housing stock – especially for renters. A report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimated that for every 100 extremely low-income renter households in Houston, there are only 19 affordable rental units available. Looking more broadly at housing, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s American Community Survey data shows that 306,000 households in Harris County deal with severe housing problems (lack of kitchen or plumbing facilities, over-crowding, or high costs), and 989,210 households are cost-burdened.

Climate change and environmental pollution also represent a serious challenge for Houston. With heavy industry located along the Houston Ship Channel, communities and neighborhoods in the eastern part of the Houston area have suffered for decades from the effects of environmental pollution. Houston’s location on the Gulf Coast also makes it vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, storm surge, and the predicted increase in frequency and severity of tropical weather events.

While Houston has grown fast, that growth has not happened equitably. Inequality exists in nearly every facet of society, including education, health, job opportunities, and housing. Twenty-two percent of Houstonians live in poverty, compared to 13 percent in the United States. Despite its diversity, Houston’s inequality disproportionately affects African-American and Latino households, and the city remains geographically segregated by race and income level.

These challenges must be addressed in order for Houston to continue its growth in a more sustainable and equitable manner. As stated in the 2018 Kinder Houston Area Survey, “[I]t is not a question of alternatives to growth, but of alternative ways of growing.”