To Develop or not to Develop. That is the Question!

To Develop or not to Develop. That is the Question!

Is “green development” an oxymoron?
Thursday, April 1, 2010 - 8:05pm


A Houston developer is putting up $15,000 in a sustainable design competition for a new master-planned community the company intends to build on the environmentally sensitive Katy Prairie west of Houston.

While the goal of the competition is to encourage designs that don't worsen problems such as flooding, carbon emissions or loss of wildlife habitat might it not be the best plan be to reuse already developed land elsewhere? With older neighborhoods decaying and in need of infrastructure upgrades, and green fields near cities disappearing rapidly under the spread and sprawl of suburbia, might it make more sense to look back toward town than out to the green pastures surrounding it?

According to a recent article in the Houston Chronicle, the project would be the second new master-planned community in recent years on the prairie,   which  lies in the path of continuing suburban growth west of Houston. Even with the competition for a green design, it is unclear, to what extent the winning designs will contribute to the development of the Katy Prairie project in the end.

Like most prairie land, Katy Prairie provides important wildlife habitat and absorbs storm water in the Cypress Creek watershed, where hundreds of homes flooded during torrential rains last spring. The competition strives to develop the land for a community while retaining the wildlife and ecosystem services the prairie provides.

The new project is called Ventana Lakes, and will be developed on 640 acres with up to 1,200 homes at completion in 5 or more years. It is one part of the competition which has three design challenges:

1. Green Roadway: A re-development of a mile-long road/highway (expanding 2-lane to 4-lanes of road that has historic significance as well as proximity to a major tank farm near the water)

2. Urban Re-development: About 6 blocks of a street in East Houston that is intended to be a major redevelopment (complete with a large stadium, residences, shopping, restaurants, etc.) and provide a model for applying smart growth principles to redevelopment

3. Suburban Residential: The Katy Prairie square-mile development in Harris County

Development is often controversial. One member of a team that submitted a design that didn't make the final round of the competition remarked, “Probably there should not be much more development out there (on the prarie) at all,”

But if development is inevitable, an intelligent design may yield better results. And in this case the site of the project isn't in a part of the prairie that has been targeted for conservation.

The larger questions aside, the design did yield some pretty amazing results. Participants in the design competitions were jazzed, and they came up with designs that hold rainwater, provide habitat, nurture native species - it’s no doubt a low impact design. If develop we must - these kinds of design are the way to go. They mimic nature and preserve much, if not most of the features of the Katy Prairie already.

But it still begs the questions - should we develop open spaces or focus on redeveloping lands that have already been used - like fallow farmlands, abandoned building sites, crumbling neighborhoods , urban cityscapes and marginal lands from a diversity and wildlife perspective. Since we humans have demonstrated the capacity to live nearly anywhere, why not select those places for our development that are the least sensitive in terms of biodiversity, habitat, water purification, cropland and other ecosystems services?

So hooray for the thoughtful, intelligent design for the Ventana Lakes project, that seeks to conserve much of what is there. . A bigger hooray for urban projects and design that rehabilitate and regenerate what has already been lost and bring some of it back. Our redevelopment of already compromised lands might not look like neat rows of houses, subdivision lots and cul de sacs, but they might wind up looking more like- well, nature.

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