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Houston, No America, We Have A Problem!

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Department of Defense

 Unless you have been living under a rock, you have seen the news and know the devastation Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath has caused in Southeast Texas. When we witness such tragedy on a large scale, we immediately begin discussing ways to prevent it; however, flooding is an everyday occurrence in many cities across the United States. While this flooding in the human environment may not be enough to blanket a city or trap people in their homes, it’s enough to destroy property; cause waterborne illnesses; cause loss of life; destroy crops; and impede access to essential public services such as ambulances and firetrucks. The aforementioned list is by no means exhaustive but a snippet to illustrate some of the impacts of flooding. Sadly, it doesn’t take a hurricane to have this impact. Heavy rainfall or even sustained rainfall over a long period of time can be just as destructive.

Unfortunately, climate change is causing more frequent and extreme weather events. Unless we take action to mitigate the damage caused by these wet weather events, we will see more devastation in our communities. As an environmental engineer who happens to work on stormwater management issues, here are a few of my thoughts on the topic.

1. Preservation of natural resources – Wetlands (marshes, swamps, bogs, ponds) are land areas covered by water that consist of plant and animal life. In the context of flood control, wetlands help protect against storm surges by serving as an intermediary between larger waterbodies and land. Unfortunately, development often destroys this natural barrier allowing more water to reach land and without filtration. Jurisdictions should include preservation of natural resources as they update their land use plans, comprehensive plans, and/or zoning laws.

2. Getting smarter about growth – During wet weather events, water is looking for a place to go. Water naturally seeps into the ground; however, many of our cities are covered in asphalt, concrete, and other impenetrable barriers. This surface water runoff can overwhelm our sewers and become stuck in areas where there is little flow. In addition, waterfronts are being developed with housing and commercial space without regards to rising water levels due to climate change. As this land erodes it will impact these places that are now high value corridors of living and entertainment. Despite these challenges, waterfronts are and will continue to be popular locations for development. Developments should consider sea level rise or consider new design techniques such as floodable buildings.

3. Increase in green infrastructure -Trees, rain gardens, green roofs, bio swales, pervious pavement, rain barrels and constructed wetlands are a newer approach to managing surface water runoff. Many urban areas are using green infrastructure as a tool to imitate the natural process that should occur after wet weather events by adding soils and other vegetation back into the ecosystem. Green infrastructure has to be a part of a larger strategy to effectively minimize the impact of wet weather as well as place making in communities.

4. Increase and maintain gray infrastructure – Poor drainage, lack of maintenance, infrastructure not designed for high density populations are all issues impacting our existing gray infrastructure such as storm drains, storm sewers, holding tanks, dams and levees. In fact, both dams and levees received a grade D on the American Society of Civil Engineers 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. New gray infrastructure as well as the maintenance of older infrastructure are important components in preventing the outcomes we often witness in wet weather events.

The damage and destruction that we witnessed post Katrina, Sandy and now Harvey are not isolated to these extreme wet weather events. Until we extend our conversations and more importantly our action to maintenance and prevention, we will continue to play Monday morning quarterback. Unfortunately, it’s more than a football game at stake. Lives depend on it. America, we have a problem!

P.S. Extreme wet weather events are occurring globally but for the purposes of  making this blog brief, I limited the issue to the United States of America.

Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.


5 Ways to Help Traffic


Source: CNN

In the midst of Tropical Storm Harvey, our hearts and thoughts go out to the families whom are affected by this storm. Due to its flat topography, Houston is well-known for its susceptibility for flooding. Many people woke up to find they were trapped inside their flooded homes and waited to be rescued. We wish the affected families the best of luck in their journey to recovery.
I have never been to Houston, but I have heard many stories about Houston’s traffic and planning. In this blog, I will share what I have learned from my perspective and my extended knowledge of transportation.
Houston is known for its sprawl. People tend to complain about the traffic because they drive to most of their destinations. The traffic is usually at a standstill.
Here is a video talking about the Houston’s freeway system.

American Highway Users Alliance published a statement that the Katy freeway in Houston was the second most congested road in America. Drivers spend a combined 25.4 million hours every year sitting in traffic on that road (which is 36 lifetimes worth). That is why the government decided to spend $2.8 billion to expand the road to 28 lanes, making it the widest highway in the world. Many people thought that this extra capacity would surely solve the problem. However, between 2011 and 2014, travel time on Katy freeway went up 55% (Meaning that driving between downtown Houston and Katyland, a 28-minute drive without traffic, takes an average of 64 mins during afternoon rush hour.)

Katy freeway (I-10) in Houston, Tx

Sounds unbelievable, right?

The video explains that the road expanding solution violated the fundamental law of roads: MORE LANES=MORE TRAFFIC. When the road got extended, more people used it, causing it to reach capacity again.

Here are some solutions for traffic as discussed in the video:

  1. Take public transit

This is always the long-term way to solve traffic. Taking the bus and light rail can definitely reduce the daily amount of traffic and is also environmentally friendly.


Source: http://www.abrahamwatkins.com/blog/images/METRO_Light_Rail3.jpg

  1. Ramp meters

Meters on entrance and exit ramps can control the amount flow of traffic entering the highway. It slows down the number of cars merging onto the highway, ensuring traffic stays at its most efficient speed.

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 3.40.10 PM

Source: https://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/fhwahop14020/sec1.htm

  1. Tolls

Tolls are a direct way to reduce traffic. In New York, which has high roadway tolls, people often prefer to take the train or subway into Manhattan instead of driving.

These fees can increase the overall cost of driving to a level where some people will decide the benefits of driving are not high enough and will choose alternative means of transportation.2005-03-13_15-53-32

  1. Roundabouts

Roundabouts decrease some of the worst type of collisions and still carry the same amount of traffic, according to study. Traffic tends to be smooth and consistent, albeit having a slower flow.


     Source: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/XcK8sjzTlWI/maxresdefault.jpg

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 4.08.05 PM

Source: https://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Safety/roundabouts/benefits.htm

  1. Diverging diamond interchange (DDI), also called double crossover diamond interchange (DCD)
  • Fewer conflict points (14 for DDI, 26 for conventional)
  • Conflict points spread out throughout interchange
  • Better sight distance at turns
  • Virtually no driver confusion (FHWA study and new DDI observations in Springfield, MO)
  • Traffic calming features when desired
  • Wrong way entry to ramps extremely difficult
  • Shorter pedestrian crossings

chapt1pic4Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 4.15.25 PM

Source: http://www.divergingdiamond.com/trafficmovements.html

In the DC metro area, commuters also face heavy traffic during the rush hours, especially in downtown DC, I-66, I-495, and I-395. After all, traffic is an issue for every major metropolitan area. We all contribute to solve this problem. I highly recommend everyone to take public transit like Metrorail, Metrobus, or the Capital Bikeshare.


Mei Fang, is an urban planner with a strong passion in urban and landscape design, she also enjoy looking for the variety culture inside of the city.


A Little LEED Strategy for buying home


Recently I’ve been studying for LEED Green Associate exam and the word “density” has been hanging in my mind, this is because “density” this word throughout the whole book. The very beginning of a project is ‘Location and Transportation’. This is a new category that was added to the LEED rating system. This category put more emphasis and attention on reducing one of the main contributors to global warming: transportation. It is clarified through the ideas of reducing the cost, pollution, and depletion of resources related to the daily transportation of people and goods to and from a destination. After reading Veronica’s post last week, it got me thinking about sustainability and how it applies to our daily lives, especially in choosing where to live. I think that LEED principles can be applied to a housing search.

The book divided Location and Transportation (LT) category into 4 points: Location, Transportation, Site Development, and Health and Livability. These points are often similar to what people consider when looking for a house or place to live.


Locate within a LEED-Certified Neighborhood Development

A LEED-Certified Neighborhood usually is a sustainable site. This is because the neighborhood has to meet the qualification of LEED requirements such as walkability, green infrastructure, floodplain avoidance, etc.



Located within proximity of surrounding density and diverse uses

“Density” is an important word in LEED. The reason behind this is to cut the distance shorter for people to travel to work or visit the building. Also, if the building is within walking distance (0.5 mile), people will not need to drive. Both ways would cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and will help reduce global warming.



Limit available parking

LEED-Certified buildings usually have limited parking, because this can encourage people to carpool or use alternative ways of travel.

DCLab6401A LEED Platinum Science Building in DC


Develop in areas that have multimodal transportation access

This could also inspire people to take public transportation modes like bus or rail.

A Washington Metro train makes its way toward Union Station, Sunday, March 25, 2001. It's not nearly as old as some of the models housed in the Museum of American History, but Washington's subway system is about to turn 25. Amid the celebration, however, is concern about equipment and funds for a system that ranks only behind New York City's in ridership.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

A Washington Metro train makes its way toward Union Station, Sunday, March 25, 2001. It’s not nearly as old as some of the models housed in the Museum of American History, but Washington’s subway system is about to turn 25. Amid the celebration, however, is concern about equipment and funds for a system that ranks only behind New York City’s in ridership.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)




Site development 

(This point is more for a someone building a home and their location selection)

Avoid developing on environmentally-sensitive land

This is for the sustainability environment. Considering the local bioregion, watershed, and community can help a project team minimize the sustainable features of the surrounding environment and to climate change. In LT category, sensitive land defines as farmland, floodplains, threatened or endangered species habitats, water bodies, and wetlands.

Locate the project on a pre-developed site

It would be an ideal area, because of the preexisting infrastructure is already in place. Pre-developed location can reduce the cost of installing new roads, sewer, and power lines.


Locate the project on a high-priority site such as a brownfield

A brownfield is a property that has the presence of hazardous materials, pollutants, or contaminant that may affect by redevelopment if the property. Remediation and development of brownfield can avoid land waste and reduce urban sprawl.


Health and livability

Develop in areas that promote walkability

Sidewalk and shelter for pedestrians should be provided, these make it easy for people to walk to and from the building for basic needs and routine functions.

Provide bicycle storage facilities, shower room, and bicycle networks in close proximity to diverse uses

This encourages the use of non-motorized modes of transportation.

Capital Bikeshare rental station near McPherson Square Metro (WMATA) station, downtown Washington, D.C.

Capital Bikeshare rental station near McPherson Square Metro (WMATA) station, downtown Washington, D.C.


Provide a bicycle maintenance program for employees or bicycle route assistance for employees and customers.

This could encourage people to ride bikes, walk, or run errands during the day. This can also decrease greenhouse emission caused by vehicle use and increase the health and welfare if building occupants.


Other factors recommended that contribute to this field that speak to “density” are the following:

Provide pedestrian amenities

Promote connectivity

Create a diverse community

Promote access to sustainable food

Provide access to grocery stores.


All of these factors would reduce a number of people who use their cars in their everyday lives. This will help contributing less greenhouse emission, at the same time, provide human more options to work out and revitalized neighborhoods.

Hope these points can help you, and Veronica, with your home location selection.


Mei Fang, is an urban planner with a strong passion in urban and landscape design, she also enjoy looking for the variety culture inside of the city.



We would love to help you with your sustainability goals.