I traveled to Houston in late September, a few weeks after Hurricane Harvey had inundated the city, to work with environmental educators at our long-standing client, the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, on a series of new interpretive installations to be distributed along the trails throughout their 155 acre sanctuary at the west edge of Memorial Park.
Coming in from the airport on Memorial Drive, which runs parallel to Buffalo Bayou through the heart of the city, I saw litter and debris tangled in the high branches of trees, easily twenty feet above the roadway. Houston is built almost entirely on low ground and wetlands. It is (or was) threaded through with a filigree of creeks and streams that drain a vast watershed, flowing into the Bayou and ultimately out to the Gulf of Mexico. For over a century developers have been energetically transforming those vital natural arteries into highways, streets and buildings, converting permeable, absorbent surfaces into acres of impervious asphalt and concrete. The result, over the course of several days in the last week of August, was massive and catastrophic destruction from Houston’s third “500 year” flood event in less than three years: a natural disaster caused almost entirely by human actions.
Our workshop had been scheduled weeks before the storm, and in its aftermath I assumed it would be cancelled. But the client felt differently. Their position was, in essence, that “What we’re doing here is more important now than ever.” What they are doing is gradually implementing a radically farsighted master plan intended to restore their site, over several decades, to something closer to its original mix of coastal prairie, savanna, woodlands and wetlands. They are proudly and publicly defying the widespread misconception that the way to protect nature is to leave it alone. Instead, they are acknowledging the inevitably of human engagement with the natural world, especially in urban settings, and putting into place deliberate interventions that will eventually yield a far more diverse and resilient environment.
At this perilous moment in the history of our nation, and arguably of the world, when avarice and greed and the relentless pursuit of short term profits is gravely, perhaps irreversibly endangering our biosphere, the Arboretum’s commitment to truly long term planning – to thinking in terms of ecological timeframes, not quarterly return on investment – is deeply inspiring. We are honored to be working with them.