Sandra Rodríguez stood on the corner of a busy intersection in Houston’s southwest Gulfton neighborhood and gestured toward the vast concrete expanse.
“This is a perfect place to really show the lack of trees, the lack of shade and the amount of traffic,” she said.
Next to a gas station, a sign on a mast indicates a bus stop. But there is no bus shelter and no trees on the long sidewalk.
Rodríguez, who is now President of the Gulfton Superneighborhood Council, lived in Gulfton for 40 years. Like many residents of the mostly immigrant community, she used to get by without a car and knows how brutal the summer heat can be.
“I used to ride the metro all the time and walk the streets all the time if I didn’t have a vehicle,” she said. “Walking down the street with a stroller, a backpack, a toddler and a baby — it was going to get pretty hot.”
Houston had one of the hottest summers on record this year, with record temperatures in June and July. But the heat does not affect all parts of the city equally. Areas like Gulfton, which have lots of concrete and little green space, can get significantly hotter than other parts of the county.
A new plan developed by The Nature Conservancy in collaboration with local leaders and community members in Gulfton aims to address these disparities. The plan, called Greener Gulfton, includes a number of community green projects aimed at reducing heat, mitigating flooding and increasing access to nature in the community.
“As climate change continues to worsen, we want to make sure Gulfton residents have enough nature to protect them from climate change and rising heat and water,” said Jaime Gonzalez, the Houston Healthy Cities Director at the Nature Conservancy in Texas .
In 2020, Harris County participated in a federal heat-mapping project that found the Gulfton area was the hottest neighborhood during the day, registering a temperature of 103.3 degrees. That was 17 degrees hotter than Channelview, which had the coolest temperature in the county.
Parts of Gulfton only 4% of the area is shaded with trees compared to areas like West University where the tree canopy covers more than 40% of the city, according to data analysis from Rice University’s Children’s Institute for Urban Research.
Several of the proposed projects in the Greener Gulfton plan specifically address the heat and lack of trees, such as Another looks at using green space to reduce street flooding.
Gonzalez said that integrating nature into communities not only helps mitigate the effects of climate change like heat and flooding, but has so many other benefits.
“It also helps with the daily stresses of life. It can reduce loneliness, it can even reduce crime,” he said. “So nature has the power to really make people thrive and thrive.”
Rodríguez of the Gulfton Superneighborhood Council echoed this view. She said as her children grew up, she often took them to other parts of the city where there were more trees and parkland.
“When you go to a place where you have a lot of nature and trees, the air feels different. And I think it changes your mood too,” she said. “And if you lack that in your neighborhood, it affects your health.”
In devising the plan, many residents, like Maria Hernandez, said they wanted more outdoor spaces to connect with the community and socialize with neighbors.
Hernandez, who helped develop the Greener-Gulfton plan, said growing up in Mexico, her family would go to a small, lush square called a every Wednesday place. A mobile version of a place piloted as part of the plan at Gulfton.
“I think it’s great that we’re going to have one place‘ said Hernández. “It actually connects me to my hometown and connects me to my culture, my roots, my ancestors.”
Gonzalez of the Nature Conservancy said they’ve already partnered with the Gulfton Superneighborhood Council to begin planting some trees early next year. That place Pilot project is also in progress.
In the meantime, Gonzalez said, they are working to secure funding for the other elements and to identify areas where they can work closely with the city and county to implement some of the projects.
“We’re really excited that we’re not waiting,” Gonzalez said. “We’re already starting to move forward with some of these things.”
Find your neighborhood on the county heatmap here. How about your experience? Tweet your response @ktwatkins
And to learn more about how nature can help mitigate flooding, watch Episode 3 of our podcast, Below the Waterlines: Houston After Hurricane Harvey.