Candidates for public office and other community leaders gathered at the Esperson Gallery downtown at GreenStreet last week to hear local experts talk about the way forward toward sustainable quality of life in Houston. Anchoring that panel was Texas House Urban Affairs Chair Carol Alvarado, Houston Housing Authority Lance Gilliam and City of Houston Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian.
The experts kicked off the night by outlining the current state of Houston’s economic and livability landscape. Food deserts and food swamps - the lack of accessible and affordable healthy food options particularly in low-income communities - topped the list. Although the panelists noted some progress with the help of markets like HEB, Joe V’s and Pyburns opening in underserved areas, there still remains a gaping demand for good quality grocery stores in lots of neighborhoods.
One of the problems lies in the greater risk bigger markets must confront when thinking about opening in lower-income communities. Gilliam called on the importance of the public sector to work with the private sector to show them that “You can make money doing the right thing. They are not mutually exclusive.” The panelists echoed this sentiment, that local government needs to do all that it can to make it easy and incentivize markets in these areas to address the needs of the people. Policy initiatives like HB 1485, which passed the last legislative session and will create the Texas Grocery Access Investment Fund, will provide grants and low interest loans to grocery store operators to open new stores, or renovate or expand stores, in low and moderate-income areas throughout Texas.
House rep Alvarado noted, however, that getting markets into food desert neighborhoods is just the first step. She noticed her local grocery store in the East End didn’t offer the healthy options she could find in the exact same markets elsewhere. “Getting healthy options into the low-income markets is the next step…I love my turkey bacon. I want my turkey bacon!” Spanjian noted other initiatives like the piloted “Healthy checkout aisle,” which offers healthy options in line rather than candy and the “Healthy Corner Store” initiative, which dedicates portions of existing corner stores to provide healthy options and fresh produce, are other helpful projects currently addressing this issue.
Another favorite initiative of Spanjian’s is “Sunday Streets,” a monthly program that closes a section of street to cars for an afternoon, temporarily turning it into a pedestrian and bicycle realm where people from all over the city can be active and experience the city in a new way. “It helps local businesses,” she said, “People walking or biking by see a shop they might not otherwise have noticed and they go inside.”
This segued the evening’s conversation into the realm of the built environment. “We need the infrastructure to have a walkable, livable environment,” Alvarado stated as critical to Houston’s upcoming administrative agenda. “We’ve done some but we could do a lot more, like making sure sidewalks are wide enough,” as just one example. Spanjian echoed her sentiment, mentioning specifically the great achievement of Mayor Parker’s Complete Streets Executive Order, adding that “It will take some time, but we are on the right path,” toward making our streets safe and accessible for people of all ages and abilities.
Spanjian expressed her excitement about a handful of upcoming and possible developments that she thinks will be particularly beneficial for improving Houston’s built environment: the completion of Emancipation Park, the upcoming Bikeshare explosion that will accompany the new funding for B-Cycle, the possibility of a large, natural swimming hole located in the East End, the recent passage of the idling reduction ordinance to improve air quality, a new deal on a 30 Mega-watt solar plant and PACE, the property assessed clean energy bill that will make it easier and more affordable to make energy-saving and reduction improvements to your home. She also hinted that maybe someday Houston, like Paris, could do a major Sunday Streets and open up a more significant urban hub for pedestrian and bicyclists only.
The theme for Houston’s next administration: The things that make us healthier - good food, active lifestyles, reduced carbon footprint - are also the things that will make us more economically viable and resilient. Upon speaking of the success of “Brighter Bites”, an initiative giving backpacks of fresh produce to students in the East End, House rep Alvarado stated, “If we don’t have healthy students, they’re going to miss school. They’re not going to be able to reach their full potential. They won’t be able to participate as successfully in the job market. In the long term, it costs everyone a lot.”
And this is something we can fix. Lance Gilliam summed it up: “We’ve done the work and we have the maps. We know that it’s a $20-25 million problem to eliminate food deserts. This could be achieved through mostly private funding at a 2:1 match with public funds and working towards this is something that must be continued by the next administration.” To put it in perspective, the Houston region spends several billion dollars every few years primarily for highway and major roadway projects. Just a tiny portion of this spending could end the problem of inequitable food access in our region. Just a tiny portion more could provide sidewalks that are “wide enough” to all Houstonians, and greatly improve the quality of every day life. Much will depend on the the next administration and leadership that will artfully champion sustainable economic growth and the things that produce an equitable and sustainable quality of life for all Houstonians.
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