Mayor's Dilemma: Can Houston Be Energy Efficient? As a city in motion, Houston constantly evolves. And it uses enormous amounts of energy. Mayor Bill White has made it his goal to help Houston evolve again — into a more energy-efficient city. But his obstacles include a cultural shift.
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Mayor's Dilemma: Can Houston Grow And Be Green?

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Mayor's Dilemma: Can Houston Grow And Be Green?


Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne at NPR West in California.


And Im Steve Inskeep in Houston.

A signpost here, amid the Houston skyscrapers, suggests how much this giant city has changed. The sign says that in 1836, the founders of Houston set aside this city block on Texas Street. It was the church reserve, dedicated to religious activity. Today, the churches have moved. An office building stands here instead. Houston is a city in motion. And it uses enormous amounts of energy.

This morning well talk with the mayor, who wants to move the city toward energy efficiency. Its our latest report from the urban frontier, our occasional look at how cities change and grow. We begin in a Houston driveway, the start of Mayor Bill Whites morning commute.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Mayor BILL WHITE (Houston): How yall doing?

Unidentified Man: Morning.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

(Soundbite of car door closing)

INSKEEP: He slips into the car carrying a black mug of coffee and a sheet of papers. Hes a soft-spoken man without a lot of hair, and with a steady gaze. We ride through a park full of joggers. Then we detour onto a city block with a jumble of houses, old and new.

Mayor WHITE: You have an innovation that you dont have where youd have a much more top-down taste patrol.

INSKEEP: Houston has no zoning code, so it has a lot of variety. On this street, we pass shotgun shacks and big front porches, and modernistic new row houses.

Mayor WHITE: And just roll here for one second, to what's on the left, which we call a beer can house, where a guy built a house and decided that he was going to decorate the inside and out with beer cans.

INSKEEP: The house is now a museum to that one mans highly personal taste.

Mayor WHITE: His habit required him to consume large amounts of beer to generate those cans. And it was hard work, but somebody had to do it.

INSKEEP: Mayor White says he wants to do the hard work of changing this freewheeling place. Hes a former deputy secretary of energy. And here in Americas energy capital, he made that one of his signature issues. All those long commutes and all those big air-conditioned houses use a lot of energy.

Mayor WHITE: We need a dramatic reduction in the energy consumed per square foot occupied in structures if we are going to continue to grow and reduce emissions including carbon emissions...

INSKEEP: Which the city tried to do by subsidizing an affordable house. The mayor took us to see it. It stands near a freight railroad line, but has excellent insulation and a solar panel on the roof. Sometimes the panel generates even more electricity than the residents consume.

What are the possibilities for a place like this? I mean this is one house in one neighborhood, but you envisioned thousands of houses like this.

Mayor WHITE: I mean, there could be thousands here, and there could be millions. Something like this, I would think in 10 years, could be the standard for new home construction in this country. And if we did that, then this whole debate about whether we should, you know, have more like - more from coal or more from nuclear, or rising utility bills would all be moot.

INSKEEP: Bill White hopes the example will inspire developers to build efficient homes on their own. But this city spreads over hundreds of square miles. People use a lot of energy on their long commutes. And there are limits to what Bill White can do, or wants to do, to force change.

(Soundbite of light-rail train)

INSKEEP: Those who think the mayor couldve done more include a man who joined us on Houstons light-rail line. We took a ride with Jay Crossley of an advocacy group called Houston Tomorrow.

Mr. JAY CROSSLEY (Houston Tomorrow): This goes all the way out to the Astrodome. Now theres the Reliant Stadium.

INSKEEP: The shiny silver trains are just a few years old and more lines are planned.

Mr. CROSSLEY: And in 2013, youll be able to live all over town - and basically live a full life - via light rail.

INSKEEP: Which means that some people in America's oil capital could have the option to use less oil by leaving the car at home. Crossley can look out the window, though, and see one problem. Theres a lot of vacant land along the rail line. For a variety of reasons, developers have not yet rushed to build within walking distance of the train stops.

Crossley thinks part of the problem is that Mayor White, like all Houston officials before him, did relatively little urban planning. There is a variety of land use regulations, which dont always make sense to Crossley.

Mr. CROSSLEY: There is a whole sort of anti-clutter, anti-billboard movement thats actually very powerful. They recently made the city council pass a law against those inflatable gorillas, because that was a huge problem, apparently; and it made our city look bad, apparently. So that kind of thing is completely okay, whereas doing a comprehensive plan is seen as socialism, or as inappropriate.

(Soundbite of prerecorded train announcement)

INSKEEP: Houstons lack of zoning limits the city power. It relies more on private restrictions on property deeds, which vary widely. Local business leader Dan Bellow likes it that way. We spoke on the balcony of his 25th floor office, looking out over clusters of skyscrapers that have spread across Houston.

Mr. DAN BELLOW: And I think theres a lot of urban planners today who would come to Houston and say, I dont like this at all; and others who come and say, you know what, this worked a lot better. Because what it did is it allowed for competition to stay in the market. In other words, zoning restricts competition, makes it harder to permit to build and deliver product to the market. In Houston its a little easier to do that. We have fewer barriers to entry.

INSKEEP: Yet, some city leaders have begun asking if they need a few more barriers. Two developers proposed to build a tower in the middle of a low-rise residential neighborhood. It would rise 23 stories. Private homes were right across the street. Developer Matthew Morgan said he wanted to include a store, a restaurant, an office space, as well as apartments.

Mr. MATTHEW MORGAN (Developer): With the objective being to reduce the dependence on the automobile.

INSKEEP: You must have had a sense that if you were going to build a 23-story building next to much lower houses that somebody was going to be unhappy about that.

Mr. MORGAN: Well, we did, I mean, yes. We anticipated, I guess what I generally refer to as some pushback.

INSKEEP: In fact, neighbors were outraged about the size of the building and the possible growth in traffic. Today, the neighborhood is full of yellow signs proclaiming Stop the Ashby - thats the name of the building. Mayor Bill White took the side of the residents. The developers finally had to take the stores and offices out of their proposal to get a permit.

Mr. MORGAN: And by forcing us to remove these uses, this has become more or less another residential high-rise project.

INSKEEP: Opponents of this project say its simply in the wrong place, and the story underlines the complexities of making any city greener.

(Soundbite of clapping)

INSKEEP: The mayor sat down to talk over these issues in a new city park. Kids are playing soccer on a brilliant green lawn. Bill White is preparing to leave the mayors office after six years. Hes term limited, and hes running for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat. He gestures toward an energy-efficient skyscraper under construction nearby.

When it comes to energy use, is Houston sustainable right now?

Mayor WHITE: Well, I mean, what I look at is something very simple. Have we broken the almost one-to-one correlation between economic growth and power consumption for residences? And on that the answer is a resounding yes.

INSKEEP: Explain that one-to-one correlation. I think people may be interested in what that historic pattern is...

Mayor WHITE: Well, that means that as the national productivity goes up by one percent, the power consumption goes up by one percent. And this happens all over the world. As you have a rising middle class, more people have more financial independence, they occupy more square footage. Generally, as a standard of living goes up, then our power consumption has gone up. Our goal was to break the link between economic growth and growth in power consumption.

INSKEEP: This growing city will strain to keep that goal long after Mayor Bill White leaves office.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: From California and from Houston, Texas, its MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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