Mimi Swartz looks at the city of Houston's journey to becoming a more environmentally-conscious place.
After years of dismissing as whiners the small minority who suggested that pollution was doing damage not just to Houston's image but also to its economic future, community leaders finally got their wake-up call. "It really had a negative impact on employers and employees moving here," said Deborah January-Bevers, the executive director of Houston's Quality of Life Coalition, who works closely with the Greater Houston Partnership, the city's version of a chamber of commerce. In bygone times, she would have been the enemy. That was before civic leaders finally realized that the bargain they had made--to accept an ugly, polluted city in return for a booming business climate--was a losing one in the twenty-first century. If Houston didn't change, new businesses wouldn't come here, old businesses wouldn't stay, and the city's collective dark fears--that it would end up poor, backward, and, worst of all, ignored--would come true.
Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg, who has tracked the city's economic and demographic changes for 27 years, regards mid-October 1999 as the local equivalent of Pearl Harbor. During a six-day period, USA Today ran a story bearing the headline "Houston (cough) . . . we have a problem (cough)," while the Los Angeles Times was celebrating the news that Houston had surpassed L.A. as the U.S. city with the worst air quality. "Everyone began to realize Houston had no chance of making it in the new economy if the perception was that it was not just flat and hot, but also ugly and dangerously polluted," Klineberg said.
One of the most influential--and most surprising--advocates for environmental change was the Greater Houston Partnership. Eight members, including future mayor Bill White, formed the Quality of Life Coalition, and they settled on four things that could make the biggest difference in the shortest amount of time: planting trees and landscaping; removing billboards; improving parks, bayous, and trails; and cleaning up litter, graffiti, and vacant lots. Soon, 85 businesses and organizations had endorsed their plan. White's election as mayor in 2003 ensured that Houston's nascent green movement would become official city policy. He spoke the language of the business community: enlightened self-interest. He was a highly successful trial lawyer-turned-CEO of a global energy corporation and a former deputy secretary of energy in the Clinton administration--the embodiment of all Houston wanted to be. White preached that the green movement should be the pro-business agenda for Houston.