Strong public-private partnerships key to rebuilding after Harvey

Public-private partnerships like Buffalo Bayou Park provide roadmap for recovery

By: Rich and Nancy Kinder

We all should be proud of our elected officials, community leaders and citizens, who stepped up to the challenge of Harvey’s aftermath. Houston is adept at weathering the storm and quickly launching into the arduous task of cleaning up. We now must prove to ourselves and the world that we are going to recover as an even better place to live, work and play.

This is a pivotal time for our city. We have the opportunity to forge a new quality of life that is even more resilient and underscores who we know we are – a visionary, 21st-century city. Now is the time to plan for an even better Houston.

Let’s think big.

Several bold concepts have already been put forward: build a third reservoir and possibly more, execute a robust buyout program for residents in neighborhoods that have flooded time and again, construct the coastal barrier to protect our port and industrial region. As this paper’s editorial page has noted, “Now that cleanup and reconstruction are in full swing, we must not lose focus on the long-range view.”

These ideas share the common goal of mitigating flooding and protecting our city, but our goal should also be a better, more livable city. As an example, buying out the homes of families that were flooded could be considered a flood mitigation strategy, but if we also set out to create an expanded park and green space system, our city will be both safer and more livable.

This strategy also should focus on weaving back together cohesive neighborhoods from those impacted by the floods. After all, our neighborhoods form the backbone of civic life in our city.

The great news is Houston has become nationally known for exactly this type of approach, confronting our challenges with a partnership between the best of the public and private sectors. The Kinder Foundation has been involved in two projects that can serve as models for what these partnerships can accomplish.

In 2012, Houston voters overwhelmingly approved a major bond referendum providing $100 million to transform our bayous from widely ignored drainage ditches into linear parks and trails. Since that vote, these dollars have been matched with private donations, and more than 1,400 acres of land along the bayous have been opened up for the enjoyment of the public. By the time Bayou Greenways 2020 is complete, more than 3,000 acres of under­utilized land along the bayous will be transformed into linear parks, and approximately 60 percent of Houstonians will live within a mile and a half of a Bayou Greenway.

In our view, this is just the beginning of the transformation of our city that we should be seeking as we recover from Hurricane Harvey. The Bayou Greenway improvements weathered the storm well, and crews and volunteers are removing silt and debris as quickly as possible.

Buffalo Bayou Park is the second successful partnership the foundation forged. A $58 million “central park” funded primarily with private dollars, it is nationally recognized for its resilient design that can withstand and bounce back from flood events. The bottom line is even a 500-year-plus storm like Harvey did not knock out the park, and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership is hard at work removing the massive amounts of silt that Harvey’s floodwaters deposited. Already, the park’s main trails and most of its destinations are open. In a year’s time, visitors will have to look hard to see any evidence of the flood’s impacts.

These were big ideas that have resulted in proven, effective public-private partnerships, and they can be a road map for how we approach the Harvey recovery. Let’s harness the collective resources of government, nonprofit organizations and private philanthropy to rebuild a city that is safer from future flooding and even more livable and green than the city Hurricane Harvey tried to destroy.

The above op-ed was featured in the Houston Chronicle on October 1, 2017. It can be found online here.