THE BLOG

Ike: Galveston's Big Break?

11/02/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Sunday after Ike, I visited Austin for the first time. Power seemed weeks away, there was debris in the streets and the blessed cool front Houston enjoyed was being supplanted by an imposing heat wave. Once out of the city, the ride was a straight shot through fields and farmland with only a few BBQ joints and firework huts lining the way. After a couple of hours, the clear, expansive landscape began to gently slope--winding rivers suddenly revealed themselves along the fringes of hill country.

The first thing I noticed was the pride Austin residents have in their city. Young and old, they seem to genuinely care about respecting their environs and fellow citizens, from the footpaths to the farmers. Downtown, cars are outnumbered by pedestrians, joggers and bikers. But beyond the outdoorsmen who linger for hours at the first-ever Whole Foods, there is a practical and quotidian move throughout the city to appreciate and preserve the local environment.

Austin is one of those rare American cities that has integrated the beauty and function of its location into its design. Part of that is good fortune--the city did a lot of major developing after environmental concerns were popularized. As a result, Austin homes and businesses have been built with ecological issues in mind. The sustainable urban planning creates a positive cycle: environmentally conscious individuals are attracted to Austin and encourage the green trends and consciousness that define the city. Even those who come to town without an eye for sustainability can't help but be influenced by the green gusto of those around them. Austin should serve as a model for developing municipalities worldwide: because it attracts people who will perpetuate the ethos it has established, Austin will stay clean and beautiful as it continues sustainable development.

Galveston city planers should look to Austin for inspiration and direction as they rebuild in the wake of Ike's destruction. Though it will be a long and arduous process, rebuilding Galveston is a unique opportunity for the city to get on the cutting edge of architecture and urban design. Rebuilding with a focus on sustainability will help Galveston save energy and money in addition to attracting new visitors and residents in the long run.

To a city that has not yet made sustainability a major point of focus, it may seem like a difficult and involved process to rebuild with energy efficiency in mind. A wealth of evidence illustrates the ultimate economic benefits of building green, even if the initial costs are high. Because Galveston and its residents must, in many cases, start from scratch, they would do well to learn about how basic architectural issues like building orientation, shape and exposure to the sun can affect energy use and costs in the long term.

To be a truly innovative city, Galveston should aim to build eighty percent of its new constructions under LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards. The U.S. Green Building Council Web site makes following these guidelines easy, by providing project profiles, courses in green building and guidelines for project certification and accreditation.

Because of its vulnerable location, Galveston faces a unique set of developmental challenges. If the city hopes to safeguard its citizens and continue attracting new residents or vacationers, it will have to build with hurricane protection in mind. Fortunately, fortified buildings need not be waste in waiting. A hurricane resistant home built in South Carolina by Deltec Homes met every LEED standard and earned Platinum Home certification--the highest accreditation available. Deltec has built hurricane resistant, sustainable homes since 1968 and according to its Web site, "After forty years in the homebuilding business, Deltec has never lost a home to high winds. Eight Deltec homes were in the direct path of Katrina and none suffered any structural damage..." The Galveston municipality should employ Deltec or follow its example and encourage private residents to do the same.

Another company worth copying is Austin Energy, which works on both domestic and business locales. The company has received awards for its innovations in eco-friendly architecture including the 2004 "Keep Austin Beautiful" award and the "Best Architectural Trend" award from The Austin Chronicle in 2003. Austin Energy provides extensive information for anyone looking for help and advice on sustainable building.

There are hundreds of other companies operating nationwide to create buildings and infrastructure that would make Galveston greener and richer in the long run. Young people are attracted to innovation: there is a reason why Austin has a thriving music scene, popular schools and a strong outdoor culture. Imagine if Galveston could attract new residents while preserving the beauty of its seaside location. Rebuilding green is a win-win and well worth the extra effort.