Green Houston and Brown Houston

Green Houston is in a race with the future, and the big news is that it's running it.

Many people express shock over Houston's efforts in electric cars.

They're shocked by a lot of things in Houston these days. They're shocked that Mayor Annise Parker happens to be gay. They're shocked that the city has a working train system.

I graduated from Rice University in Houston in 1977, a year ahead of the Mayor, and I have always known there were two Houstons, one green and one brown.

Green Houston is flat, perfect for bicycling, and warm. When I was there the annual Moonlight Bicycle Ramble was just getting started. It's now a local institution.

The Houston I knew was filled with great ethnic neighborhoods, with all kinds of culture, with co-ops and an enormous population of highly-educated professionals around the Texas Medical Center. It was never stuck-up, if rather stuck-up about that.

Brown Houston is an industrial city, built by men like George and Herman Brown. It was a city of chemical plants and skyscrapers shaped like dollar signs. Brown Houston is a working-class town, stretching 100 miles in any direction, when you include its golf and ranchette communities. It's a town with a driving ambition to one day move out of town.

Parker's victory over Gene Locke united green Houston with working class people who can't afford to buy their way out of town, and immigrants dedicated to the new places where they live. She deliberately ran as a non-threatening technocrat, knowing that her coalition was tenuous, and that if the brown Houston business community were really committed to beating her they could, easily.

Remaking Houston as a medical and green energy town will take decades. It depends heavily on investments from brown Houston, investments the energy industry continues to resist. Market incentives need to change for green Houston to have a chance.

For now it depends on companies like Hydro Green Energy, in low offices near the Galleria, on Terrabon, a biofuels producer out Highway 249, and the willingness of utilities like NRG to follow-up on and expand their current plans. (The image above, a detail from Google Maps, shows the location of the T.J. Wharton power plant that has been promised a solar array.)

It's a race, and the news here is not that green Houston is winning it. It's that it's running it.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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