September Sustainability Meetup: 5 Key Takeaways

After weeks of preparation, the Office of Sustainability team was excited to see the culmination of our efforts for the University of Houston’s first-ever sustainability meetup. Our goal was to connect the Houston and UH communities, ignite thoughtful dialogue and explore issues that affect us all. Living in the energy capital of the world creates an urgency for the discussion of this month’s theme, resilience. The livelihood of the Houston community, global trade and the energy sector all depend on the success of our city and could come crashing down if we don’t effectively respond to disaster. In order to develop a more sustainable and resilient city, we must first become a community that is better attuned to the impact that our actions have. What better way to spark the conversation than with the fresh ideas from UH Cougars and passionate Houstonians?

Although the theme was resilience, the discussion sprouted into a wide array of topics. Here are five key takeaways that I got from the September Sustainability Meetup:

1) Achieving a net-zero campus is possible.

The September meetup featured Bruce Race, FAIA, FAICP, PhD, professor of architecture and director of the UH Center for Sustainability and Resilience, who was asked: if you had no limits, what sustainability initiative would you implement on campus? The University of Houston has made great strides in sustainability through campus initiatives but still has room for improvement. Race’s lecture focused on how UH can take these initiatives further by becoming a net-zero campus. This can be achieved through the development of more LEED certified buildings like the UH Cougar Woods Dining Hall, implementing carbon offsets and utilizing waste to fuel the campus.

2) Houston needs to prepare for disaster.

Houston’s dependency on the oil and gas industry as well as its geographical location highlights our need to not only prepare but to proactively reconfigure our city to withstand and recover from potential disasters. After water levels rose up to 34 feet in the heavy flooding earlier this year, Buffalo Bayou was left with broken pieces of steel beams and concrete that failed to stabilize it. Houston’s vulnerability to hurricanes and flooding creates a pressing need to build more resilient infrastructure and efficient emergency evacuation procedures. Oil spills and other man-made calamities are also an area of concern, and we need to tailor issue-specific plans to address how we can mitigate each of these risks.

3) Food deserts are a big issue.

Houston is a sprawling city that is lacking in supermarket availability, particularly in low-income communities. In fact, the ratio of grocery stores to people is 1 to 12,000, way below the national average. As a result, Houstonians without transportation to travel long distances don’t have access to fresh, healthy food, which is leading to serious health disparaties in these communities. Some headway is being made to fix this problem, however. The recent addition of Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods in the food desert of South Union not only offers fresh food to the community but created jobs for the locals as well. The METRO’s new bus network has also bridged some food-desert gaps by providing routes that allow for better accessibility to other parts of Houston.

4) Opinion leaders are important catalysts.

Although some celebrities aren’t interested in contributing to the the betterment of our society, many others set clear examples that aim to improve the well-being of our global community. Leonardo DiCaprio, Natalie Portman and George Clooney are among the many public figures who actively promote sustainability. One meetup attendee recounted how Pope Francis’ call for a more sustainable lifestyle led to the transformation of her family’s daily habits. Influential public figures, specifically by advocating for causes, hold a lot of power to create widespread societal change.

5) The sustainability conversation at UH just needed a place to call home.

Looking around, I saw the room buzzing with students who spoke emphatically about a variety of topics. Industry professionals were also invited to the meetup, so I assumed the discussion would be guided by experienced folks who knew a lot about sustainability. To my surprise, we had an overwhelming majority of students who took the reigns and insightfully addressed pressing issues and potential solutions. After the meetup ended, people stayed behind and continued to engage in lively conversation (myself included!). That’s when it was clear to me that the discussion didn’t need to be guided. The fire was already there, and it was ready to be lit.

If you missed our first meetup but are interested in hearing more about what we discussed, visit our Youtube Channel to watch the lecture and discussion.

Attend October’s sustainability meetup on Wednesday, Oct. 14 to discuss sustainable architecture and meet others who share your interests. Vegan and gluten-free options will be available as part of our complimentary buffet.

-Gabriela Contreras

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