Building Neighborhood Resilience: The Importance of Actionable Projects and Sustainable Partnerships
As children left their classrooms at Kashmere Gardens Elementary school, they were greeted with a unique after school event — a community input session alongside festive Halloween activities. Their parents were also on hand to take part in the festivities and, at the same time, were encouraged to share their perspectives on an important project coming to the neighborhood.
In a community where 45% of households lack internet access, meeting residents — many of whom cannot attend an evening meeting or complete an online survey — where they are is critical to ensuring the community is at the forefront of project design.
The Fall Resilience Fest engaged with over 100 parents and children who shared their thoughts on a more resilient Kashmere Gardens; building upon 10 months of partnership with the City of Houston and the Northeast Houston Redevelopment Council, Kashmere Gardens’ preeminent community organization.
In January of 2021, Resilient Cities Catalyst began piloting a two-year Resilient Neighborhoods program in Kashmere Gardens to help the City and residents build back in a way that tackles underlying vulnerabilities and helps equip communities with the critical capacity to recover while reducing longstanding economic disparities and mitigating climate risk. Specifically, RCC is working with City government and the Northeast Houston Redevelopment Council, to implement a Lily Pad — also known as a resilience hub — in Kashmere Gardens that will act as a physical space for neighborhood residents to reach needed services and resources before, during, and after emergencies; and foster broader connectivity within the community.
The Lily Pad originates in the community — an idea spearheaded by local leaders and residents through the City’s robust planning processes over the past two years, including the Resilient Houston strategy and the Kashmere Gardens Complete Communities Action Plan. Both plans worked with residents to address the most severe shocks and stresses facing their communities and prioritize projects and programs to build resilience. They also prioritize flood resilience as several communities throughout Houston, Kashmere Gardens included, are still recovering from Hurricane Harvey more than four years later. As we continue to work with the Kashmere Gardens community on the implementation of the Lily Pad, the lessons learned from this project to date will continue to inform our work.
Alignment is critical to cross-sectoral project implementation:
Over the past 10 months, RCC has collaborated with over 15 City agencies and prominent neighborhood stakeholders through a series of design sprints and bilateral conversations to foster alignment and initiate design of the resilience hub. From the project’s January 2021 kickoff onward, RCC has developed strong partnerships with the City’s Office of Complete Communities team, Chief Resilience Officer, and the Northeast Houston Redevelopment Council. These partnerships have been critical to building a coalition of project champions, accelerating design, and garnering the support of additional City and community leaders that only make the work more impactful.
Our team held a series of one-on-one resilience value exercises and group design sprints with City of Houston stakeholders over several months to coalesce around an emerging vision for the project that leaders could get behind. The design sprints introduced stakeholders to Lily Pads through an overview of U.S. precedents followed by a discussion on the greatest barriers to implementation and an exploration of the functions a Lily Pad could play in the neighborhood. Providing an overview of best practices in conjunction with a discussion on the most significant challenges in the community and barriers to implementation allowed stakeholders to move beyond preconceived notions of the Lily Pad and instead focus on how it could innovatively serve the diverse needs within the community.
As our climate continues to change, we must remain risk-aware and forward-looking:
In 2017, Houston was hit by Hurricane Harvey dumping over 50 inches of rain, flooding homes, and killing over 80 residents. Kashmere Gardens was disproportionately impacted. The severe rain caused the Hunting Bayou, located in the northern section of the neighborhood, to overflow and flood nearly 3,700 homes, 44% of all the neighborhood’s homes. Four years later, the neighborhood is still struggling to recover with many homes still in need of repair.
Two months into our project, Houston was hit by another climate shock — this time an unexpected winter storm. Once again, Kashmere Gardens was left disproportionately impacted. The same families struggling to repair their homes four years after Hurricane Harvey were dealt crippling power outages and burst pipes requiring serious repairs.
In the wake of these shocks, we are focused on understanding the current risks Kashmere Gardens faces as well as those that the neighborhood will face years from now when extreme weather events are even more erratic and intense. This assessment of current and future risks will be incorporated as we continue to design the Lily Pad with City and community partners to ensure that the Lily Pad is ready to meet the needs of residents regardless of the shocks they may face.
Community stresses deserve equal attention to a community’s shocks:
Kashmere Gardens is a predominantly African-American and Hispanic neighborhood that faces significant socio-economic vulnerabilities. The median household income in Kashmere Gardens was only $27,765, roughly half of the median household income across Houston. The financial stress experienced by this neighborhood extends into other socioeconomic vulnerabilities: 45% of households lack internet access, in 2018 over 25% of residents lacked health insurance, and in 2020 39% of residents relied on school-based food distribution to help feed their families.
As we work with City agencies and community organizations, it has become clear that services to remedy these vulnerabilities are not accessible to Kashmere Gardens’ residents. We see the Lily Pad as an opportunity to provide needed services to residents that will minimize underlying vulnerabilities and ultimately limit disproportionate impacts following shock events.
Our community engagement efforts to date — both through online and in-person surveys as well as the Fall Resilience Fest — have emphasized the need for health services, food distribution, and internet access among the neighborhood’s top priorities. At the same time, they have also revealed community assets on which Lily Pad design can build — from strong connections with neighbors to pride in local schools. In the coming months, we will work with trusted partners to ensure the Lily Pad addresses these needs, while building on community strengths.
We must leverage all of a community’s assets:
Nearly 100% of Kashmere Gardens sits in either a 100 or 500-year floodplain. With storms becoming more frequent and intense, it has become more difficult to predict which areas within the neighborhood will be hardest hit by the next shock event — flood or otherwise — and thus where would be the ideal location for a resilience hub. There is urgency, felt by City and community partners, to identify a location where the Lily Pad can be implemented today. Kashmere Gardens’ residents and the City cannot wait for a hub equipped with all of the infrastructure needed to withstand shock events and effectively provide services in the wake of disaster to be built.
Building on the Complete Communities Action Planning process and research conducted by Stantec, our team has pivoted to think about the Lily Pad within the context of a hub and spoke model. Although the neighborhood may house one central Lily Pad, we hope to establish a series of smaller Lily Pads equipped to serve diverse community needs. In the event of a shock event that prevents the central Lily Pad from operating, residents would have accessible response and recovery services at one or multiple of the “spoke” Lily Pads.
These critical lessons will continue to inform our collaborative work with the community and City on the Lily Pad and other projects in Kashmere Gardens in the coming months. We hope to bring the insights and approaches we’re co-creating with our partners to more neighborhoods in Houston and cities across the U.S. through our Resilient Neighborhoods Program.