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The Shell Center for Sustainability's mission is to foster an interdisciplinary program of research, outreach, and education to address actions that can be taken to ensure the sustainable development of communities' living standards, interpreted broadly, to encompass all factors affecting the overall quality of life.

Zero Carbon Redevelopment

Climate Change and Cities



Albert Pope, Gus Sessions Wortham Professor of Architecture, Rice University 

Jim Blackburn, Professor in Practice, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Rice University

Jefferson Duarte, Gerald D. Hines Associate Professor of Real Estate Finance, Rice University 

Leonardo Dueñas-Osorio, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Rice University 

Michael Emerson, Allyn R. & Gladys M. Cline Professor of Sociology; co-Director Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Rice University 

Robert M. Stein, Lena Gohlman Fox Professor of Political Science, Rice University 

PopeAlbertpicsm13  BlackburnJimpicsm13   DuarteJeffersonpicsm13
Albert Pope Jim Blackburn Jefferson Duarte

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Leonardo Dueñas
Michael Emerson Robert Stein

 Project Background


2014 Update Video

In the very near future, climate science tells us that cities will have to confront a series of dramatic ecological challenges. Regardless of how these challenges are met, or not met, it is already clear that upcoming generations will have to occupy cities in a very different way than we occupy them today. New, low energy patterns of occupation will cut deeply into our accustomed ways of life and call for a ground up restructuring of urban environments. This restructuring will have to take place across several fronts. Technical, economic, or political solutions to the problem of climate change are ineffective in and of themselves. Taken separately, they only provide partial solutions which have proven to be inadequate. An urban plan is a vehicle for a holistic response that combines technical, political and economic solutions synergistically in order to propose alternative, low impact lifestyles scaled to our new limitations.

In many of the attempts to address climate change, vested interests have been targeted — auto manufacturers, fossil fuel companies, real-estate developers, pocketed politicians — as culpable in the climate crisis. These attempts have fallen short because they avoid indicating the real culpability, which is our own high-energy lifestyle. While we may fully grasp the climate crisis, we are still unable to envision the admittedly drastic changes that need to be made in our way of life. The key to bridging this gap between understanding and action is to show precisely what environmentally sound ways of living may look like. We intend to present alternative, low impact ways of living by simply describing their physical settings in concrete design proposals.


Solutions that work only for wealthy countries, wealthy cities, wealthy neighborhoods or wealthy individuals, are ineffective inasmuch as any solutions to climate change must go mainstream in order to work. Like nothing else before it, climate change is an interconnected problem that is global in scope. Anything less than broad based solutions end up creating life-rafts for those who can afford them leaving behind an increasingly dysfunctional world. In other words, environmental problems and social problems have to be taken on together. To that end, we have chosen one of the most disadvantaged communities in the city of Houston — the historic Fifth Ward -— to make our best case demonstration for environmental reforms.

The Fifth Ward is a 6.25 square mile area (4,000 acres) directly adjacent to the city's central business district. It has a population of 50,000 people. In 2010, the median income for the Fifth Ward ($22,237) was approximately half that of Houston ($43,365). Over the last five years the district has seen 60% more crime per capita than the City of Houston. The population within the Fifth Ward has gone from majority African American to majority Hispanic ethnicity in the past decade but remains 98% nonwhite. With a median age of 31, 42% of all residents are under the age of 25. There are an estimated 20,370 jobs located in the Fifth Ward, but only 12,767 employed residents live in the area. The majority of the residential population (55%) over age 16 is not in the labor force. Additionally, only 39% of Fifth Ward residents are employed. As a stress nexus between society, economy and environment, the Fifth Ward represents a challenge that is daunting at face value. The goal will be to design a redevelopment plan that is based on a very specific political, economic and cultural situation. While an actual urban constituency drives the plan, it will ultimately address a large range of environmental/ urban problems that face every major city in the nation. The design will not only be relevant to the Fifth Ward, but will create a template of sustainable intervention in low-income areas that can be played out in any large city with a similar stress nexus. The intention is that the project becomes a model of carbon free development, not just for lower-income neighborhoods.

Working with students in the School of Architecture, the research team will author a redevelopment plan for the year 2020 (first year) and another for the year 2050( second year). Addressing one of the most challenging areas of the city, planning proposals will be produced which seek to transform the Fifth Ward into a new model of public/private redevelopment and a new model for sustainable urban design. The project will bring together the social and natural sciences with business, engineering and design in a single effort.

Other Outcomes
Rice University Scientia, public presentation and panel discussion.

Rice University School of Architecture, in-house lecture.

Rice Design Alliance, symposium presentation and panel discussion

Rice University Shell Center for Sustainability, symposium presentation and panel discussion

University of British Columbia, symposium keynote and panel discussion

University of Iowa, symposium keynote and panel discussion  Link

University of California Los Angeles, public presentation and panel discussion

Harvard University, Graduate School of Design, public lecture, April 2015. Link

Rice University, Center for the Study of Energy in the Human and Natural Sciences, symposium presentation, April 2015.

Helmet, Obata and Kasslelbam, Houston, in-house lecture, July, 2015.

StorefrontLab San Francisco, California College of the Arts, public presentation and panel discussion, Thursday July 28th, 6:30pm.

Radio interview: KPFT, October, 2015.

Podcast: Center for the Study of Energy in the Human and Natural Sciences, interview, June 2016. Link

Exhibition: The Architectural Imagination, American Pavlion, 2016 Architecture Bienalle, Venice, Italy, May - November 2016.

Publication: C65 project summary, Log 38, Spring 2016.
Shell Center for Sustainability



Images of the Fifth Ward in Houston, Texas. (Ratkowski) 



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