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Houston, we have a solution: Turning 'car city' into green city

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ambitious plans to make Houston a more sustainable city
  • Laura Spanjian is the director of sustainability for Houston
  • She tells CNN she wants to create city that is "more liveable, walkable and bikeable"

"The City" is a special series that airs on CNN International which profiles the sustainable urban future of five cities.
We take a look at how five mayors around the world are building smarter, more liveable cities for the 21st century.

(CNN) -- Houston may be a city built on the profits of oil and gas, but it has a green dream.

The dream is to create a city that is "more liveable, walkable and bikeable," according Laura Spanjian.

Spanjian has been the director of sustainability for Houston since 2010, when current Mayor Annise Parker was elected. They have launched several sustainability initiatives under the "Green Houston" program and Parker says the city has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter.

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Spanjian's previous work includes a solar-panel incentive program in San Francisco, as well as directing the creation of its alternative-fuel bus fleet. She spoke with CNN's The City about the challenges Houston is facing and how she wants to get Houstonians out of their cars and out on the streets.

CNN: Why is Houston trying to be more sustainable?

Laura Spanjian: We are known as producing oil and gas, but we also produce other resources that are important to our economy and to the sustainability. For us it's about being green, but it's also about saving resources and money and being a very efficient and affordable city.

The number one thing to think about is trying to improve the health and the quality of life of the citizens.

Read: Bloomberg - 'cities lead on climate change'

CNN: Does Houston have any geographical advantages or disadvantages?

LS: Houston is a very hot and humid city, so there's a lot of air conditioning which leads to buildings consuming a lot of energy. We want to work on an initiative trying to get people out of their cars and to use less energy in their homes. That can prove to be quite the challenge.

The number one thing to think about is trying to improve the health and the quality of life of the citizens.
Laura Spanjian

An advantage we have is that we can make great use of the wind. Texas is the largest wind (power) producer in the U.S.; we now produce 12,000 megawatts of wind (power).

CNN: If you had a magic wand, how would you use it for your work?

LS: I would want every building to reduce their energy usage by 20% by 2020. I'd love that. I would also love more people to commute less to work, by living closer or by using alternative transportation. Houston is still very much a car city.

CNN: Where does your passion for the environment come from?

LS: I care about the quality of life; the air we breathe and the water we drink.

I think it's really imperative for governments to create healthy cities so people can go out and do other great things.

If you increase the health of citizens, it automatically makes cities more attractive, which in turn brings more people to cities, which improves the economy.

A lot of people have told me that they came to Houston for a job, but stayed because the city is starting to focus on the quality of life.

CNN: What difficulties have you encountered?

LS: We have lots of issues with hurricanes but the thing we hadn't had an issue with before was droughts like the one we had two years ago. It definitely made us think about how we build infrastructure and how we can try to forecast and prepare for extreme weather events.

We are going to see a more liveable, walkable and bikeable Houston.
Laura Spanjian

We need to realize that it's not just going to be storms in the future. The climate can change on a dime.

CNN: How far have you come in your work?

LS: Right now we are experiencing a boom when it comes to transportation. Three more rail lines will open next year. We have also started planning for a bus rapid transit line, so we are encouraging the use of electric vehicles.

CNN: What goals do you want to achieve by 2020?

LS: We are going to see a more liveable, walkable and bikeable Houston, and a population that is craving that and nothing less. Reduced energy usage, increased transportation options and generally a greener city.

Our streets will work differently. With density comes the desire for streets to look differently, to accommodate restaurants, bike lanes and be aesthetically pleasing at the same time.

The more you change your streets and try to open them up, the more people are outside, so it's exciting!

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