A fascination with Buffalo’s history and culture led Geoffrey Butler (MUP ’11) on a path from historic preservation in the Queen City to a career as a planner in Houston, Texas.
While at UB, he was active in preservation, even researching and leading tours of Elevator Alley—a group of historic grain elevators on the Buffalo River—during the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s national conference, which was held in Buffalo in 2011. Today, Butler works as a planner for Houston’s Planning and Development Department, and was nominated to serve on the Jersey Village Planning and Zoning Committee, as well as a TIRZ (Tax Increment Redevelopment Zone) board, in his current home of Jersey Village, a town of 6,000 that was affected by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Here he discusses why he chose urban planning as a career and provides some insight into what’s next for Houston after Harvey.
Why urban planning? Why Houston?
I was always interested in Buffalo’s history. During my undergraduate education at Canisius College, I took an urban planning class and really enjoyed it. I wanted to continue studying planning, so I chose UB as I knew they had a great graduate program. I learned about issues that affected, not just Buffalo, but the whole world—like climate change, hurricane landfall zones and flood-prone areas. A course I took with Dr. Niraj Verma, Planning Concepts and Controversies, discussed the rising ocean and how it would affect lower lying coastal cities like Miami and New Orleans [where his wife is from]. I became very interested in and passionate about these issues and wanted to work in an area that faced these problems. I applied to positions in Boston, Charlotte and San Antonio. Then I landed an interview in Houston, got the job and moved to Texas.
What did you job as a city planner entail before Hurricane Harvey?
For three years, I worked in the historic preservation office in Houston. I was then promoted to senior planner in development services, which is where I work now. While in preservation, I would evaluate proposals from entities wanting to redevelop a historic site. Houston is quite different from Buffalo in that in Houston, when it comes to significant historic structures—the land is deemed more valuable than the buildings. In Buffalo, it’s often the reverse. Now, in my current position as a planner, I help regulate the subdivision of land. For example, if someone wants to carve a large tract of farmland into individual lots for single-family homes, we make sure everything complies with city codes.
How did Harvey change things?
For one, the workload has gone way up. The city was shut down for a week, so now there’s a lot of pent-up activity that continues to come through. My job is not directly associated with remedies, but it still comes into play. For example, there is now much more tension between planning and development. There are some people who have lost everything and they want everything dropped until the flood problem is abated. Our challenge is to move forward with city business, but still address flooding issues.
Butler then spoke with city officials to provide the following information:
Can you describe the situation today, six months later?
We are focused on recovery and resiliency. Unfortunately, with three storms across the country at basically the same time, it’s tough to get enough crews down to do the work. Debris removal has been slow due to the effects of the storm on homes. While most of the city came out of the storm okay, the areas that flooded lost almost everything, so one house basically fills up one solid waste truck. Needless to say that has been slow going. And while the storm was an equal opportunity destroyer, some of the hardest hit areas were very poor and others very wealthy, the city and other partners have to make sure the recovery is also equal opportunity. Some areas need more help than others. Recovery and resiliency has been separated, with one group looking at immediate and mid-term recovery while the Chief Resiliency Officer is looking at long-term, big picture flooding issues, such as detention and retention standards, regional reservoir management, and bayou usage.
How has the city’s planning office been involved in the various phases of recovery?
During the storm, our department’s GIS team played a big part at the city’s emergency center. They handled mapping needs for first responders and after the storm mapped out calls for service, damaged homes, etc. Some of our management team has been involved with both the recovery and resiliency efforts, and many staff members volunteered after the storm to assist their neighbors.
Any resulting short- and long-term planning responses to the disaster?
We are still looking at long-term planning issues. Our mayor has said we cannot continue to do business as usual. We have had three major floods in 24 months or so and our city has a long history of massive flooding. But in the short-term, our department is assisting as needed on an ad hoc basis.
How has the experience brought to light for you the essential role of planning in both prevention and recovery response to natural and human-caused disaster?
It’s tough here in a city with no zoning, but we know there are some changes that can make our land uses more resilient in the long-term. Some of it may come down to education pieces, and some of it may mean buyouts in flood-prone areas. We do know what we have been doing is not working very well.