Research Project Development


A core objective of this initiative is to fund and support projects focused on problems caused by environmental threats, be they climate related (e.g., diluvial rains) or epidemiological (e.g., SARS-CoV-2) and that are dedicated to five areas of social engagement, which together form the research core of this initiative. These areas consist of archive recoverymapping environmental historiestransmedia storytellinginfrastructure studies and resilient futures, and immigrants and refugees. The initiative’s steering committee will select project proposals to award with preference given to proposals that promise to spark collaborations with local partners; have tangible benefits to the city; cultivate new scholarly paradigms; or engage multiple faculty or staff members at Rice University and other local universities and colleges.

  • Archive Recovery: This cluster will support archival efforts that are of importance to the city, preserve histories, and require the collaboration of scholars and cultural institutions. The goal is to preserve materials that demonstrate Houston’s evolution with special emphasis on the relationship between the built environment and the growth of urban disasters. 
  • Mapping Environmental Histories: This cluster will focus on documenting and studying environmental histories such as Houston’s long history of flooding, considering that it was developed in the wake of the Great Galveston Flood of 1900 that forced industries to an inland location still accessible to waterways. 
  • Transmedia Storytelling: This cluster will focus on easy-to-use software such as "Prezi" or more complex platforms such as ESRI’s "Storymaps" to enable the public at large to design, share, and participate in a cohesive story experience across multiple traditional and digital delivery platforms. Such narratives can describe or even visually investigate the effects of storms and pandemics and their uneven distribution across the city.
  • Infrastructure Studies and Resilient Futures: Projects funded under this category would be those that look, for example, at Houston’s grey infrastructure (i.e., freeways, strip malls, and parking lots) that have been built over the city’s intricate watershed complex and public health infrastructure and that have progressively destabilized this city’s social and environmental context. The goal is to support projects that can imagine a city able to survive periodic flooding and epidemiological events with limited disruption and no injustice.
  • Immigrants and Refugees: This cluster will focus on developing resources for the expansive immigrant and refugee population in Houston, giving them platforms to share their experiences in the wake of climate change, viral threats, and industrial accidents, while bringing awareness of their challenges to the city.

Awarded Projects 2021-22

Growing Resilience: Urban Farming in a Diluvial Houston
Cymene Howe, Professor of Anthropology
Houston is a city of hurricanes and deluges; it also ranks among the hottest cities in the country. Combined, these conditions make urban farming both challenging and precarious. Houston is also home to many under-resourced populations—including immigrants, refugees and communities of color—who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. However, all three of these qualities also make Houston, potentially, a paradigm for the future of urban farming as cities across the country and around the world become hotter and (some) wetter, with the acceleration of climate change. Using ethnographic methods and working with urban farmers, organizations and produce consumers—this research will examine the strategies used to mitigate the harmful effects of a warming climate and severe weather in local farming initiatives. Focusing on sustainable, mid-size agricultural coops and organizations that work with and within marginalized communities, Growing Resilience will gather data on practical techniques and participants’ conceptions of sustainability and adaptation. The hypothesis driving the project is that adaptive farming within increasingly extreme climatic conditions serves not only to produce crops for consumption, but is equally an exercise in cultural preservation in the context of multiple vectors of precarity.

Awarded Projects 2020-21

Floodplain Reclamation Project
Albert Pope, Gus Sessions Wortham Professor of Architecture
The Floodplain Reclamation Project produces actionable plans for improving Houston’s resiliency through restoring its native floodplain’s mitigation function. Flood events—most recently Hurricane Harvey in 2017—demonstrate the conflict between Houston’s urban and environmental systems. Despite the use of conventional flood-mitigation strategies—defoliation, micro-detention, bridge replacement and the straightening, deepening, widening and lining of the floodway—80,000 structures were flooded in 2017 resulting in $125 billion in damages. Floodplain reclamation proposes a phased series of buyouts and demolitions which clear the floodplain of structures, restores its ecological functions, enhance Houston's network of public open space (Bayou Greenways), while removing its citizens from harm’s way. While the research concentrates on Houston, its working methods are transferable to other contexts as templates for urban retreats from sea-level rise or fire zones. These methods map out a general program for growing the city while simultaneously reducing its environmental footprint over the upcoming decades of climate disruption.

Open Ditch Network: Micro design strategies for overlooked green drains in Houston
Amelyn Ng, Wortham Fellow, Rice Architecture
Might flood resiliency, public health, and neighborhood dignity intersect at the scale of a ditch? Taking up Houston’s open ditch network as a design research question, this project investigates small-scale ways to retrofit existing surface drainage in flood-prone neighborhoods, particularly those bordering essential services such as food distribution points. Such sites will have to able to deal with periodic flood events, accommodate gatherings, and maintain sanitary conditions. Often the closest “green” sponges to impervious “grey” infrastructure, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, open ditches are known to impede mobility, trap debris and pool water when neglected—disproportionately compromising community health. Short of enclosing hundreds of miles of open drain with underground systems, in what ways can existing ditches and green drains be upgraded—with minimal disruption, no displacement, no building demolition? Focusing on the open ditch network in Kashmere Gardens (Hunting Bayou watershed), the project will produce a catalog of small-scale ditch retrofit + public space strategies, followed by a design study on a sample site. Improving perimeter drainage around essential services could help prepare vulnerable neighborhoods for future flood events, while adding everyday public value to high-access areas. Retrofitting Houston’s open ditch network may benefit not just one street, but essential services access for an entire community. Results from "Open Ditch Network" are available as Uneven Runoff.

Exploring Amphibious Acceptance in Diluvial Houston
Dominic Boyer, Professor of Anthropology
Evidence is mounting that more water is coming Houston’s way in the form of intensifying rainfall, mounting threats of deadly storm surges from tropical cyclones and the constant if slow-moving problem of sea level rise. Based on the PI’s prior NSF funded research on the emotional and epistemic dimensions of relocation decisions among flood victims from Hurricane Harvey, the current proposal asks whether “amphibious acceptance”—meaning the acknowledgement that technopolitical infrastructures of risk minimization and personal ventures of flood defense will likely prove inadequate to cleanly separate dry land and watercourses in the future—is on the rise in Houston. The project has two principal objectives: (1) to assess with greater certainty whether amphibious acceptance is actually gaining greater legitimacy within popular and expert opinion and (2) to better understand how amphibious acceptance might be connected to changes in behavior, planning and decision-making with the ultimate goal of identifying promising trends of urban resilience. The project would conclude with two public-facing initiatives: (1) a public conference sharing project findings in dialogue with international experts in amphibious urbanism and (2) a public mural in a high visibility location to help increase awareness of Houston’s amphibious trajectory.

A Cabinet of Curiosities: Collecting Children’s Stories about Hurricane Harvey
Gisela Heffes, Associate Professor of Latin American Literature and Culture
In the Introduction to the 2019 book, Allegories of the Anthropocene, Elizabeth M. DeLoughrey suggests that our “increasing awareness of climate change is catalyzing new imaginaries and, by extension, new allegorical forms to address the dynamism of our planet.” She illustrates this idea by citing a poem by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, a performance poet from the Marshall Islands, who read at the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014 the following words: “tell them about the water— how we have seen it rising / flooding across our cemeteries / gushing over the sea walls / and crashing against our homes.” While the poem evokes the impact of sea-level rise on the Pacific Islands, the image of the water “crashing against our homes” is for many of us who have experienced Harvey, extremely similar. Besides bearing witness to one of the many tragedies the ecological crisis has brought about, the poem also establishes a connection between how we learn about and represent the dynamics between peoples and places. Furthermore, the poem, “Tell them,” was about the global climate future that Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner imagined for her infant daughter. This story illuminates in many ways the contours of my own research project: to “rescue” Houston Children’s stories about Hurricane Harvey while, at the same time, opening a space for “catalyzing new imaginaries.” Since children are the future, this project aims to create an audiovisual repository that combines the memories of children that experienced Hurricane Harvey with possible visions for the forthcoming world.