This story originally appeared on Houston Public Media.
Early one morning last week, a charter bus left the Hilton Americas in downtown Houston.
“We’re now on the road, heading west, I-10,” said tour guide Rob Bamford, an executive with the Johnson Development Corporation.
On board the luxury bus were real estate developers from all over the country. They’d come to Houston for a big convention sponsored by the Urban Land Institute. They wanted to see firsthand what suburban living has come to mean in a city where oil and gas has been a major reason the local economy had been outpacing the nation.
“We’re coming in to an area called the Energy Corridor,” said Perri D’Armond over the bus’s speakers. D’Armond, the CEO of the West Houston Association, was describing to the out-of-towners the area where the Katy Freeway passes through West Houston.
“Shell, there’s BP, there’s Chevron,” said D’Armond, identifying the office towers of the world’s biggest oil companies, which employ thousands of professionals here.
But to see where many of those workers live, the bus would have to keep rolling for miles. One hour and 40 miles from downtown the bus pulled into a subdivision called Cross Creek Ranch.
“There were no trees out here when we started. None whatsoever. But we’ve got I think 40,000 trees planted out here already,” said Bamford who manages the development.
Cross Creek Ranch has over 7,000 home lots with houses selling from a few hundred thousand dollars to over a million. That could describe a lot of suburban planned communities around here. But people who live here say this development is unique.
“It’s either medical or oil and gas out here,” said Tammie Hansen on her way into the community’s fitness center.
Hansen said it seems like most of her neighbors work for either an energy company or in health care. That also might describe a lot of neighborhoods out here. But she said this place stands out because of the way nature and sustainability was incorporated into the community design.
“I love all the nature trails and the lakes, and the alligators and just everything you see here,” Hansen said. “We use all recycled water for all the common areas. It’s just a really cool thing.”
The “cool thing” is what goes into making this a sustainable subdivision.
“It’s always been a focus on nature…and not just wipe everything off the map,” said Tommy Kuykendall, the mayor of Fulshear, the small city that encompasses Cross Creek Ranch.
What the developers didn’t “wipe off the map” included a creek that traverses the property. They also planted acres of native grasses.
The result was a more natural look, which came as a shock to some new residents said landscape designer Matt Baumgarten. He explained that many planned communities use St. Augustine grass and Live Oak trees that stay green year round, unlike native plants that often don’t.
“There’s been some cases where people have thought things have actually died. (I told them) no, no, that’s a wonderful thing, that’s what happens in these natural systems,” said Baumgarten.
But there’s another thing that occurs naturally around here: oil. And on the bus tour, the out-of-towners saw what that means even in a subdivision like Cross Creek.
They were driven past a big strip of newly bulldozed soil marking where a crude oil pipeline had just been buried, crossing the entire development. A little further, they saw a couple of big, empty spots left between the houses. Manager Rob Bamford told them those are potential oil well drill sites with an emphasis on “potential.”
“It means the mineral owners can come in and operate should they chose to. It would be a challenge for them to do it in the City of Fulshear,” said Bamford.
The Texas legislature has been considering ways to keep cities from regulating drilling. The North Texas city of Denton banned the drilling technique called fracking.
Landscaper Baumgarten said they’ve tried to make the best of it.
“(We work) with those (pipeline) companies; that’s an access corridor where you put a trail, connect to your park. So those are opportunities,” said Baumgarten.
Some might say that’s the Texas spirit; in this case, developing a sustainable subdivision in the land of oil and gas.