Gulfton is the hottest neighborhood in Houston. Locals are looking at more solutions to fix it.

A 2020 study found that Gulfton was at most 17 degrees hotter than other neighborhoods in Houston. Some organizations are looking at ways to cool the neighborhood down by using greener resources.

By Sara Willa Ernst, Houston Public MediaJuly 25, 2023 10:00 am, ,

From Houston Public Media:

Mornings on the corner of Gulfton and Rampart Streets are bustling. It’s one of the busiest intersections in the neighborhood, according to Sandra Rodriguez, President of the Super Neighborhood in Gulfton, where she has lived most her life.

“You’ll find a lot of people walking through here to drop off their kids at school or walking in the opposite direction to get to the grocery store or the only park that we got,” Rodriguez said.

This part of Southwest Houston is one of the most transit dependent neighborhoods in the city, according to the latest equity report from LINK Houston. Unlike many other parts of Harris County, the foot traffic, whether to get to a bus stop or elsewhere, is visible.

Sandra Rodríguez, president of the Gulfton Superneighborhood Council, stands by one of the many unshaded bus stops in Gulfton. Katie Watkins / Houston Public Media

Rodriguez pointed out the hazards that drivers might gloss over, but that are glaringly obvious to pedestrians traversing the paths — a dearth of trees, narrow sidewalks and a bus stop without any shade. Rodriguez said the demand is high for a more walkable community.

“You can feel it [the heat] right now and it is 11 o’clock,” said Rodriguez on June 19th, a day when the heat index reached 115 degrees in the afternoon. “It’s not even the hottest point of the day, but you can already feel the heat.”

A 2020 heat mapping study run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) measured temperatures across Houston on one of the hottest days of the summer. Researchers found that Gulfton was the hottest neighborhood in Houston, in some instances 17 degrees hotter than other parts of town.

In parts of Gulfton, just 4% of the area is shaded with trees, compared to areas like West University where the tree canopy covers more than 40% of the city, according to an analysis of data by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

In recent years, about a half dozen organizations from outside Gulfton have teamed up with locals to improve the neighborhood, with a focus on incorporating nature to make the area cooler and more walkable.

Trees have been a main focus of the Greener Gulfton Plan, developed by the Nature Conservancy and several community groups. A recent study by Texas A&M Forest Service showed only 800 spots for new trees — roughly a 2 to 3 percent increase in tree canopy in the area.

Scrunched up sidewalks and the overabundance of concrete leaves little room for trees to grow. At least three feet of planting space is needed to allow a tree to thrive.

Jaime Gonzalez with the Nature Conservancy said that 800 trees is a good first step, but not enough to cool down the neighborhood. The need for shade is only growing as temperatures and humidity grow more intense in the wake of climate change.

“I think that there’s a lot of challenges for planting in a place like Gulfton,” said Gonzalez. “So there’s going to have to be a mixture of both tree planting and shade structures to really get to a more equitable solution for the neighborhood.”

A local architect firm, Ultrabarrio, created a mock up design that could provide shade on walkways too narrow for a tree. It includes a set of white trellises that could be adjusted to the size of the sidewalk. These would likely be placed on streets with high pedestrian traffic or areas around bus stops that can’t fit a standard shelter.


The trellises are slanted in order to maximize the size of the shade and take advantage of the position of the sun in the sky during certain times of the day.

The design also includes an updated bus shelter with a green roof and light colored paint to reflect heat from the sun’s rays.

“These are generated to start the conversation,” said Marcus Martinez, one of the architects. “Not necessarily ‘this is it, let’s do it.’ We could use this as a starting point and it doesn’t mean the whole thing has to be completely reinvented.”

The shade structure and bus shelter designs are part of an effort with LINK Houston, a local advocacy group focused on transportation. Peter Eccles, Director of Policy and Planning, said the “rest stops” will incorporate nature, offer seating and perhaps even wifi.

The main priority, however, is to provide a respite from the sun.

“It’s understandable that if people are exposed to heat, then maybe they will elect not to ride transit,” said Eccles. “That might mean missing a medical appointment or missing an economic opportunity.”

The program is piloting in Gulfton, but the group is hoping to soon expand beyond.

“The goal of this project long term is to pilot out some strategies that can be replicated throughout the city,” Eccles said. “We know it’s not just something that is felt in Gulfton, but it’s felt everywhere.”

This program is the new frontier of an ongoing push to improve public transit in Gulfton.

Metro is bringing a rapid bus line to Gulfton, providing more frequent service and leaving less time to bake at the bus stop. The Gulfton Circulator began service in 2021. Safety improvements have also been made to the Hillcroft Ave corridor.

As important as getting to work is without sweating through a shirt or falling ill, there is more to living in a city than just function, according to Jaime Gonzalez with the Nature Conservancy.

“What we kept on hearing was that people really loved and valued nature for its own sake,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of folks grew up in very natural environments in the countries that they came from. They knew how life affirming that was and they wanted their kids to be able to interact with nature in that way. They see it as kind of a basic human need.”

Maria Hernandez is one of the residents who has been fighting for more than six years to create an oasis in Gulfton. She’s the founder of a group called Madres del Parque, which has worked to improve Burnett Bayland Park, Gulfton’s only park.

Two soccer pitches were just installed with an initial $150,000 investment. Harris County Precinct 4 is also helping to find the funding for the park’s master plan now being drafted. The county is planning to double the size of the park’s footprint, by incorporating publicly owned land just south of Burnett Bayland, according to a spokesperson at Commissioner Lesley Briones’ Office.

“We are finally going to have a meaningful place where we can have programs,” Hernandez said. “We can have farmer’s markets, cultural events and other resources to grow as a community.”

Both Hernandez and Sandra Rodriguez are some of the organizers that have brought this attention – and resources — to Gulfton.

“I feel that finally people are listening,” Rodriguez said.

She said she views 2017 as a turning point. That’s when Gulfton was selected as one of the first Complete Communities for the City of Houston — an initiative to improve neighborhoods “that haven’t reached their full potential.”

“At first, it was like… and now what?” Rodriguez said. “The city said they don’t have any money to be able to implement all these projects that the community wants. How are we going to do this?”

The process of drafting that plan required engaging local residents and coming up with new strategies to reach people that were disconnected or even distrusting of institutions.

The real value, Rodriguez said, came from asking residents directly what improvements they wanted and creating a formal list of needs — a tool that has helped organizers work with outside groups and government offices.

“I think we’re at a very critical moment in revitalization efforts for Gulfton where we have some of the tools to implement what the community needs,” Rodriguez said. “Now, all we need is funding to be able to fulfill these projects.”

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