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Each month leading up to The Woodlands 50th Anniversary celebration, content is created to honor the past, present and future of our community. During June, nature, parks and open space will be highlighted.

By Laura Landsbaum

Sustainability can be defined as a plan that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This was engrained in George Mitchell’s plan for The Woodlands five decades ago (The Woodlands’ 50th anniversary is in October) when he envisioned developing a community in the woods. This preceded what was considered the first report on sustainability in the late 1980s, thus making this pioneering master planned community one of the earliest models for sustainable development in the United States..

“The Woodlands sustainability vision involves maintaining the natural systems as much as possible, the way things were prior to development through development,” says Robert Heineman, former vice president of planning for The Woodland Development Company and Howard Hughes.

The Woodlands Leans on the Forward Thinking of Yesteryear

One important component of sustainable development involves handling rainwater, creeks and run-off.

The strategy along the major streams in The Woodlands — Spring Creek, Bear Branch, Panther Branch — centered around maintaining the natural stream bed. This differs sharply from the approach relied on in much of Houston, which turned to concrete lined channels.

“We did minimal concrete lining to allow the stream to flow smoothly, while leaving the natural environment,” Heineman says. “We can accommodate excess rainfall better because the ground isn’t concreted over and the streams are natural.”

Keeping Sustainability a Focus

Trees in The Woodlands play another vital part in the open space and sustainability vision.

“The trees are a decompression zone as you enter The Woodlands,” Howard Hughes director of community development and planning Kelly Dietrich says. “When entering into our community, you just have a sigh of relief.”

Additionally, The Woodlands’ trees soak up excess water and provide flood mitigation, which you can trace back to that early foresight and planning. Handling the water that comes into The Woodlands became a foundational priority for George Mitchell and the community’s early and current planners.

“One of the requirements that The Woodlands had through the development process was to not increase the amount of water exiting The Woodlands.” Heineman says. “That’s the reason for the detention reservoirs, like Bear Branch, Panther Branch, etc. After a major storm, you’re not impacting things downstream.”

Coverage limits became an important part of the sustainability plan at the outset as well. From the very beginnings of The Woodlands, standards were developed for what percentage of the land within parcels would be covered. Even the parking lots came with strict requirements that boosted the community’s sustainability.

“Rather than having a parking lot with no trees or vegetation, standards were created for that. For example, for approximately every 20 spaces or so in a row of cars would need to have a landscape island,” Heineman notes. “And every third row in a lot would need to have a landscaped median. That way you get landscaping in the parking lot.”

Those rules and requirements are still in place — and enforced — today. Even as The Woodlands continues to grow, sustainability remains a focus.

Today, 35 percent of The Woodlands is permanently dedicated to green space, which is vastly different from other communities, Kelly Dietrich notes.

Green space brings many positive benefits for residents of The Woodlands. Importantly, green space leads to greater physical activity and has been shown to boost mental health in studies.  

The Woodlands remains a pioneering pillar of sustainability and a green community with a commitment to staying that way. Howard Hughes is keeping George Mitchell’s original sustainable vision going and growing.


Many thanks to The Woodlands 50th Anniversary Sponsors:

FOUNDING – Howard Hughes

PRODUCER – The Woodlands Township

LEGACY – Woodforest National Bank

HERITAGE – Waste Connections Inc.

GOLD – Entergy Texas, Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital

SILVER – SVN/JBeard Real Estate, The John Cooper School