A defining characteristic of The Woodlands community is its trees, which were a central component of founder George Mitchell's concept for the forested community, said Kelly Dietrich, director of planning and development for The Woodlands' developer Howard Hughes.

"As you enter The Woodlands, you have this decompression zone," Dietrich said. "You’re coming off [I-]45; ... you see the trees, the sculpture ... and not a lot of signs, and you get to your village, ... and you're decompressed from your busy work schedule."

Maintaining the canopy is full-time work for The Woodlands Township, but Mitchell's environmentally sustainable vision can also be seen in the development of local nonprofits, such as The Woodlands Green, which offers educational programs and lectures, and the founding of the Houston Advanced Research Center in The Woodlands in 1982 to pursue scientific research pertaining to sustainability.

A closer look

Chris Nunes, The Woodlands' chief operating officer and former head of its parks and recreation department, said the tree and vegetative cover in The Woodlands is a complex tapestry of plant life consisting of an overarching canopy of tall trees as well as a midstory and an understory—which also serves to help hide fences, infrastructure and other manmade construction.

Some of the plants that are native or in The Woodlands ecosystem are:
  • Canopy: pine (loblolly/slash), oaks (red and water)
  • Midstory: magnolias, dogwoods, crepe myrtle
  • Understory: wax myrtles, yaupon
In recent years, challenges to maintaining plant life include droughts and floods as well as high temperatures, which is why The Woodlands Township increased the reforestation budget to $1 million in 2024, Nunes said.

"The goal is to maintain tree cover, period," Nunes said.

In addition to community planting days on Arbor Day each year, Nunes said the township's environmental services department has a vine-removal task force to help control unwanted vegetation.

"One of my favorite sayings is [that] we have 35,000 homes in a park," Nunes said. "We are trying to keep that park-esque feel as you drive through the community. ... You just hit those trees, and that's a phenomenal experience you don't get in other communities."

The inspiration

Dietrich said the continued focus on maintaining tree cover in The Woodlands reflects Mitchell's original concept for the community.

"Back when George Mitchell started working on The Woodlands more than 50 years ago, he developed a team that really had sustainability at the forefront," she said. The vision included elements that have resulted in:
  • A connected greenbelt
  • Open space preserves
  • 220 miles of pathway
  • 151 parks
Over 35% of The Woodlands has been preserved for open space and forest, she said.

Beyond that, other community efforts aimed to promote sustainable practices and a diverse ecosystem are:
  • The Woodlands Wildflower Festival, held in the fall
  • Pollinator gardens
  • Monarch butterfly habitats
  • Bat shelters
Dietrich said the hierarchy of parks in The Woodlands—which includes a neighborhood park within a quarter-mile of each neighborhood, village parks with pools and an interconnected pathway system—help to make it a "livable forest."

"Ideally, from your home you can go through the pathway system to get to the parks, schools [and] neighbors," Dietrich said.

In addition to the benefit for animal and plant life, she said it is designed to create a healthy environment for humans.

"There are all of these benefits of nature and the forest on your mental and physical health," she said. "It's a lot different, a lot calmer."

One more thing

The development of HARC within The Woodlands is also an outgrowth of the sustainability efforts launched in the wake of The Woodlands' founding.

Stephanie Glenn, vice president of water research at HARC, said while the mission of the facility has changed over the years, it reflects that continued vision for innovation and sustainability.

Initially founded with a focus on research and development, HARC now focuses on energy and water sustainability, particularly with an emphasis on disadvantaged communities both locally and in the world.

HARC's building on Gosling Road is a net-zero building, meaning it creates more power through solar panels than it consumes.

"We work within the community in several ways," Glenn said. "We recently did a groundwater study for several different utilities and The Woodlands Township focusing on the state of the science."

In addition to HARC, another group outside of The Woodlands' governing body is local nonprofit group The Woodlands Green, which provides information and community involvement on topics such as invasive plants, rain barrels, community gardening, pollinators and native plants.

"Mitchell ... had that vision for The Woodlands—sustainability before it was a buzz word; forward thinking, an innovative vision of how we create a community," she said. "Those three pillars of sustainability—the economic, habitat and people—make it all work."