Houston’s Green Makeover Only Reaches Some Neighborhoods

Busy freeway flyovers above Buffalo Bayou Park near Downtown Houston / SWA Group
Busy freeway flyovers above Buffalo Bayou Park near Downtown Houston / SWA Group

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF)’s recent conference in Houston comes a time when the “car-centric, zoning-averse city,” as TCLF president and CEO Charles Birnbaum described it in a recent Huffington Post article, is receiving national acclaim for its public spaces and parks. As Mimi Schwartz wrote in The Texas Monthly, “Houston doesn’t look like Houston anymore.” It has “become fanatically green. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on this extreme makeover. And ‘you can’t believe you’re in Houston’ has replaced ‘it’s not as bad as you think,’ as an unofficial motto.”

This was the context for the conference, Leading with Landscape II: The Houston Transformation, held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which highlighted uncomfortable but perhaps unavoidable truths about the character of Houston’s green transformation — that access to green space, which was largely made possible through public-private partnerships (PPPs), with an emphasis on private financing, is growing but remains highly inequitable.

Birnbaum first identified lingering perceptions that Houston is “built on private interests” with “light-handed planning” and remains an “inchoate community with little available public space.” He traced some of these perceptions back to Calvin Trillin’s 1975 New Yorker essay, “On the Possibility of Houstonization.”

This perception remains. Despite the city’s deeply rich investment in parks and public spaces during the last decade, many Houstonians in attendance still move around in their cars in a city that comprises 676 square miles, as Joe Turner, Director of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, pointed out during his introductory remarks. (Stressing, in the next breath, that this means “lots of opportunities for landscape architects.”)

Later, Bill Fulton, who directs the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, took an informal poll of the audience, asking how many arrived via transit at the museum, which is next to a stop on the city’s main light rail line. Three people, Fulton included, out of more than 300 hundred raised their hands. This was underscored by a fact shared by Birnbaum: 75 percent of Houston was built after the end of World War II, when the car assumed precedence in American life. Now, Houston boasts the signature public spaces that were the darlings of the day, but it also boasts about the widest freeway in the world, the Katy Freeway, and three ring roads, the most recent of which, the Grand Parkway, now under construction, is well on its way to a grand total of 170 miles around — good for the longest beltway in the country. Houstonization, indeed.

So, any analysis of the city has to take into consideration former Rice School of Architecture Dean Lars Lerup’s formulation of “stim and dross” in the “suburban metropolis,” which he described in his book, After the City. At the conference, the “dross” of Houston’s chain retail, low-slung apartment complexes, and four-lane thoroughfares that lie outside the increasingly urban Loop 610 — where most of those 676 square miles are — was never mentioned. But the “stim,” or “areas of stimulation,” as Lerup has it, was heavily praised, especially in the first panel, moderated by architectural historian Stephen Fox. Panelists went through the design and planning of these examples of stim — Hermann Park, Discovery Green, Buffalo Bayou Park, and the Menil Collection.

Discovery Green, designed by Hargreaves Associates, opened the conference up to one of the major themes of the day: the public-private partnership, or PPP, as it was referred to throughout the day. As Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, senior principal and president of Hargreaves Associates, noted, Discovery Green was “part of a plan to bring high-rise residential” to what had been “a sea of parking” and “a few scraggly oak trees” around the George R. Brown Convention Center, completed in the ‘80s. Thus, a number of interests were invested in creating what Jones called a “memorable, transformational place.” Her point about the power of the PPP was anticipated earlier by Keiji Asakura, FASLA, principal and founder of Asakura Robinson, in his welcome address: “What is so unique about Houston?” he asked. “The one word is PPP. That’s certainly been the key in changing the dialogue.” The first parks in Houston, according to Birnbaum, were privately funded.

The second panel moved on to discuss projects now in development. Chip Trageser, FASLA, principal at The Office of James Burnett, detailed improvements to Levy Park, positioned now as a kind of Discovery Green for the Upper Kirby neighborhood, an affluent area northwest of Rice University. Douglas Reed, FASLA, partner at Reed Hilderbrand; Steven Spears, FALSA, principal and partner at Design Workshop; and Thomas Woltz, FALSA, principal and owner, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, all discussed their work at Memorial Park, a park twice as large as Central Park that is subject to the extremes of Houston’s volatile climate — severe flooding during Hurricane Ike in 2008 and the worst drought in the history of Texas in 2013, killing tens of thousands of trees. NBWLA is creating a master plan for the park, adding 38 miles of trails, and restoring, at a massive scale, the park’s decimated tree canopy with “memorial groves” of pines, while Design Workshop and Reed Hilderbrand are creating new master plans for its Arboretum and Nature Center.

Rendering of land bridge for Memorial Park, Houston / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects
Rendering of land bridge for Memorial Park, Houston / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

Notable during this panel, moderated by Frederick Steiner, FASLA, dean at the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, was the presentation by Jamie Maslyn Larson, ASLA, partner at West 8 New York, on the Houston Botanic Garden. This was the one green space presented at the conference to be funded entirely through private money, and it was the one outside Loop 610. (Maslyn said it was “proximate to Downtown,” but it’s a 20-minute drive, at least.) Though the PPP was still a large part of the discussion for these projects, a second theme began to emerge, especially with regard to the West 8 master plan for the Botanic Garden: equity, or, in this case, equal access to green space for everyone.

In the third and final panel, moderated by Christopher Knapp, co-founder and CEO of Chilton Capital Management, attempted to address this theme of equity. That morning, Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, managing principal at SWA Group, the firm behind Buffalo Bayou Park, noted a divide between the east and west sides of Houston. The only public space on the east side of town discussed during the conference is West 8’s Botanic Garden, though SWA Group and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the conservancy in charge of the improvements, have begun to extend their work on the city’s signature bayou east into historically under-served neighborhoods.

Because the bayous run east to west, Michael Skelly, president of Clean Line Energy Partners, touted the potential of the Houston Parks Board’s Bayou Greenways 2020 plan to right the wrong of park inequity. The ambitious plan, which is funded through a PPP, is to build 150 miles of hike and bike trails along Houston’s original infrastructure: bayous. A recent update to that plan that Houston Chronicle arts, design, and culture reporter Molly Glentzer called a “green grid” would connect more hike and bike trails on utility corridors and other north-south easements to the east-west-running bayous. Skelly stressed that the bayous “go through all neighborhoods.”

Cyclist on White Oak Bayou Greenway north of Downtown, Houston / Houston Parks Board
Cyclist on White Oak Bayou Greenway north of Downtown, Houston / Houston Parks Board

The ambition of the design and breadth of investment by PPPs in parks and public spaces in the affluent areas of “car-centric, zoning-averse” Houston is, arguably, what attracted TCLF to Houston in the first place. But the conference concluded with questions about repeating these efforts in neighborhoods where private money doesn’t flow as abundantly. This is a tension that Fox touched on in his introduction to the first panel: the power of PPPs reveal a relative lack of power and vulnerability on the part of the city to design, pay for, build, and maintain signature parks on its own, without the oomph of philanthropy. Thus, some of the same inequities afflicting the city at large — lack of access to affordable housing and public transit, heavier pollution in some neighborhoods, and food deserts in others — remain as true for access to parks. Though anyone is welcome at Discovery Green or Memorial Park, these remain destinations, not neighborhood parks. Now we know it to be true, just as Charles Moore wrote: you have to pay for the public life.

This guest post is by Allyn West, staff writer and assistant director of communications, Rice Design Alliance.

One thought on “Houston’s Green Makeover Only Reaches Some Neighborhoods

  1. dbilot 03/20/2016 / 1:17 pm

    Great article on the issues of “greening” Houston. After living there for 3 years without a car, the bike infrastructure to get to work destinations from home has not improved, while leisure paths are on the rise. The green bike lane downtown was done incorrectly too, having a two lane bike path on a one way road. Streets are a dangerous place for bikes but they don’t have to be.

    It is correct that the boasted green spaces are in more affluent neighborhoods and are more “parks for cars” because of the large distance between them and a lack of north-south green connections. The housing developments occurring are pricing most out of the city and the light rail line does not reach either of the airports, only serving the east side of Houston where they want more development to occur. It costs at least $24 one way into the city from the airports which is not affordable.

    With sidewalks essentially being optional in front of most developments and a great lack of street trees in mid to low income areas, it is unappealing to walk (or use other active transit methods) to these parks in the blistering heat that Houston receives during much of the year. Much potential, little access to the communities that makes Houston a melting pot.

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