It all comes down to private sector leadership in the face of public sector scrutiny. That’s what Tom Bacon, chairman of the Houston Parks Board, told a packed crowd at the Alamo Beer Co. Thursday night.
Mayor Ivy Taylor invited Bacon after meeting him at a Houston conference on landscape architecture in March. She was inspired by his work in changing Houstonians’ perception to believe that parks are more than just public utilities – they are what keeps communities together.
“San Antonio can and should be a global, competitive city where everyone has the opportunity to prosper,” Taylor said. “Investing in great parks fulfills this vision. Public parks are a great, democratic institution.”
She added that while the 2017 bond will do everything it can to take care of the basics when it comes to parks, more must be done to capture that “postcard, Instagram factor that you want to share with your friends.”
Bacon told the crowd that his drive into town, culminating in his arrival at Hotel Emma in the Pearl, truly amazed him as he has been reading about current park developments in the city.
“I’m amazed by your greenways, conservancies, funding mechanisms. I read all of that and said, ‘San Antonio is crushing it,’” Bacon stated. “Mayor Taylor is so focused on (these things). And in Houston, we were uniquely led more by the citizens than by the City and the public sector.”
He said that the perception of parks is shifting from something that is nice to have to something that’s becoming a piece of essential infrastructure. His private sector firm, Lionstone Investments, looks for these types of projects to invest in.
“We invest at the intersection of great public spaces and man-made amenities. Most of those great public spaces are park systems,” he explained. “Those systems create value. And if you mix them with man-made amenities, then you’ve got something safe.”
Bacon presented a brief history of how Houston turned its park systems around with help from the community. It led to an ambitious plan – Bayou Greenways 2020 – which aims to establish a network of trails that connects the city’s parks and bayous. He described the gradual process as a “green transformation.”
“(It was) really three pieces: consistent political leadership through three mayors, a parks department that is constantly strapped for every last dime but are very cooperative, conservancies that have community involvement like a good school.”
Bacon said that 10-12 years ago, many on the East and West coast considered Houston laughable in terms of urban sprawl. He pointed to Hermann Park as an example of how a neighborhood could come together to address a green space in disrepair. Now, in its proximity to Rice University and much of the downtown area, it has become one of the most popular parks in the city.
“Hermann Park had become 460 acres of dirt, not being well maintained with a zoo that was not getting funding because parks and zoos are where cities cut dollars when they’ve got nothing to give,” he said.
Bacon gave the crowd more historical background on how the city was always meant to be connected by going back to 1912: at the time, the Houston City Council passed a city plan designed by landscape architect Arthur Comey, but the plan was forgotten when World War I came along. It included much of the trail system that is being incorporated in the Bayou Greenways 2020 plan, but was shelved for 100 years while Houston was taken over by cars.
“People think that Houston doesn’t have a city plan – not true,” he said. “(Comey) designed Houston to be a city of greenbelts. They connected employment centers, neighborhoods, schools, churches, and everything else. It was adopted by City Council and quickly forgotten.”
Bacon argued that much of this was due to the fact that 80% of Houston was constructed after 1945 – a time when cars were the only thing on city planners’ minds. Now, a pre-1945 grid for a city is more relevant in the 21st century as cities look for ways to increase walkability.
He pointed to the neighborhoods of Timbergrove, Cottage Grove, and Greater Heights in Northwest Houston as a prime example of the success of the green space initiative. Separated by a bayou, the reconstruction of a worn out bridge and the installation of a better trail system gave people in those neighborhoods a place to cross over and meet.
“Now, these three populations that never saw each other, meet on this bridge. And that’s the essence of creativity in America,” Bacon said. “Creativity comes where people of all different backgrounds and disciplines come together in random, connected exchanges.”
Taking questions from the audience, Bacon was asked how San Antonio could best emulate the success that Houston has had in its private sector stewardship of its parks.
“Most people think about parks as utilities that should be covered by the public sector. That’s what you pay your taxes for,” he said. “How do you change that thought process? It’s a hard process that’s taking place everywhere…but it’s cultural. You need some leadership. You need confidence. If you can show philanthropists that every last dollar will be well spent, you’ll get that money.”
After the talk, when the Rivard Report asked how San Antonio could copy Houston’s model of public involvement, Taylor said that hearing Houston’s story could spark that imagination.
“Ten years ago, who would’ve associated Houston with green space?” she asked. “I think it’s a good start. Right now, I don’t know that outsiders consider San Antonio the same way. I think folks that are here know the progress that we’ve made on some of the major parks but I don’t know if that’s part of our brand yet.”
Bacon told the Rivard Report that while San Antonio may not have the caliber of philanthropist willing to give a similar sized gift that the Kinder family gave to Houston, that shouldn’t stop individuals from getting involved in the preservation of their local parks.
“This is an area that just a few people can make a giant difference in,” he said. “It’s just like it’s your neighborhood school.”