The Houston skyline from The Water Works building in Buffalo Bayou Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The Houston skyline from The Water Works building in Buffalo Bayou Park. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

HOUSTON – The word “infrastructure” typically conjures up images of towering buildings, layered freeway interchanges and heavily monitored drainage ditches; concrete, cars, trucks and impressive feats of engineering that attempt to mold the natural world and resources to fit human needs.

Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S., has long been hailed, and criticized, for such accomplishments, but a shift in social, political, and economic values has strengthened lesser-thought of elements of city infrastructure: parks and green space. Architectural and engineering professions in Houston have been historically bolstered by energy and the wealth it has pumped into the city, but the recent downturn in oil prices and a more diversified Houston economy has led the city to focus on what the landscape architect can bring to table.

Just like “infrastructure,” the term “Houstonization” has begun to mean something completely different. Cities across Texas and the nation, including San Antonio, are taking a closer look at the Bayou City and how the Sun Belt’s biggest metropolis, now 180 years old, has done an about-face to embrace the natural environment as cultural and economic assets to retain and attract residents. Literal mud holes and parking lots have become world-class parks.

Houston has made great strides in green space and public transportation, but make no mistake, it's still a very car-centric city. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Houston has made great strides in green space and public transportation, but make no mistake, it’s still a very car-centric city. This view is still far more common than the photo above. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The commonalities between Houston and San Antonio’s urban and linear parks are striking (its bayou system and our creekways have eerily similar equity, connectivity and ecology issues), but equally striking is the disparity between the cities’ monetary and philosophic support from the city bureaucracy, philanthropists and community.

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, along with 350 landscape architects, Houston community leaders, developers and other stakeholders, attended the Cultural Landscape Foundation‘s conference Leading with Landscape II: The Houston Transformation on Friday, March 11. The day-long conference featured a series of three panels exploring the past, present and future park projects and the people that are changing how Houstonians manage and use public green space.

Leading with Landscape II: The Houston Transformation conference, hosted by the Cultural Landscape Foundation at the Houston Museum of Fine Art, sold out of tickets on Friday, March 11. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Leading with Landscape II: The Houston Transformation conference, hosted by the Cultural Landscape Foundation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, sold out of tickets on Friday, March 11. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Hundreds of thousands of Houstonians and visitors are taking advantage of this “new” kind of infrastructure. They were out in force, including Mayor Taylor, over the weekend enjoying the near-perfect weather. About 1,200 people participated in city tours as part of the Landscape Foundation’s What’s Out There Weekend.

The idea that the natural world enhances daily life is an obvious and ancient idea, but one that was temporarily lost sight of in our pursuit of urban efficiency and safety. Houston isn’t the first or the last city to devalue green space while promoting growth and prosperity, but it’s now setting a national example as it invests heavily in restoring balance to the urban landscape and providing its residents with the ultimate big city amenity: access to nature.

“We need to think of parks as infrastructure as well,” an inspired Mayor Taylor said during a reception after the conference. We commiserated over finger food, both experiencing “information overload” after the conference as the sun set over the McGovern Centennial Gardens in Hermann Park.

San Antonio has some catching up to do, especially as it approaches its 300th anniversary, she said. The 2017-2022 bond represents an opportunity to start.

“I think we’re slowly moving (towards a more sophisticated park system), but we need to ramp up more quickly,” Taylor said.

So how did Houston, a city with no zoning, go from a city of steel and concrete towers and endless expressways to a “city of parks,” as its been lauded by several industry and national publications?

Cultural Landscape Foundation President and CEO Charles Birnbaum (right) speaks with San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor before the Leading with Landscape conference. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Cultural Landscape Foundation President and CEO Charles Birnbaum (right) speaks with San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor before the Leading with Landscape conference. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Like most paradigm shifts, it took an “aligning of the planets,” said Cultural Landscape Foundation President and CEO Charles Birnbaum in the ornate lobby of Hotel ZaZa Thursday evening. He would later reiterate this concept for conference attendees next door in the auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Those “planets” are core patrons – the bureaucratic (city), the civic (philanthropist/corporate) and the citizen patron. The key for Houston, as other cities, has been another three-piece vocabulary, the public-private partnership, the so-called “P3.”

Just as these patron planets aligned for the rise of the highway and construction cranes, they have aligned for green space, Birnbaum said. “People are hungry and ready for parks.”

Houstonians – along with national and international consultants – are currently turning an urban golf course into a botanical garden; they’re redesigning, reconnecting and expanding Memorial Park and its arboretum; they’re connecting 150 miles of bayou trails; and developing engaging programming to activate its 371-and-counting parks.

“It takes big civic ideas and the patronage muscle to pull it off,” Birnbaum said.

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker (2010-2015), who joined Mayor Taylor and others on the final panel of the conference, represented the political will for many of the city’s park projects. An avid supporter of complete streets and preservation, Parker also led the way for several green space initiatives like the $220 million Bayou Greenways 2020 project and improvements in Memorial Park, Buffalo Bayou Park, Hermann Park and Emancipation Park. Houston’s first 25-year master plan was formulated under her leadership.

“Do you play it safe or do you transform?” asked former Mayor Parker, a native Houstonian. “Unfortunately, a lot of the big ideas that have come out of Houston have been about concreting nature – not living with nature, but dominating nature.

“The grandest expression of this desire to conquer nature is when we conquerred gravity and we put a human being on the Moon and the first word spoken from the surface of the Moon was the word ‘Houston,’” she said. Despite its Space City identity, Houston hasn’t really conquered nature. It’s only now that engineers and politicians locally and internationally have begun to accept that fact.

“Houston will always flood,” Parker said, now it’s a matter of mitigation.

More than $700 million in public and private investments have been made in parks since 2004, according to Joe Turner, director of Houston’s Parks Department. There could be $4 billion in park projects in the next 25 years, he said, as outlined in the master plan.

“We’re not concerned about the price tag because this plan is built on park equity,” he said.

That means the plan is to create public green space accessible by a half mile or 10 minute walk, Turner said, to transform Houston into “Emerald City.” Because the fingers of the bayou system stretch out over most of the city, across neighborhoods with varying income levels, Houston is poised to make good on the promise of equity. It’s not unlike San Antonio’s “Emerald Necklace” that the Howard Peak Greenway Trails is fast becoming.

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Houston has a long line of historic foundations and private individuals/families, Turner said. The first parks in Houston and a vast majority of its major parks were privately donated. More recently, the Kinder Foundation and others have stepped up to make statement donations or provide matching funds for major green space projects in Houston.

Many concepts seen in San Antonio as a bit far-fetched or too expensive, have already found a home in Houston. For instance, Houston’s Discovery Green has an an underground parking garage, a similar idea was considered for San Antonio’s Hemisfair. Some in San Antonio dismiss former Mayor Phil Hardberger’s proposed $25 million land bridge to connect the eastern and western halves of Hardberger Park severed by the Wurzbach Parkway. Houston’s $200 million Memorial Park Master Plan includes at least one land bridge.

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San Antonio, while it has its own reserve of generous foundations, families, and corporate philanthropists, has yet to find one that focuses so transformationally on public parks. Brackenridge Park and its struggling Conservancy reflect that lack of philanthropic support.

Mayor Taylor doesn’t think San Antonio has hit that critical mass of philanthropic or community support, “not to the level that we need in order to really tie our network together. We have some philanthropists that are focused on parks, but I think not at the level that we need as a community,” Taylor said. “A lot of folks just see that as the City’s responsibility, so that’s something we need to work on.”

San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department was allocated $102.5 million in the fiscal year 2016 budget, $37 million of it for capital projects.

Houston’s current budget totals $70.7 million, most for staff and maintenance, Turner said.

“We want to be into land acquisition now … for more green space,” he said. “We’re calling it green space so that the public doesn’t have a misconception that we’re building a park.”

The next wave of green space activity in Houston – after the development of its signature parks, Turner said, will be to infiltrate neighborhoods that don’t have any parks, buy up a small pot of land, and create green space. Houston isn’t a park utopia. There’s a lot of work to be done in the far-reaching suburbs and low income neighborhoods that were built without any consideration of public, shared space.

Houston also has had the wildly popular, centrally located Discovery Green to demonstrate to its citizens the advantages of enriched, activated green space complete with public art, water features, play space, culinary options, and access to transportation options like B-Cycle, light rail, and bus routes.

A conference attendee walks down the spiraled mound at the main entrance to McGovern Centennial Gardens and fountain in Hermann Park, Houston. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The METRORail, filled almost to capacity, passes by stopped vehicular traffic near The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Red Line runs north-south, connecting educational, recreational, and employment hubs. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Discovery Green opened in 2008, more than four years after the $57 million purchase of a parking lot. Through a P3 between the  City of Houston, the Houston First Corporation and Discovery Green Conservancy, $125 million was raised to build, landscape, and complete 12-acre park. Panelists pointed often to Discovery Green as a catalyst for community appreciation for urban parks and landscape architecture.

A large urban park with water features, playscapes, and culinary options…sound familiar? Hemisfair Parks’ Yanaguana Garden entertains hundreds of thousands of visitors to San Antonio’s urban core. Once the larger, Civic Park opens – hopefully in time for the Alamo City’s Tricentennial Celebration in 2018 – city leaders can likely expect similar catalytic support for other parks in the urban core (Brackenridge Park, Dignowity/Lockwood parks) and beyond (Hardberger Park). Add to that, the development of the Mission and Museum reaches has already sparked community and developer interest in park proliferation.

San Antonio is also no stranger to the P3 and it has a major card to play in years ahead: the World Heritage designation of its Spanish colonial Missions.

Hemisfair and other park projects are on the list for the coming bond program, Taylor said, but “when it comes down to choosing or cutting other stuff versus parks, parks kinda end up first on the chopping block.”

A survey taken to inform San Antonio’s’ 2016 budget priorities revealed a community that appreciates parks, but not at the expense of the “the basics” like street maintenance, drainage and social services.

Image courtesy of the City of San Antonio.
Image courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

A delegation from Brackenridge Park Conservancy attended the conference including several board members and Executive Director Lynn Osborne Bobbitt. The timing for the conference was ripe in Brackenridge’s case as the park’s master plan is in draft form, awaiting finalization from the City’s Parks and Recreation department.

The similarities between Houston’s Hermann Park and San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park are obvious: both have a zoo, golf course, and Japanese garden; are next to at least one university and other educational institutions (museums); and have deep ties into their respective city’s cultural and historic fabric.

Bobbitt said she came back from the conference “reenergized.” Many of the design principles and revenue models brought up in Houston are included in the draft master plan, she said.

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The conference also instilled a sense of confidence in the “empty space” of Brackenridge Park – that it isn’t actually empty at all.

“We’re so focused on the pieces of Brackenridge Park, the cultural institutions, that we have forgotten the open space,” Bobbitt said.  The reconnection to nature and the outdoors, is what most people want. It’s often as simple as a wide jogging path, but even that should come with a level of engaging design. “Our institutions are amazing … where we have fallen down is dealing with the open space.”

She looked closely at Discovery Green’s underground parking and revenue-generating culinary offerings. What if the conservancy could do that, too? And the ultimate question for all parks: Where will the money come from to do all this? Bobbitt will be looking into local bonds, taxes as well as federal grants.

Mayor Taylor, who advocated for the fund allocation to perform the park’s master plan, said she had not yet seen it.

“I hope obviously that we can figure out what changes we need to make in order to see higher utilization of the park,” she said. “We’ve already made a lot of investments out there but if you don’t plan and if they’re not good design principles, the result is going to be that people don’t show up … except on easter weekend.”

Top image: The Houston skyline from The Water Works building in Buffalo Bayou Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Related Stories:

Brackenridge Park: The Public Interest vs. UIW Expansion

Hemisfair to Partner with Zachry, NRP Group for $165 Million Development

Hemisfair’s Civic Park: Will it be Ready by City’s 300th Anniversary?

San Pedro Creek: An Evolving Design

Hardberger Seeks Funds for Unique Land Bridge

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at