From Freeways to Greenways

 Brays Bayou. Photo courtesy of Houston Parks Board.

Brays Bayou. Photo courtesy of Houston Parks Board.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

To outsiders, Houston is all about barbeque, cowboys, and concrete.

Home to the widest highway in the world—the 26-lane Katy Freeway—the city has long been a car-centric place, comfortable with its spider web of freeways, beltways, parkways, and feeder roads spreading from the city center to the suburbs. Look at a map, and the highways jump out. However, the city’s reputation for urban sprawl wasn’t serving it well.

“Houston was falling behind in attracting people to the city,” says Kyle Shelton, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “People were saying it’s ugly, and there was truth to that for sure.”

That’s a perception that has started to change. 

Over the last few years, a massive public-private investment in green spaces has begun to transform the country’s fourth largest city into a place tied together instead by its bayous, parks, and greenways. It’s part of a nationwide movement to make cities greener, more walkable, more livable, and more sustainable. In Houston, it’s about connecting communities, attracting more millennials, improving health, and helping with flood mitigation. Developers have also started to get on board.

“What I would love to see is a thriving system of walkable neighborhoods, interconnected by a green ribbon of parks and trails and public spaces that are healthy and thriving,” says Houston Parks Board President and CEO Beth White. “People want a walkable, livable city, and the potential is there.” Creating and maintaining more green spaces is important. Connecting them all is key. 

 White Oak Bayou. Photo by F. Carter Smith, Courtesy of Houston Parks Board

White Oak Bayou. Photo by F. Carter Smith, Courtesy of Houston Parks Board

Bayous as a Backbone

White, one of a cohort of Houstonians committed to making the city a more environmentally friendly place, was tasked in 2016 with leading Bayou Greenways 2020, a $220 million project to reshape Houston into a 150-mile network of parks and off-street trails. Houston’s Kinder Foundation contributed $50 million to the project.

The project is based on a shelved 1912 plan to connect Houston’s bayous with park space. The city’s most well-known bayou, Buffalo Bayou, flows 53 miles from west of Katy through the Port of Houston and Ship Channel to Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’re creating a park system with bayous as its backbone,” White says. “It’s about access and connectivity, bringing people closer together through parks.” Forging connections across the bayous is critical, she says. 

When Bayou Greenways 2020 is complete, more than 60 percent of Houston's residents will live within a mile and a half of a park. 

Working with the Landscape

When White biked along Buffalo Bayou during her job interview, she knew she’d face a massive endeavor if she got the role. Houston had walkable neighborhoods, but the city’s size alone would make connecting them a challenge. At 670 square miles, Houston could fit Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Baltimore inside its city limits.

White arrived in 2016 from Chicago, where she spearheaded the development of The 606, the city’s innovative park and elevated trail system. Since her arrival, she’s led the effort to build 80 miles of trails for walking, running, biking, and commuting along eight of Houston’s 12 major bayous, refurbish existing trails, and add connectors. 

She’s employed creative solutions that work with the landscape, snaking trails around freeways and under railroad bridges, and taking over abandoned rail lines. 

“We’re repurposing existing infrastructure,” she says. Pedestrians and bikers can now safely navigate the intersection of White Oak and Buffalo Bayous. Soon, thanks to an iconic, new bridge in Mason Park, the public will be able to safely cross the bayou rather than cross a bridge with car traffic.

Anne Olson, Executive Director of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, is doing much the same in the 10-mile stretch of Buffalo Bayou—from Shepherd Drive to the Port of Houston Turning Basin—that she helps support. 

Trails she’s developing will run through the now unusable bottom floors of two County buildings on San Jacinto Street that flooded in Hurricane Harvey.

Improving Houston’s Image

Houston’s love affair with highways traces back to the post-World War II period, when the city’s population exploded. “The thought was, the benefits of highway growth outweigh the consequences,” says Shelton. “That was the mindset, and it still mostly remains.”

The real push toward a greener city started slowly for Houston, in 2008, when the 12-acre Discovery Green park opened downtown. Several Houston-area philanthropists supported the public-private endeavor. It was a turning point, says Olson. “People said no one would come downtown to visit the park,” she says, “but it’s been a huge success.”

Olson has spent the last several years leading a $58 million Buffalo Bayou Park project to add footpaths, bridges, trails, and performance spaces—among other improvements—to the 10-mile stretch of bayou she oversees. The Kinder Foundation contributed $30 million; Harris County Flood Control District also chipped in $5 million.

Most recently, Kinder has contributed $70 million to the Memorial Park Conservancy to better connect Memorial Park’s green spaces. “All of these investments in parks help make the city healthier and more competitive in the business world,” White says. 

Olson agrees. “Houston isn’t known for being a very beautiful city like Seattle or Portland. People finally realized we had to do things to improve our image.” 

 Halls Bayou. Photo by F. Carter Smith, Courtesy of Houston Parks Board

Halls Bayou. Photo by F. Carter Smith, Courtesy of Houston Parks Board

An Integrated Infrastructure

In 2017, Houston also passed a comprehensive bike plan to make it easier and safer to cycle around town. Adding protected bike lanes to provide safer passage goes hand-in-hand with green spaces, White and Olson say. 

“If we invest in these parks, and people can’t get to them safely,” White says, “we’re not making the most of our investment.” 

White says it’s crucial to work with the city’s natural resources, and to find a balance between its freeways and its greenways. Highways aren’t going away. What’s important is to give community members options, she says, to mix more green in with the grey.

“More and more people are understanding that improvements in civic infrastructure have to be looked at as a system,” says White. “You can’t look at a freeway without looking at the impact on parks and biking. It’s a deeper level of working together.”

A Boost to the Bottom Line

Olson and her team are currently working to improve the bayou east of downtown, near the Fifth Ward and East End neighborhoods. West of downtown in Buffalo Bayou Park, Buffalo Bayou Partnership has planted 14,000 new native trees and added 15-20 acres of woodlands and prairie and wildflower areas. 

Last year, Hurricane Harvey threw a wrench in the city’s green space plans, causing widespread erosion of the city’s bayous and leaving millions of pounds of sediment scattered throughout parks. Clean-up has been expensive. But Harvey also drove home a key message: our bayous act as detention areas, and we need to protect them, Olson says.

Houston has a lot to learn from other cities about flood prevention, she adds, and how to live with water. Prone to flooding, the Netherlands developed a “room for the river” concept, which allows its rivers to expand when large volumes of water pour in, rather than confining the water. It’s living with the water rather than fighting it.

In Houston, “a lot of the focus has always been on getting the water out as fast as you can,” Olson says. “What we’re trying to get across is that green space can absorb water.”

It’s a message that green space proponents hope real estate developers will begin embrace as well. “Time will tell,” says Olson. Already though, developers have seen how green spaces can boost their bottom line. Discovery Green, for its part, prompted millions of dollars of lucrative real estate investments downtown.

 Brays Bayou. Photo by F. Carter Smith, Courtesy of Houston Parks Board

Brays Bayou. Photo by F. Carter Smith, Courtesy of Houston Parks Board

Embracing Open Access

In Houston’s Idylwood neighborhood, resident Amy Dinn is a shining example of how green space initiatives can prompt positive lifestyle changes.  

Dinn, who’s also president of her neighborhood civic club, often rides with her husband on their tandem bike to the East End Farmer’s Market, snaking along the Brays Bayou trail near their home past Gus Wortham Golf Course, onto the Harrisburg Blvd. Trail, and then linking up with bike lanes to complete the 30-minute ride.

“One of things that attracted us to the neighborhood was the trails that connect our neighborhood to other areas,” says Dinn. “We liked the idea of open access. It really increases our connection to other attractions in Houston that are outside our neighborhood. It gives us options besides getting there in a car.”

Dinn says she’s seen many more community members take to the trails over the last few years. “They’re getting a lot of use,” she says. “There’s really been a greening of Houston. It’s shifted people’s thoughts; we can have a green city.”

Olson has noticed it too. “We’re seeing more and more people biking to work as these bayous are connected,” she says. It’s a trend she’s hopeful will continue.

“The city is really at a turning point,” Olson adds. “We can go back to what we’ve done in past, or we can be more forward thinking.” 

Read more about Bayou Greenways here: 51 "Super" Places along the Bayou Greenways.

Joey Romano