The Greening of Houston

How America's oil and gas capitol came to design a park at the forefront of green public space.

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Courtesy: Buffalo Bayou Partnership

After many years, Buffalo Bayou is finally coming on its Nixon in China moment.

Or, perhaps, a little bit of Paris in Texas.

The 10-square-mile Brownfields restoration in the front yard of downtown Houston is a collection of parks, walkways, a performance center, botanical gardens, boat landings, and residential development, all along the waterway that winds in from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the kind of neighborhood revitalization project, complete with retooling freeway corridors and re-using vacant and industrial land, that one might see in Portland, Oregon.

But instead it’s an injection of urbanism in the land of sprawl – and a showcase in a city famous its lack of zoning. That rejection of the fundamental framework of most other American cities has made Houston averse to urban planning and design.

In fact, there is regulation in place in Houston. Building standards and development are controlled through neighborhood covenants and other restrictions. The downtown has towers and a grid like most other cities. But development has been guided by the principle that the free market should prevail.

The fundamentally green and carbon emission-mindful infrastructure of Buffalo Bayou may also seem incongruous with the capital of fossil fuels. But Houston has become remarkably green in its civic impulses. One notable figure in sustainability there is oil and gas magnate George Mitchell and the George and Cynthia Mitchell Foundation, who brought in the legendary Ian McHarg to design the Woodlands in Texas. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership has been the coalition to frame the goals, provide the management of some 6,400 acres, plan the park and facility improvements, and keep it all together.

"This has been a partnership of civic, business and public leaders who have worked for nearly two decades to reclaim a much-abused resource at the heart of Greater Houston, to make a restored landscape as a focal point for the region's public spaces and future development," says Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, who has served as part of the consulting team. "I saw this as an opportunity to do in the 21st century what Olmsted did with his parks to transform 19th century American cities. I think this could become the template for how major U.S. metros manage and reclaim their natural settings in the 21st century.”

Part of what led Houston to embrace the project was the realities of flooding and storm surges, which have caused billions of dollars in damages to underground infrastructure. Allowing wetlands to do their work is the kind of natural ecosystems adaptation that is well underway in New Orleans post-Katrina. The parks and development plan is closely integrated with water engineering.

Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (where I work), who also previously served as a consultant on the project.

Slowly but surely, the $1 billion master plan is being implemented, to the relief and amazement of those who have been working on it for so long.

Yaro, Dodson, Thompson, and Thompson Design Group principal Pratap Talwar made a presentation on Buffalo Bayou yesterday at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in San Diego.

Photo credit: Buffalo Bayou Partnership

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