Amidst Houston’s rapidly crowding skyline and population, landscape architecture firm SWA Group is carving out green space in Buffalo Bayou Park, a $58 million remediation overhaul of a 160-acre, 2.3-mile-long public park. Completed in October, the updated park west of downtown now features hiking and biking trails, a dog park, a visitor’s center, an outdoor concert space, gardens, picnic areas, play areas, and event spaces.
Although the park already existed, its location between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway—two major thoroughfares—made it difficult for pedestrians to access and use the space; it was generally considered unsafe. This issue was compounded by the region’s tendency to flood, which not only covers the park in water, but also leaves behind debris, up to eight inches of silt, and pollutants. To make the park usable, Buffalo Bayou Partnership tapped SWA to masterplan the park in 2010.
“The starting point was understanding the water—Buffalo Bayou is part of a major watershed for the city of Houston and the water can raise upwards of 30 feet in elevation,” said SWA principal Scott McCready. To that end, the firm worked with the Harris County Flood Control District and a hydrologist to optimize each area for flooding. Precisely grading the bayou banks and stabilizing the water channel were paramount, as well as building out flat areas so machinery could access the park post-flood to clear out detritus.
Additionally, 50 percent of the mowed lawn was replaced with meadow grasses, riparian trees, and plants native to Texas, such as cypress, sycamore, red bud trees, Mexican Plum, Bay Magnolias, and wildflowers. These plantings reinforce the land with deep root systems and help restore a sense of natural habitat.
This landscape strategy was almost immediately put to the test last May when a major storm hit and Houston received 11 inches of rain overnight, triggering flash floods throughout the region. Even though the park was at its most fragile—most plantings and infrastructure weren’t yet established—the landscape held.
The next challenge was opening up Buffalo Bayou to the community. SWA designed two new pedestrian bridges, Jackson Hill Bridge and Carruth Bridge, that connect to a preexisting network of walkways for easy access to and from the park. At the park’s furthest eastern point at Sabine Street, SWA turned an abandoned water system site and reservoir, called the Water Works, into a visitor center replete with bike rentals and food trucks, a wide lawn, and an open-air pavilion.
Inside the park, SWA crafted a series of “outdoor rooms” with changes in elevation that flow with “a romantic quality that goes back to English landscapes and parks by Olmsted and others,” said McCready. “We were always cognizant of the long views and utilizing topography and elevation to change the views of the park and allow visitors to get close to the water, which make it unlike any other park in Houston.” The firm wanted the landscape to have “seasonal events,” where each part of the year will bring forth new flowers and colors to the park and brought in Reed Hilderbrand to create four more formal gardens.
Some existing elements, like the Eleanor Tinsley Park, were previously flooded so often that the city gave up trying to use them and hosted events in a closed-off street instead. With the new infrastructure and elevation, the city can now reliably set up stages for community events and celebrations without fear of flooding.
But as much as the park alleviates the region’s water issues, it allows Houstonians to interact with them too. “Houston is the bayou city, but there aren’t a lot of opportunities to casually get near the water,” said McCready. “It reacquaints people with the bayou in action—the flooding, the water quality—and perhaps causes them to take something away from that experience.”