The city of Houston is investing over $215 million in Bayou Greenways 2020, a project which envisions the city’s waterways as pillars of an equitable, accessible park system. The initial impetus of the initiative was to create public and safe parkland, stimulate local development, encourage healthy lifestyles for residents, and mitigate the effects of flooding.
Over a century ago, landscape architect Arthur Coleman Comey focused on park design and urban planning as a means to solve major problems in civic development. He fervently believed that the 20th century was an age of cities and that Houston needed to utilize both water and trails in order to become a great Southwest metroplex. The city's rapid urbanization led to an increase in the mutual interdependence of its inhabitants. In his tentative plan for Houston's development, he focused on the city’s bayous and their inter-linkage in order to foster the public good and to respond to the growing ecological needs of the built environment. A hundred years later, the Bayou Greenway Initiative seeks to achieve that vision by acquiring and improving land adjacent to the 2,500 miles of bayous that run across Houston. City officials, local residents, and members of the non-profit Houston Parks Board have come together to transform the city into an organic unit and a valuable ecological asset. The bayous will be interlinked by a 150-mile trail system. The project exploits the civic and recreational potential of the waterways that gave birth to the city in 1836.
Leading landscape architecture and urban design firm SWA Group has been collaborating with Brown and Gay Engineers to design pathways that "would not impact that concrete-lined bayou’s flood control capability,” said Mike Talbott, leader of the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD). SWA Group’s Matt Baumgarten told AN that in Houston flooding is a big issue. When it comes to bayous and greenways, the main problem is the collection of debris on the trail. Maintenance plans are still to be worked out, but HCFCD and The City of Houston Parks Department are the main agencies responsible for the maintenance of the Bayou.
“People usually perceive Texas as conservative and disinterested in environmental issues,” said Baumgarten. “In reality, they do think about green space; which is why they voted to make this project happen.” The initiative is part of a bond package approved by voters last November, which will provide $100 million in matching funds to double the number of trails to link existing park space and neighborhoods along the city’s many bayous. Historically, said Baumgarten, there has been “a movement where people turn their backs on the bayou. The front doors are streetside, services and all that other stuff is happening in the back. What’s been happening and what is going to further happen with bayou greenways is that people are realizing the value of green spaces and the connection to them.”
SWA’s plan will take advantage of Houston’s many natural resources, which include reserves of woodland, meadows, and prairies. “The project will give people easier access to these areas,” said Baumgarten. “This will change Houston and certainly alter the way that people look at properties adjacent to the bayou."
This project hopes to bring about a number of other benefits to the metropolis, such as the possibility of alternative commutes along hiking and biking trails, better flood prevention thanks to wet-bottom detention areas, enhanced water quality and reduced run-off, purer air quality due to increased CO2 sequestration by newly planted trees, a rise in property values leading to increased revenue for the city, and a positive change in Houston’s civic image. A Benefits Analysis study completed in 2011 estimated that the annual benefits of Houston Bayou Greenways would total $117.1 million.
The initiative includes plans for a number of Houston’s bayous, including Brays, Sims, Hunting, Halls, Greens, and Buffalo bayous, as well as Cypress and Clear Creek. The seven-year program will lead to the creation of 1,500 acres of new parkland and trails. Taking into account Houston’s vastness—the city covers more than 600 square miles—Bayou Greenways has managed to create parallel connections at the human scale by matching the sprawl of the city to the sprawl of its waterways. It seeks to boil down the city into a complex set of safe, prevalent, and more convenient connections, ultimately leading to a socially friendly, secure, and healthier urban fabric. Once implemented, the Bayou Greenways initiative will successfully weave a sustainable thread for the next generation of Houstonians by reviving these natural treasures.