Bayou City? At first glance, the Houston region’s sprawling development footprint, hyper engineered transportation systems, and massive industrial complexes seem to render this historic city nickname more delusion than reality.
Based on Arthur Comey's 1913 report, "Houston, Tentative Plans for Development", the recently completed Bayou Greenways Master Plan creates a new 300 mile long linear park system connecting over 1.9 million citizens along Harris County’s 10 major waterways. With a multitude of economic, environmental, and physical and mental health benefits, Professor John Crompton of Texas A&M estimates annual benefits to be in excess of $117 million. Running from headwaters to confluence, each of Bayou Greenways are based on a diverse ecological heritage and commitment to quality of life for all. In 2012, voters approved $100 million in public funding for the 150 mile long first phase of the project with a private match of $105 million. The resulting work is a source of civic pride and an emphatic expression of place.
Bayou Greenways: “Realizing the Vision”
Bayou City? At first glance, the Houston region’s sprawling development footprint, hyper engineered transportation systems, and massive industrial complexes seem to render this historic city nickname more delusion than reality. The recently completed Bayou Greenways Master Plan for a new 300 mile long linear park system connects over 1.9 million citizens along Harris County’s 10 major waterways. With a multitude of economic, environmental, and physical and mental health benefits, Professor John Crompton of Texas A&M estimates annual benefits to be in excess of $117 million. Running from headwaters to confluence, each of Bayou Greenways are based on a diverse ecological heritage and commitment to quality of life for all. The resulting work is a source of civic pride and an emphatic expression of place.
Perception and attitudes towards Houston’s waterways have continually evolved. Ironically similar to the slow moving nature of a bayou, it has taken nearly a century for Houston to recognize and positively embrace the inherent benefits of its most iconic natural system. Before periods of rapid settlement in the 19th century, rich assemblages of upland and bottomland forests blanketed expansive watersheds from the east, eventually transitioning to coastal prairie complexes in the west. These systems were able to adapt to the regions climatic patterns including periods of inundation and were the heartbeat of life in the region.
Houston was founded in 1836, rapidly bringing forth settlement, growth and commerce founded on the region’s natural resources. From the mid-19th century to early 20th century, residents tried to harness the potential of the waterways through dredging, harvesting of timber, and commerce associated with development along the bayou edges. As population and urbanization of the bayous increased, so did the devastating effect of floodwaters. To many, the bayous were more nuisance than asset.
Yet even then, some recognized their potential for greatness. In 1913 planner Arthur Comey advocated a plan to turn the bayous into a linear park system. In his report, “Houston Tentative Plans for its Development”, he recommended the creation of a bayou park system that would link an underserved and growing population to improved open spaces along the adjacent downtown bayous.
This predecessor to Bayou Greenways initially fell on deaf ears. Many of the city’s bayous were hardened and channelized during the mid-century in a misguided effort to reduce flooding. Roads were also needed and thousands of miles of major freeways and surface streets subdivided the bayous and their associated watersheds. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the tide of opinion would turn again in favor of the preservation of the bayou system. By 2012, the momentum supporting the bayous pushed through Houston’s largest parks bond package ever. Finally, the city would reconnect with its natural heritage, “Creating equitably, distributed parkland for Houston” along the way.
One hundred years later and after major systematic reconfiguration, planners were faced with a significantly altered and expanded landscape. To begin the master planning process, the team researched bayou history, studied current and projected local development trends, and created a detailed site inventory based upon helicopter aerial reconnaissance, hundreds of miles of hiking, and several million bytes of geodata. Demonstrating viability in the modern era, the Master Plan achieves the ideals of Comey and fulfills the aspirations of its community.
The result is a comprehensive study that:
Bayou Greenways addresses numerous health, safety, and welfare issues inherent in the daily lives of citizens from the nation’s fourth largest city. Rated as one of the unhealthiest, park deficient, most economically divided, ethnically diverse, sprawling, and fastest growing cities in the country, Houston faces enormously social challenges. Already five times the area of most North American cities, Houston is expected to double in population by the year 2035. The Bayou Greenways are now shaping the development fabric of the city by creating healthy connections that are in close proximity to the outdoor world and between highly diverse populations.
While Houston does have significant park spaces and trails, the city of no zoning has historically been unable to effectively create enough designated open spaces and the necessary connectivity between them. According to the Trust for Public Lands, Houston ranks 58 out of 75 major metropolitan areas in meeting their park needs. The key to increasing the open space network lies within the region’s floodplains.
Relatively flat terrain, intense rain events, and urbanized watersheds create broad jurisdictional floodplains. With developmental restrictions and Harris County Flood Control District regulatory controls, vast land areas are left as unused green space or vacant lands. The Bayou Greenway plan recommends leveraging these underutilized spaces to create trail corridors, new parks, and flood mitigation facilities that will be within 1.5 miles of 6 out of 10 Houstonians.
The resulting network stretches over 300 miles and include 4,000 acres of new land connected to existing neighborhoods, schools, churches, and other community assets. The acquisition areas allow access where physical or jurisdictional obstacles now occur, increases flood mitigate opportunities, and helps reconnect currently fragmented ecologies. Resultant facilities within the greenway corridor will have a 1% chance of experiencing a significant flood event during the year, but perform as functioning recreation space throughout the remainder of the year.
Immense in scale, much of the corridor requires the design of functioning ecological systems to allow reasonable levels of maintenance. Manicured zones occur along the trail edges and within highly urbanized areas. A shift to lower maintenance meadow and reforestation zones is planned along Greenway edges and within larger areas used for flood detention or nature parks.
Encompassing 4 County Precincts, the City of Houston, 140 Municipal Utility Districts, 88 Super Neighborhoods, 40 Management Districts, and 23 Tax Reinvestment Zones, the project spans numerous jurisdictions and associated implementation obstacles. Perhaps the greatest success to date is the public’s embrace in carrying out the vision.
As a first step toward implementation, a bond measure was introduced to fund all missing connections within the City. Comprising approximately half of the overall Master Plan, it is called “Bayou Greenways 2020”. To compare, Portland, representing the next largest green network in the nation, is about half of Bayou Greenways 2020’s 150 miles of multi-use trails. In 2012, receiving the highest approval of all measures on the city ballot, Houston voters approved $100 million in public funding for the project with a private match of $105 million.
Currently, the Bayou Greenways project continues to move toward construction. The client utilizes the plan to enlist local firms in an Integrated Programming and Analysis scope for individual project segments. Once completed, each project moves through construction documentation, permitting, and bidding. Thus far a few short segments have been constructed and are now being populated with engaged citizenry while others are steadily proceeding toward construction.
Parks matter. The Bayou Greenways project leverages the power of open space at all scales and provides immense quality of life benefits. Simple in concept, complex in execution, the resulting work is creates a new Houston Legacy.
Maintenance and Implementation: