Bayou Greenways Park opens this week as part of the Master Plan for Greening Houston

A paper boat creeps eerily along White Oak Bayou as joggers, cyclists, and hikers move more determinedly along a path along the upper bank. The scene is the epitome of Houston: flowing green landscape, punctuated by the yellow of the black-eyed Susans and the white of other wildflowers and lots of concrete. Barn swallows speed past within sight of a motorway where cars are less free to move. The chirping of birds is audible, though they rival the inevitable low-pitched murmur of Interstate 10 traffic. A couple of billboards protrude above the lush scene, visually reminding you of your own location.

In Houston, finding natural sweet spots in a city that has long been committed to moving cars from one place to another has long been a challenge. But years of greener urban development led to the opening of Bayou Greenways Park this week. Located two acres north of Interstate 10 and west of Studewood, Bayou Greenways Park is the latest addition and namesake of a larger, more ambitious project that spans nearly 10 years and is nearing completion.

Last week the park stayed behind a chain link fence and its large opening was washed away by the rain. But now it greets visitors with small metal signs on its way: “The bayou doesn’t move like lightning can,” it says in the first. Follow the path and the signs form a bayou-centered poem by Professor Martha Serpas of the University of Houston.

Bayou Greenways Park serves as a kind of hub for Bayou Greenways 2020, a much larger, more ambitious 172-mile project that is approximately 122 miles to complete, with parks and pathways around Brays, Buffalo, Greens, Halls, Hunting, Sims and White Oak Bayous as well as the West Fork of the San Jacinto River.

Bayou Greenways 2020 was launched with public and private funding and is a logistical marvel. An attempt to connect a substantial part of Houston through a series of pathways and green spaces. The project should allow fair access to parking areas in different parts of the city. In this way, neighborhoods are connected through passageways that do not require a car.

“Each trail offers a unique insight into what Houston is,” said Barron Wallace, Houston Parks chief executive officer. “There are different trees and wild animals. Some areas are built on. Some have not been touched for years. You will see the tapestries of different parts of the city. You see Houston. “

The city’s hiking trails connect

Beth White, president and CEO of the Houston Parks Board, moved to Houston from Chicago five years ago when the Bayou Greenways project got underway. In Chicago she heard similar complaints that she heard here, only with the seasonal concern flipped.

“We always heard, ‘Nobody goes to parks in winter. Why are you building this?'” White says. “But people want to be outside. And in particular, they want to be near water. It’s one of those powerful attractions for people on a molecular level. I would hear from people in Chicago who cut fences and made their own trail to get near the water. I think there is a similar thing with the bayous. They are an elixir of life in this city and people want access to them. “

However, creating these spaces is a laborious process. White compares it to putting a puzzle together. Future plans will aim to create more north / south connections between these paths. However, the goal of Bayou Greenways 2020 was to find ways to connect these east / west paths.

Wallace remembers parts of the trail that were only 200 yards from the compound.

“But those 200 meters could affect one railroad or several owners,” he said.

Wallace isn’t the only one involved in the project proposing to get a city to execute a plan like Bayou Greenways 2020 like turning an aircraft carrier. The project is a broader look at Houston’s history of green spaces and is more like changing the rotation of a planet.

The land for Bayou Greenways Park was bought by a private developer 13 years ago. The fact that the park opened this month speaks for the long term for the project organizer. It is among the nearly 800 hectares of land acquired for the project.

Of course, such a large company requires long-term planning and money. The earliest conception preceded money. Those involved in the project looked back a century on an ambitious and great idea, which they then expanded significantly.

White speaks of her admiration for Daniel Burnam, the famous Chicago architect and city planner. He said, “Don’t make small plans.”

Part of the plan

Arthur Comey was a follow-up to Burnam’s work. Comey was born in Massachusetts in 1866. He studied landscape architecture at Harvard and worked as a park planner in Utica, New York, before becoming a city planner. He drew up a plan for Houston’s Parks, which was approved by voters in 1912.

The Comey Plan must have been radical a century ago, tending to green spaces along White Bay, Buffalo, and Brays Bayous, three bayous that now fit almost neatly into the 610 loop in the shape of the toe of a chicken foot. They are essentially a seed that took nearly a century to germinate.

Guy Hagstette – vice president of parks and civic projects for the Children’s Foundation – says the city’s efforts after the inception of Comey’s plan are commendable – the creation of Memorial Park, Hermann Park, and McGregor Park in the 1910s and 1920s – through the Second World War I At this point the city stopped securing green spaces. He also says, “Buying land doesn’t get any easier with time.” Instead, Houston gradually and fully developed into a reputation as a city with indoor spaces connected by highways. He mentions a former elected official who thought parks were unnecessary because Hagstette says, “He thought everyone had a backyard.” The Astrodome was not only an architectural marvel, it was also an exchange of blows.

If Houston’s green progress seems strong up, it was still built on a foundation created by those who fought the good fight in tougher times. A confluence of public and private actors helped make Bayou Greenways 2020 a reality. Houston voters overwhelmingly approved a $ 100 million bond in 2012 to go to the initiative. The Houston Parks Board was approved by the city council to set standards and provide maintenance.

The Children’s Foundation led the private effort with a US $ 50 million gift funded by the Hildebrand Foundation, the Houston Endowment, and the Brown Foundation Inc., among others. The Houston Parks Board then had more than $ 225 million to dramatically update and expand Comey’s vision.

Even the Harris County Flood Control District was involved. “Living with water is crucial,” says White. “And there was a mandate for the city to do better.”

A critical condition of the plan is maintenance.

“Once these spaces are in place, you have to manage them,” White said. “So we’ve already considered best practices and implemented them in design and construction. And we already see communities involved. According to Harvey, it was about seeing churches out there helping with the cleanup. “

Park equity

Serpas’ poem published in the park ends beautifully: “Water fills our lows / connects everyone here with everyone there.”

The width of the Bayou Greenways 2020 speaks for the sharp development of the city. Houston lived between 500,000 and 600,000 people after World War II. Census figures from two years ago put the city at 2.3 million.

When the Bayou Greenways project is completed, an estimated 1.5 million Houstonians will be brought within 1.5 miles of green space. The Comey Plan’s three-toe design has been updated to look less like a foot reproduction and more like a circulatory system, a series of tendrils that run east / west. Its range suits a city known for urban sprawl. Only this urban sprawl does not include automobiles.

White would love to see the iconic map of the city’s highways – a tangle of fishing lines – being replaced with a map of the bayous and their corresponding hiking trails.

Most notable about the project is how its skeletal structure has always been there. It just took a few signs of life.

White said she recently witnessed a celebration at Tidwell Park in Hall’s Bayou.

“Someone there told me that their parents would never let them play around there as a kid,” she said. “Now she was there with her grandchildren.”

The greenways are meant to touch all Houstonians. “Justice drove this as well as the ambition of the idea,” said Wallace. “If you’re going to issue $ 100 million in public bonds, it’s important to have an impact across communities.”

So those involved in the project wanted to cover as much of the city as possible. They are already raving about the possibilities of an ambitious future north / south project over the next few years.

“These trails are where you see parts of the city that are off the radar for Houstonians who don’t live there,” said Hagstette, an avid cyclist. “You’ve changed my idea of ​​what Houston is – how beautiful it can be.”

He hopes the paths will pop the bubbles some Houstonians create for themselves at home.

“I came across herds of grazing goats twice along two different bayous,” he said.

All project participants cite the health benefits of green spaces. An added benefit is Houston’s departure from its past, referred to the list of the ugliest cities.

“I think this is changing people … not just their perception, but a basic understanding of Houston and what it is,” said Hagstette. “It suggests that history is never completely written.”

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