persistant-vision

A hundred years ago, landscape architect Arthur Comey proposed Houston’s first comprehensive city plan. In his plan, Comey envisioned the city’s bayous overlaid with a network of parks and trails. As he wrote, the “bayous and creek valleys readily lend themselves to trails and parks and cannot so advantageously be used for any other purpose.”

But in the 1930’s, in response to major floods that engulfed the city, work began clearing, straightening and enlarging the bayous. Flood mitigation projects continued through the 1960s, in some cases eliminating all riparian vegetation and lining the channel with concrete. Construction of thoroughfares and freeways encouraged the spread of the city far beyond Comey’s plan and encroached on lands that might have been intended for bayou parkways.

However in the last 40 years, there has been a proliferation of grassroots organizations and programs to protect and enhance Houston bayous and reduce flooding in environmentally sustainable ways, including the Houston Parks Board, The Bayou Preservation Association, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the White Oak Bayou Association, the Brays Bayou Association, the Sims Bayou Coalition, the Cypress Creek Flood Control Coalition and the Greens Bayou Corridor Coalition, among others. These organizations, each with a unique point of view depending on the special circumstances of the bayou they represent, all work to influence the outcomes of the primary government agencies whose projects impact the bayous: the Harris County Flood Control District and the US Army Corps of Engineers.

One particular bayou success story has been that of the Buffalo Bayou Promenade. Sponsored by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the 1.2 mile long Buffalo Bayou Promenade is a critical link that connects Buffalo Bayou Park to Houston’s theater district and downtown. Prior to its creation, development had turned its back on this portion of the bayou. Freeway structures blocked light and shed sheets of water off their sides during rain storms. Pedestrians in this portion of the bayou were more than 30′ below the grade of the surrounding streets, out of view and with few access points. Invasive plantings were overgrown and created unsafe walking conditions.

Forward to today. Re-grading of the site helped to improve views into the park while reducing the impact of erosion and improving flood water conveyance. A system of stair and ramp connecting points at each roadway crossing provides safe, convenient and frequent access opportunities and commissioned artwork frames each park portal providing a link between the city’s art district and its historic channel. Buffalo Bayou Promenade is not only a successful park and pedestrian environment but it also provides the city of Houston with highly effective flood control and storm water management.

The success of Buffalo Bayou Promenade is just one story among many of the major change in awareness of the importance of Houston’s bayous. Major works are under way along Brays Bayou, Sims Bayou, Clear Creek, Cypress Creek and White Oak Bayou. These and others are testaments to the persistence of Arthur Comey’s vision and they demonstrate how parks and greenspaces can improve the economy, the environment and the health of the city.

But there is more work to do and there is no better time than the present. Property values throughout Houston will continue to climb and there is now the opportunity to purchase distressed properties along the city’s bayous in the hopes of further revitalizing and expanding Houston’s parks and greenspaces before those properties are sold for development or redevelopment.

The national non-profit organization Redfields to Greenfields hopes to help do just that. Their goal is to acquire adjoining properties along Houston’s major bayous and protect them and convert them from existing industrial or commercial use into greenspace and to help create one continuous greenbelt.

In addition, the Bayou Greenway Initiative – a $480 million effort led by the Houston Parks Board – is working to secure 4,900 acres of new greenspace that will control flooding, provide storm water management and more than 300 miles of continuous hike and bike trails along the bayous.

As a landscape architect and long-time Houston resident, I believe there is tremendous value in preserving, protecting and restoring the city’s bayous. Not only do the city’s bayous provide important natural habitat corridors for plants and wildlife, but Houston’s bayou’s are also an amazing, almost untapped recreational resource for a fast growing urban population and play a vital role in establishing the city’s identity well into its future.

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