A Park Lover’s Tour of Houston

by Tomás Herrera-Mishler, ASLA

Memorial Park is one of Houston’s most popular walking/jogging destinations. / image: Memorial Park Conservancy
Memorial Park is one of Houston’s most popular walking/jogging destinations. / image: Memorial Park Conservancy

A tour of extraordinary park experiences, made possible through public/private partnerships.

During a recent visit to some of Houston’s premier parks, the city revealed a commitment to extraordinary park experiences made possible through public/private partnerships.

Hermann Park

Hermann Park Conservancy is a mature organization ably led for the past 15 years by Doreen Stoller, a life-long Houstonian who spent her early career in the high tech business before taking on the leadership of the Conservancy. My first awareness of having arrived in the 445-acre park was a glimpse of the park’s name carved in a beautiful limestone planter down the center of a grand, historic entrance into the park known as the Grand Gateway. We arrived at a roundabout with Sam Houston proudly astride a horse on a massive granite plinth. City park workers were busy planting new rose bushes along the handsome entrance boulevard.

My Lyft driver was pleased that I was heading to the Conservancy’s office, where he coincidentally serves as a volunteer. He told me to “let Doreen know that Patrick says hi!” This speaks to the depth of the Conservancy’s role and Hermann Park’s important place in the Greater Houston Community. I was particularly interested in visiting the Hermann Park Conservancy as it was one of the case studies in the landmark report “The Future of Balboa Park: Keeping the Park Magnificent in its Second Century.”

Hermann Park selfie with Sam Houston / image: Tomás Herrera-Mishler
Hermann Park selfie with Sam Houston / image: Tomás Herrera-Mishler

Hermann Park Conservancy recently completed a new master plan with notable landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., which describes the different eras of the park’s evolution. Currently the park’s layout is described as “fragmented” and the plan proposes ways to increase the connectivity and mobility within and to the park and will improve 223 acres of parkland, mainly around the park’s edges and its center. I was envious of the light rail train that runs through the park with stops near the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Zoo connecting the park directly to downtown Houston. The park’s wayfinding and signage system is elegantly contemporary and effective, with a fresh look that enhances the park experience.

In celebration of the park’s 100 year anniversary, Hermann Park Conservancy selected a renowned design team to create the McGovern Centennial Gardens. Hoerr Schaudt, the Chicago landscape architecture firm, collaborated with White Oak Studio in Houston on the garden’s design, along with Dr. William C. Welch of Texas A&M University consulting. A new entry pavilion, named the Cherie Flores Garden Pavilion, was designed by architect Peter Bohlin of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the famed designer of the glass Apple stores worldwide. The garden has a distinctly formal layout with a central lawn that terminates at a 30-foot mount with a spiral walk up to a viewing area at the top of a conical hill. There is plenty of shade for the hot long summers and a diverse sculpture collection.

Memorial Park Conservancy

A short ride on Lyft took me to the headquarters of the Memorial Park Conservancy. This 1,500-acre park is very popular with runners from throughout the Houston region and is one of the largest centrally located forested parks in the country. An exciting new master plan for the park—catalyzed by a devastating drought in 2011 which accelerated the loss of tens of thousands of trees in the Park—will create much more access and opportunities for Houstonians to enjoy the varied landscapes found throughout the park.

In 2012, the Conservancy in partnership with the City’s Parks Department and the Uptown Development Authority initiated a nationwide search for a landscape architectural firm to develop a new long-range master plan for the park. After a 6-month screening process, the planning team retained Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW) a world-renowned firm whose achievements include the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve (also known as the 10,000-acre Boy Scout Jamboree national site) in West Virginia, the Orongo Station in New Zealand, Hudson Yards in Manhattan, and Centennial Park in Nashville.

The master plan calls for changes to the existing roadways that currently limit access to large parts of the park, linking the surrounding community to the parkland amenities and relocating and improving active recreational amenities. Other important elements of the plan are to reestablish and enhance the landscape based on the native ecology, honor and reveal the park’s cultural history, and better manage stormwater. The new master plan was a collaborative process between the three entities listed and was informed by input from 75 consultants and experts and over 3,000 Houstonians through a public engagement process considered to be a best practice.

This thoughtful approach to planning yielded a 2016 Honor Award in Analysis & Planning for NBW from the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). Thomas Woltz, FASLA, was also recently recognized by the Garden Club of America with one of ten medals awarded nationally, for his visionary Memorial Park Master Plan. The Memorial Park Conservancy has grown quickly since 2013 from 3 employees to 25, and from $300K in annual spending to $15M, and continues to grow. Its President and CEO, Shellye Arnold, joined in 2013 after being recruited away from a career in technology and management consulting to take on the restoration and transformation of Houston’s largest urban park.

Native plantings in Memorial Park / image: Memorial Park Conservancy
Native plantings in Memorial Park / image: Memorial Park Conservancy

Shortly after Houston City Council unanimously approved the master plan in 2015, the Memorial Park Conservancy took on management and operations of 1,100 of the park’s 1,500 acres and—with its partners—launched the first capital project of the master plan, an ambitious 100-acre “park within the park” called Eastern Glades. This premier project embodies the call heard during the public input phase of the master planning process. Inspired by the 1920s master plan by landscape architects Hare & Hare, the Eastern Glades introduces amenities within 100 acres of the park that are not currently accessible due to forest overgrowth, lack of a trail system, and an ill-placed park road. Moving the road is a critical first step to opening the Eastern Glades acreage that is inaccessible today.

In May 2018, the Conservancy announced the largest pledge in the history of the Houston parks system. The Kinder Foundation pledged $70M to accelerate the master plan delivery, catalyzing a $205M total commitment to deliver projects that:

  • foster greater bike and pedestrian connectivity within the park and between the park and other neighborhoods and greenspaces,
  • heal the wound of a six-lane road that has divided the park in half for the past 75 years,
  • restore the park’s damaged ecologies,
  • and improve amenities and visitor experience.

Through this innovative public-private partnership, the Memorial Park Conservancy committed to raise $55M of capital; Uptown Development Authority pledged $50M; and all partners agreed to work together to secure a targeted trails federal grant for $30M. Additionally, a long-range maintenance and operations funding plan was crafted—and funded—for all projects and greenspaces included in this 10-year effort.

Buffalo Bayou Park

Next up was a visit to the Buffalo Bayou (that is what they call rivers in Houston!) Park, developed and operated by another stellar public/private partnership—the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. The devastation of the recent floods was clearly visible; massive erosion and siltation problems now mar this new water’s edge park. Despite this condition, the park’s trails were full of joggers and folks out for an evening stroll or bike ride.

Buffalo Bayou Park’s popular running trails / image: Jonnu Singleton for SWA Landscape Architects

Designed by SWA Landscape Architects, the park is intended to serve as a natural buffer for stormwater and it served that purpose exactly during the recent massive floods.

One highlight was visiting the park’s restaurant, which was hosting a painting class. All of the tables were filled with millennials sipping wine and enjoying passed hors d’oeuvres as they painted their canvases. The room had a terrific vibe as the participants enjoyed the park setting, good food and wine, and each other’s company.

Historic Market Square Park

With Shellye Arnold in Historic Market Square Park / image: Tomás Herrera-Mishler

Shellye Arnold then took me to my final stop on the Houston parks tour, Historic Market Square Park, a delightful historic park in the center of downtown. A modern shade structure and small cafe featuring Greek food is centrally located to the park and a moving memorial landscape to the 911 tragedy are memorable park components. We also enjoyed a “Yellow Rose” IPA at the Carafe, an establishment located in the oldest building in Houston. Lastly, we finished off an amazing day of park experiences at Discovery Green and its restaurant, the Grove. Located in front of the Convention Center, this amazing art park has a beautiful allée of live oak and striking art elements.

The project was sponsored by Houston’s major philanthropic foundations and guided by the Project for Public Spaces with the intent of transforming a concrete wasteland into a dynamic community green space. According to Shellye, downtown was not a very pleasant place to visit not too long ago, but the massive investment in well programmed and maintained public landscapes has helped to rebrand the city, drawing visitors and residents back into downtown to work, live, and enjoy life…even on a Wednesday night in February! Designed by Hargreaves Associates out of San Francisco, the design was led by landscape architect Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA.

Houston seems to have cracked the code on P4s (Public/Private Park Partnerships). I think I will need more time on my next visit to see all that is going on with parks and landscape architecture in this amazingly diverse, resilient, and economically vibrant city!

Tomás Herrera-Mishler, ASLA, is the CEO and President of the Balboa Park Conservancy and co-chair of ASLA’s Parks and Recreation Professional Practice Network (PPN).

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