Massive $220 Million Green Project Aims to Make Houston More Beautiful — and Less Car Dependent
New Bayou Greenways Trails to Link Parks TogetherBY Emma Balter // 02.06.20
Sims Bayou, Bayou Greenway Trails
Halls Bayou is part of the Bayou Greenways system.
Bayou Greenways Day brought out a big crowd.
Halls Bayou is one of those green spaces that give Houston a soul.
There’s so much to love about Houston, but the concrete-laden city isn’t often regarded for its beauty. Several organizations have worked on beautification efforts, big and small, for decades, but 2020 is likely to bring the most exciting among them.
This year, Houston is unveiling Bayou Greenways on a rolling basis. The massive project is creating 150 continuous miles of trails along the bayous that will connect many of the city’s parks — and turn 3,000 acres into public greenspace. It’s a $220 million undertaking spearheaded by Houston Parks Board, the city’s primary private sector partner for capital projects involving parks. They’ve worked with around 250 parks in Houston to date.
“The goal is to make sure that everyone has access to a park or green space when we finish this,” says Beth White, Houston Parks Board president and CEO.
When the project is completed, 1.5 million Houstonians will be within walking distance of a bayou greenway. White says these interconnected parks provide an alternate transportation system to a city that’s always been so car-centric. There are also physical and mental health benefits to spending more time outside, she adds.
Houston Parks Board has been at it for a while — since 1976, to be exact. They do everything from installing butterfly gardens to skateparks. The 50/50 Park Partners is another recent initiative, which works with the city and business community to tend to the 50 most needy parks in Houston. White points out that while Houston has great park conservancies, only a dozen of them exist.
“Our job is to figure out how we address the entire system in a strategic way,” she says.
While some groups focus on parks, others are trying to beautify streetscapes — the roads and the endless highways that snake through Houston.
“The public right of way is the city of Houston’s largest asset, and not a lot of thought gets put into making it more functional and more beautiful,” says Kristi Gollwitzer, Scenic Houston‘s director of projects.
A division of Scenic Texas, the organization’s founding name was Billboards Limited. It was created by a concerned group of Houston citizens in the early 1980s who grew frustrated with the ubiquitous, unsightly billboards peppering the sides of the roads. After years of lobbying, they convinced the city to change its sign code, and the number of billboards has since fallen from 10,000 to 1,300.
Scenic Houston, among many other things, is still concerned with signs. Now they want to change the sign code to address on-premise signs —advertising a business on that site — that have been abandoned. Even if an owner removes messaging after a business closes, the sign structure will often remain.
The city doesn’t have any regulations for an abandoned sign, and therefore, can’t remove it.
“It just sits there and looks terrible,” says Gollwitzer.
Scenic Houston is looking even bigger this year, with the proposed creation of an “airport corridor district” encompassing the freeways that connect the city’s three airports — Bush, Hobby and Ellington — to downtown. Similar to a scenic district, it will establish a regulatory structure for beautification and maintenance.
“What we’re trying to address is the image that people see when they come into the city,” Gollwitzer tells PaperCity. “Believe it or not, there are some recruiters of big firms in town that will fly people in at night so that they don’t see some of the things along the highway.”
Scenic Houston already has a similar project under its belt, albeit on a smaller scale. The Broadway/Hobby Corridor Redevelopment raised $6.2 million and added streetscape enhancements to what the city had initially planned as a bare-bones rebuild of the road. It was completed in January 2017, just in time for the hordes of football fans who descended on Houston for the Super Bowl.
But a one-time beautification drive isn’t enough. There has to be a plan for the future.
“One of the things we look for before we consider doing capital projects is that someone is going to be there long-term to maintain it,” Gollwitzer says.
Keeping Houston Beautiful
The Hobby Management District, which helped with the Broadway initiative, has landscaping maintenance built into its budget every year.
Houston Parks Board also prioritizes this. With the help of a $50 million gift from the Kinder Foundation earmarked for this purpose, the organization is involved in a long-term conservation and maintenance program for Bayou Greenways. This includes replanting natural grass, mowing regularly, clearing litter every day, graffiti abatement and even flood clean-up.
Residents can get involved by donating or volunteering with these groups. Keep Houston Beautiful is also a good one, particularly for litter reduction and recycling. At Scenic Houston, the team even created a streetscape resource guide for Houstonians. It outlines good and bad street design in a way that’s reader-friendly, with plenty of visuals.
“We can’t possibly be involved in every single street rebuild that’s going on in the city, but we can try and give the regular citizen the tools so that they can advocate for the right things in their area,” Gollwitzer says.
If there’s a street project coming to your neighborhood, know what to ask for. In the meantime, these organizations will keep working hard to make Houston a more beautiful, thoughtfully designed city.