Carving Out New Urban Oases

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 2013

Much of Houston was built on marshland, and the hundreds of miles of natural streams and man-made ditches that drain the area were converted in many places to simple storm channels, lined with concrete and pared of trees and vegetation. Local citizens began to realize that these waterways could serve multiple purposes as recreation areas, non-motorized travel corridors, and beautifiers of the city, without impairing their role in watershed management.

The Houston Parks Board, a private nonprofit that has been improving local green space since 1976, developed an ambitious plan to turn 1,500 acres of utilitarian drainage channels into a citywide necklace of parks and trails. Nine different bayous touching scores of neighborhoods would be cleaned, landscaped, planted, and linked together via 150 miles of new or improved trails. The board would take responsibility for raising $115 million of donated private money, to be matched with $100 million from the city of Houston, and after construction is complete the nonprofit will manage a total of 4,000 acres of new and existing bayou parklands. This will give Houston the largest system of public off-street paths in the nation, and it is estimated that six out of every ten city residents will live within a mile and a half of a bayou park or trail.

Launching this dramatic project was a $50 million gift from local residents Rich and Nancy Kinder—one of the largest voluntary offerings ever for public greenspace in the U.S. Other givers include the Houston Endowment, the Wortham, Fondren, and Brown foundations, and many individual donors. The Kinders had previous experience at underwriting public parks with their donations, (see our 2010 entry describing their revival of Buffalo Bayou Park) and back in 2004 the Kinders provided $10 million to another nonprofit conservancy to create a brand-new permanent green space and public park near their city’s convention center. The new Discovery Green was carved out of 12 underused acres in the middle of downtown. Nancy Kinder served as founding chairwoman of the organization that created and now privately manages the intensively used park—which hosts 400 concerts, festivals, exercise classes, child play groups, pet gatherings, and other events every year, attracting more than a million people.

This and other philanthropic ventures in a number of cities that created popular new parks out of vacant lots, forlorn waterways, abandoned subway trestles, and other overlooked areas have inspired a new wave of donors to build great urban parks using similar private conservancy models. In 2012, for instance, a park opened in Dallas on more than five acres of land created “out of thin air” by decking over a recessed expressway that cuts through the arts district. As in other cases, this project was catalyzed by donor funds, created and managed by a private nonprofit, and enjoyed immediate popularity and heavy use.

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