Mayor Appoints New Public Parks Board

An Unusual Reliance on Private Funding for City Parks

Public meeting Thursday, Sept. 7, 9:30 a.m. at United Way, 50 Waugh Drive. Notice and Agenda. Sign up by noon Wednesday to comment.

Sept. 4, 2023

So the Mayor of Houston has finally appointed new members to the public Houston Parks Board, a local government corporation (see also here), in an apparent effort to fill expired and empty positions and comply with the Open Meetings Act.

The board has also announced its first public meeting in almost a year.

However, there may still be a problem.

For one thing, there are still only 18 seats filled out of 20 positions on the public board. And 9 of those seats are occupied by people who are also members of the private parks board foundation, which does not have public meetings. (Another 2 public seats are filled by former members of the private board.) So it seems that if all nine of those public board people met in a closed meeting of the private foundation, that would be a quorum of the public board and a possible violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Yes, it’s confusing. But we’ve been reporting about this issue for several years, advocating for more transparency, accountability, and broader community involvement in the public board. The parks boards, public and private, have done good work (with notable exceptions). The board members, many of them wealthy philanthropists, are dedicated people with a history of public service, including many years of service to the park boards and other worthy causes.

But it is a long-accepted fact that park development favors real estate interests, among the many other benefits to public health and well-being (including reducing flood risk and increasing biodiversity) that green spaces provide.

Heavy Reliance on Private Funding for Parks, Yet Still Below Average Funding Per Capita

Houston has an unusual reliance on private funding for its parks, which may be why our public parks board has been so decidedly private compared to other major cities. It could also be a reason why park development in Houston seems to have favored more affluent areas.

A 2019 study of ten major US cities found that park area in Houston was narrowly spread and skewed towards higher income, higher educated people, a finding reinforced by the city’s 2023 Park Score from the Trust for Public Land. (Note that we are not enthusiastic about the Trust’s use of “living within a ten-minute walk” of a park since in a high-density neighborhood a lot of people could live near a tiny park. Neither do they distinguish between concrete slabs and nature parks.)

Private funding for our city parks is seven times greater than the national average for the top 100 most populous cities, according to the 2023 Trust report. Public funding is two-thirds the national average, with city funding a mere one-third the national average.

Overall the City of Houston spends far below average per capita on parks and recreation.

Graphic showing relative Houston spending sources from Trust for Public Land 2023 Parks Report

The open meetings issue was that so many people on the 20-member public parks board were also on the private parks board foundation. So whenever the foundation board met in private they often had a quorum of the public parks board. Which meant the public board was illegally meeting in private. It’s been happening routinely, even intentionally, for many years.

Houston’s public parks board is supposed to have regular public meetings, with public notice, public agendas and public minutes. Among large cities, some of which even televise their parks board meetings, Houston is exceptionally un-public.

Appointed Months Ago

In fact, Mayor Sylvester Turner nominated the new public board members (and renominated some old members) to the city council back in May. On May 31, to be exact. The law requires that the city council approve (or not approve) the nominations.

We don’t closely follow the city council agendas so we missed the nominations, despite the fact that we had written to the mayor’s office in October and in February inquiring about this issue and in March communicated with the mayor’s director of boards and commissions, Olivia Lee, about it. There was no announcement, no polite heads up. However, back in March Lee did send us the link to check the city council agenda for ourselves every week.

When we did finally notice that new board appointments had been made with terms starting May 31, we called Lee’s office to ask for the resumes of those appointed. Those resumes were sent to the city council members with the agenda notice back in May but left off of the agenda published online.

Lee’s helpful suggestion was that we file a Public Information request. Which we did.

Here is what we received from the City about the newly appointed or reappointed members of the public Houston Parks Board, LGC.

The new members and the old members are all highly successful and dedicated people. They include 8 people who are either wealthy philanthropists and/or work in the nonprofit industry, including in economic development, one of them an environmental scientist active in conservation and research; 4 commercial or public finance lawyers, a government lobbyist and 3 former or active public officials, an academic (women’s studies), and 2 in construction or real estate investment and development.

Some have been on the board for nearly a decade or more.

Here is the public board’s financial statement from 2022.


That Truck in the Bayou

A truck has been stuck in Buffalo Bayou for nine months. Here’s why.

The white Dodge has been lodged in the bayou since November.

The truck has been stuck in Buffalo Bayou since it mysteriously plunged into the water in late November 2022. A body was later found downstream. Image from Google Earth showing truck south of Memorial Park.

By Brittanie Shey, Houston Chronicle, Aug. 30, 2023

A white Dodge pickup truck has been stuck in the section of Buffalo Bayou that runs through Memorial Park for nine months, and nobody knows when it will be removed.


But Susan Chadwick, president and executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, said it’s the responsibility of Harris County Flood Control to remove any obstacles within waterways. Chadwick’s organization is dedicated to preserving the waterway, the only completely unpaved bayou in the city. She expressed concern that the truck was still in the water and wondered what pollutants might be leaking into the bayou, or what might happen if a big flood dislodges the vehicle and sends it downstream, toward the bridges that cross the bayou at Allen Parkway.

Jeremy Phillips, director of asset management for Harris County Flood Control, said he shares Chadwick’s concerns and confirmed that Flood Control has taken over removal of the truck. Flood Control has been working for a few weeks to get access to the bayou from private property holders, which include the Houston Parks Department and CenterPoint Energy. Flood Control hopes to use a tow truck and the Centerpoint power easement that intersects with the bayou, which is several hundred feet upstream of where the Dodge truck is located.

Phillips said removal of the truck is a top priority, and that Chadwick’s calls helped reignite Flood Control’s efforts to coordinate removal with the city. He expects access to the property to be approved within the next few weeks. Then it’ll only be a matter of days before the truck is pulled out.

Phillips said they’re taking the easement route in an effort to preserve as much parkland as possible. He also said there will be crews on-site during removal to constantly monitor whether chemicals from the truck are leaking into the water or parts of the truck become dislodged from the body.

Read the rest of this report in the Houston Chronicle.

Hot Summer on the Bayou

July 19, 2023

The days have been long and impossibly hot. Getting shorter now but not cooler. The humid woods even in the early morning were already well above 80 degrees. Gangs of crows were complaining about it, circling high above the treetops.

Buffalo Bayou was low flow, around 110 cubic feet per second, pretty much base flow. Outcroppings of the broken sandstone channel bottom were visible from the high, sloping bank in Houston’s Memorial Park where we were standing. Turtles paddled around. A smallish alligator gar made a splash.

We were there to take our summer photo of that Bend in the River, part of our eight-years-long documentation of the same spot throughout the seasons.

A hot summer morning on the bend in the bayou. Photo taken looking downstream July 15, 2023, by SC.

Alas, we have sad news: the tall, handsome sycamore that’s been standing strong on the south bank upstream of the bend is down, lying across the stream. A couple of brave hikers we encountered said it’s been down for a while, likely felled during the powerful storm earlier in June, likely destabilized by the extreme bank work, involving removal of vegetation and bulldozing of the nearby bank, undertaken by the River Oaks Country Club in 2019.

Last Tango

But we have even sadder news: tall, handsome Frank X. Tolbert 2 is down too. The well-known Texas artist departed the scene last Thursday afternoon at the Houston Heights home he shared with his beloved wife, artist Ann Stautberg. The night heron which is Save Buffalo Bayou’s logo, visible on our Facebook page as well as on our t-shirts, was created by our good friend Frank as part of his “Texas Bird Project.” So long, X.

Frank Tolbert’s “Night Heron”

Full view of the bend. Broken sandstone channel bottom visible.
Checking out the nearby creek, the main tributary flowing from the center of the park under Memorial Drive, as the waters join the bayou.


In Praise of Open Ditches (Opinion)

By Susan Chadwick, Houston Chronicle Outlook, May 27, 2023

For several years in Houston, an unfortunate controversy has swirled around open drainage ditches.

The underlying idea is that roadside drainage ditches don’t work — or at least, not as well as concrete street curbs that send water through metal drains and into buried concrete pipes. Many people think that earthen ditches are backwards — too rural, rudimentary, unfinished. Concrete is surely more engineered, more advanced! 

But this is wrong. Except in dense urban areas completely covered in concrete or other impermeable surfaces, earthen stormwater ditches mitigate flooding better and more cheaply than concrete street curbs and buried pipes.

First of all, they have much greater capacity. Open ditches can hold more than ten times as much stormwater as buried pipes. A typical 3.5-foot-deep roadside ditch 1,000 feet long holds 325,900 gallons of stormwater, according to a representative of the City of Houston Department of Public Works. By comparison, 1,000 linear feet of 24-inch diameter pipe holds only 23,488 gallons

Read the rest of this editorial in the Houston Chronicle.

An open ditch on East 18th and Harvard Streets in the Heights is planted with canna lillies and other water loving plants. Photo by Sharon Steinmann, Chronicle Staff Photographer

In Praise of Open Ditches

More Effective, Cheaper, Easier to Maintain, Better for the Environment than Buried Stormwater Pipes

May 22, 2023

For several years a controversy over open drainage ditches has been swirling around the city of Houston. We’ve been scraping behind the scenes, trying to clear up some of the misunderstanding. But the flow of misinformation hardly slows.

The basic misunderstanding is that roadside drainage ditches — grass-lined, maybe filled with lilies, cattails, frogs, fishes, crawdads — don’t work as well as concrete curbs on the street funneling stormwater through metal drains and into buried concrete pipes.

Nope. Wrong. Except in dense urban areas completely covered in impermeable surface, earthen stormwater ditches work much better than concrete street curbs and buried pipes, according to our expert sources.

A drainage ditch next to the Picnic Loop in Houston’s Memorial Park, which was originally constructed with open roadside ditches. In recent years concrete curbs were added in some areas. Photo June 20, 2022

An Age-Old Prejudice

It’s an age-old prejudice. People look at earthen ditches and think they are backwards. Too rural, rudimentary, unfinished. Concrete is surely more modern, more advanced! (Other people look at flowering roadside ditches and think: how lovely. They look at a brutal concrete curb and sense that the earth is being smothered.)

Developers discovered this long ago. Private developers are responsible for installing drainage systems in new residential areas, systems which are then turned over to the city for maintenance. Over time developers found that while some people appreciated the natural aesthetic and function of vegetated open ditches, home buyers often viewed ditches with distaste, as noted in a comparative study of The Woodlands. (p. 2) So, despite being more expensive and less effective, developers switched to concrete curbs and buried pipes solely in order to sell more homes. It had nothing to do with function. It was purely aesthetic.

How Much More Effective, More Beneficial? Ten Times More

Open ditches can hold more than ten times as much stormwater as buried pipes, among other important benefits. A typical 3.5-foot-deep roadside ditch 1,000 feet long holds 325,900 gallons of stormwater, according to the City of Houston Department of Public Works. By comparison 1,000 linear feet of 24-inch diameter pipe holds only 23,488 gallons.

Note, however, that the City is not fond of all that pretty greenery inside the ditch, even if it helps filter trash and nasty stuff from the water.

A mowed and scraped drainage ditch in Houston’s Heights neighborhood. Photo May 7, 2021

People assume that open ditches foster mosquitoes. But in fact mosquitos are more likely to breed in pipes and in catch basins under storm drains. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mosquitoes breed in shallow water – less than 3 feet – that has been standing for at least 7 days. The agency actually recommends replacing curbs and gutters with open ditches.

Concrete Increases Flooding

The reason is that open ditches have more co-benefits than storm sewers and culverts, as noted in a recent watershed study by the US Army Corps of Engineers. (p. 14) Ditches help cleanse polluted stormwater runoff, allow the earth to soak up rain, and are cheaper and easier to install and maintain. (p. 22) Curbs and gutters, on the other hand, actually increase flooding by collecting more water faster, eventually overwhelming our built and natural drainage systems (creeks and bayous), according to the National Research Council. (p. 183) And pipes settle and crack and need to be replaced. Ditches don’t.

Note that Houston property owners actually get a modest drainage fee reduction for having an open ditch, which is considered pervious surface, which helps reduce runoff and flooding.

Maintenance. Another Misunderstanding

No, property owners do not have to maintain the ditches in front of their property. Yes, they are responsible for picking trash or other debris out of the ditch that might block the flow of water in front of their house. This is equally true in lower-income neighborhoods and well-to-do neighborhoods, like Hunters Creek Village in west Houston (actually a separate municipality). (p. 263)

But the Ditch Maintenance Section of Houston Public Works is responsible for de-silting and re-grading ditches, as well as flushing culverts under driveways and streets within the city.

And yes, there are wealthy, older neighborhoods all over the city with open ditches: Memorial, Briar Oaks, historic Avondale and Courtland Place in the Montrose area, just to name a few, not to mention in the Heights, Rice Military, as well as in dense, shadeless Gulfton and other parts of southwest Houston; Sunnyside to the southeast, Scenic Woods to the northeast, and much more. Friendswood and the Woodlands, too. Usually it’s a mix of open ditches and buried pipes, perhaps a compromise, perhaps the result of ditches getting (illegally) covered over.

Problems: Dumping, Size, Complaints

The most frequently cited problem with open ditches, particularly in front of empty or sparsely inhabited areas, is illegal dumping of heavy trash and construction debris that blocks the flow during storms. The City of Houston provides facilities for residents to dispose of tires, appliances, heavy trash, tree waste, and more for free, but contractors and commercial businesses are prohibited. Privately operated landfills charge a fee. (See info here.) So likely its cheaper, quicker, and easier for some to just dump stuff where nobody’s looking.

Read the rest of this post.

Lost in the Woods

The Wonders of Houston’s Great Memorial Park

May 17, 2023

We’ve been spending some time recently exploring the enchanting bayou woods of Houston’s magnificent Memorial Park. Some of these woods were familiar: the marked trails, for instance, part of the Bayou Wilds, open to both hikers and bikers, on the west side of the park south of Memorial Drive.

But we hadn’t been on the little-known trails in the far west of the park north of Memorial Drive and between Memorial and Woodway since riding horses through there as a teenager. And there are still horse riders through there. And bike-riders.

Walking the gentle trails north of Memorial Drive on the far west side of Memorial Park. Photo SC, March 13, 2023.

Oddly, we managed to get lost on the marked trails, the purple, blue, red, yellow, orange, and aqua trails of the Bayou Wilds west of the Picnic Loop on the south side of Memorial Drive. The signage can be confusing and even wrong, confirmed a helmeted, middle-aged man on a mountain bike who was studying the map posted on a trail. In fact, we encountered numerous people puzzling over the posted maps and color-coded posts, which, though they give a helpful coded location in event of a 911 emergency, sometimes seemed to point in two directions at once. Some public woods elsewhere have simple, easy-to-read directional signs with arrows and names and distances.

Purple or blue trail?

But it was a lovely walk through the shady, tangled woods, and not just because of the trees. We encountered numerous couples holding hands, people exploring together and having a romantic stroll through wild nature, individuals who nodded and smiled, families with happy young children, all reflecting the wondrous diversity of Houstonians.

Couple exploring creek in the bayou woods of Memorial Park. Photo by SC, March 4, 2023

But we did get lost, not necessarily a bad thing unless you’re on a time schedule. We ended up far to the east (downstream) of where we planned to be, emerging from the woods near the eastern end of the Picnic Loop. Traipsing across the mushy grass in the middle of the picnic area, we couldn’t help but remark that these were actually wetlands—mowed for some reason. It seemed contradictory, given the amount of money recently spent to create a large wetland prairie pond to the west where the playing fields had been. Seems like letting these wetlands grow in the middle of a large grassy area would be beneficial. And attractive.

Mowed wetland in the center of the Picnic Loop of Memorial Park. Photo SC March 4, 2023

Magically Lost Again

On another occasion we got delightfully lost entering the woods on a well-worn footpath, on a whim, having already lost a sense of direction, thinking we were somewhere else. (Okay. Getting old and distracted, too.) Actually it was Easter Sunday, and the Picnic Loop area was jammed with people grilling, playing volleyball, playing music, tossing colored Easter eggs; massive, oversized trucks parked everywhere.

Following an informal footpath into the woods (obviously other nature-loving humans were doing this too, treading exploratory paths all over the park as well), we ended up on the main tributary creek that flows from the center of the park, stepping down and across the sandy banks as we did as a child growing up on the mysterious bayou. Then clambering up the bank and walking back on the lengthy, wonderful, winding Green Trail. The parked car was somewhere.

The lovely creek flowing through the center of Memorial Park and into Buffalo Bayou. Photo SC April 9, 2023

We hope these magical woods survive the landscaping projects of the park’s Master Plan, though the future seems to be removing a lot of trees (and undergrowth) and taking out the popular picnic area. (p. 78) Some of that may be good. The picnic areas will be disbursed throughout the park. We hope it’s not turning a truly rare wild area in an urban setting into a more managed experience.

Far West Trails

The little-known far west trails seem to be mostly used by mountain bikers, though the enchanting paths north of Memorial are mostly flat and easily walkable. They are accessible from the sidewalk along the northern edge of Memorial Drive. Go to the Living Bridge near the railroad tracks and the Running Center at the western side of the park, take the stairs on the north side of Memorial Drive (or the roadside sidewalk if you don’t do stairs), and walk until you see an empty wooden sign on the right. The path to the right leads into what are known as the Northwest Trails, which are mostly flat, filled with tall Loblolly Pines, wild berries and flowers. The path to the left leads down into the creek bed which takes you through a drainage culvert and then another which leads you into the rugged, hilly trails known as the Triangle between Memorial Drive and Woodway. These trails are also accessible through a large drainage culvert in the Arboretum.

Note that these are some of the large culverts used by wildlife to cross under Memorial and Woodway, as our late founding president Frank Smith repeatedly argued to anyone who would listen.

Read the rest of this post.

Culvert in the Arboretum leading north under Woodway Drive to the wooded trails known as the Triangle in western Memorial Park.

Late Spring on the Bayou

May 9, 2023

We were a little late for our spring photo of that bend in the bayou. But we had waited for Big Jim, our devoted photographer, to get back to town so he could take the latest in our series documenting the same bend throughout the seasons. We’ve been doing this since the summer of 2014.

It was a beautiful sunny morning, though at first glance the river and woods looked a little dull, sort of empty and flat. Maybe because they were slowly waking up after a long drought, big freeze, and violent storms. The flow in the river was fairly high though, around 1000 cubic feet per second. There had been a thunderstorm earlier in the night.

That bend in the bayou in late spring. Taken looking downstream from the same high bank in Memorial Park by Jim Olive on April 21, 2023.

But Jim’s photos revealed the beauty of the scene. And they brought to mind how very bright green this city spring has seemed. Spring green is indeed a color, a very vivid one. And according to scientists, the reason is that young leaves are still developing their chlorophyll, their green pigment. They’re also thinner.

The wet, sandy path leading in and out of the forbidden woods was still blocked with wire fencing and chopped tree trunks by the Memorial Park Conservancy. But it was obvious that many people were ignoring that. As we made our way out, we encountered another couple in the parking lot getting ready for a walk. They offered advice on the best place to step over the obstacles.

Looking upstream from that high bank in the woods of Memorial Park. Photo by Jim Olive, April 21, 2023.


Remodeling Nature’s Landscape

What’s Happening to the Banks in Buffalo Bayou Park

Will It Last? Removing Invasives is a Good Thing

April 20, 2023

It looked terrible. Dead stalks sticking out of the ground, banks denuded and sprayed with blue-green herbicide.

People have been wondering what’s been happening in Houston’s beloved Buffalo Bayou Park between Sabine and Shepherd streets.

It’s the work of the Harris County Flood Control District and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the public nonprofit which manages the 160-acre city-owned park along with Flood Control. The good news is that a large part of what they have been doing is removing invasive species, like Johnson grass and other noxious, domineering stuff that floats down the river from yards and fields. They’ve been “stabilizing” the bank with biodegradable coir logs and in the last few weeks spraying native seed mix on the bare banks.

South bank of Buffalo Bayou downstream of the Dunlavy in Buffalo Bayou Park, April 10, 2023.

It’s all part of a $960,000 Harris County plan, in the works since 2019, called the “Buffalo Bayou Park Revegetation and Biostabilization Project.” The goal is to revegetate the banks of Buffalo Bayou from Shepherd Drive to Sabine Street and provide enhanced natural infrastructure to Buffalo Bayou Park, particularly in those areas scraped and bulldozed by Flood Control in 2019-20.

For that $10 million federally-funded “repair” project, Flood Control removed native vegetation and lined sections of the banks with concrete rubble, known as riprap, even though the design engineer, Jones Carter (now known as Quiddity), apparently rejected riprap, (p. 4). Even Flood Control in the past has rejected riprap, (p. 6) as well as the US Army Corps of Engineers (p. 4), and numerous other federal agencies. For more explanation of why riprap damages the stream, the environment, can even contribute to bank failure and increase flooding, see page 7.

Of course, the river has its own ancient and purposeful landscaping plan: first colonizing and stabilizing plants, working in succession, turning sand into soil, preparing the way for drifting willows and other native trees. But humans have other landscaping ideas. We’ll see how long those human plans last.

The Planting Project

We visited the project with Gabriela Sosa, since 2021 the conservation manager for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. Dr. Sosa grew up in Brownsville, on the Texas coast, where she was inspired to pursue a career in ecology by the Sabal Palm Sanctuary. “I didn’t know ecology could be a career,” she said.

Her vision for the park is a “wildlife corridor” for birds and other creatures, including humans. A “greenspace in the middle of downtown.”

“Most people don’t get to see nature,” she said, as we toured the project in a golfcart, getting out to inspect elderberry bushes, Maximilian sunflowers, lantana, sorrel, late boneset, and more.

Dr. Gabriela Sosa loving elderberry in Buffalo Bayou Park. March 16, 2023

She was enthusiastic about keeping the elderberry, as we inspected the bush along the Greentree Nature Area on the north bank. “Previously we would have mowed the elderberry. But it’s great habitat for birds. We’re keeping it.”

In addition to killing off or removing invasive species like Johnson grass, elephant ear, castor bean, and Chinaberry trees, the project has removed swathes of native plants like ragweed, goldenrod, other types of sunflowers and more. Her objection was that those plants take over and dominate, shading out other plants. The goal is more diversity. And more deep-rooted plants, she said, pointing to the roots of an uprooted sunflower. Workers have been carefully picking out ragweed and sunflowers on the lush banks of the bayou. In other areas, however, the banks have been sprayed with an “aquatic-label” herbicide, meaning it’s been approved for use near streams. Technically, according to Flood Control, it’s Roundup Custom for Aquatic and Terrestrial Use, which is glyphosate, a controversial herbicide banned in some countries, cities and states.

Read the rest of this post.

A Great Man is Gone

April 7, 2023

(Updated with link to the obituary in the Houston Chronicle.)

Frank Chesley Smith Jr. has croaked.

Well, he joked that if there had to be an obituary, that’s what it should say.

In fact, Frank died peacefully at his Houston home Thursday, April 6, after a long life of service dedicated to nature and public access to it, to architecture and engineering, to flying, sailing, and driving with the top down. He was 101. And here’s the lovely obituary that was published in the Houston Chronicle.

Known to family and friends as Paco, Frank was the founding board president of Save Buffalo Bayou and our guiding light. He remained alert and engaged until the very last.

Read this 2016 profile of the remarkable and irreplaceable Frank Smith:

Frank Smith, Conservationist: A Lifetime of Achievement and Service, Flying, Sailing, Driving with the Top Down

Frank Smith, photographed on Buffalo Bayou by Jim Olive, May 5, 2016

A Celebration of Concrete

Or How to Create Ill Will

March 3, 2023

For those who don’t get enough experience of concrete in the city of Houston, there is now plenty more concrete for you to enjoy in Memorial Park.

Normally one would go to a park to escape the hardness of the built city. We are fortunate in Houston to have a major urban park, almost 100 years old, dedicated to the experience of nature – a soft path underfoot, tall trees swaying gently in the breeze, a glimpse of a rabbit or raccoon, the call of a hawk, the smell of soil, mushrooms and pine; the rhythm of the bayou flowing past. Conservationists have worked for years to try to keep it natural.

But in recent years the private conservancy running Memorial Park on the banks of Buffalo Bayou has decided to turn our beautiful park into a constructed experience. This is a problem with park conservancies: in order to raise money they have to do projects, and in order to raise more money they have to do more projects. It’s never enough to let nature be.

And apparently they have decided that in order to raise money they have to throw donors names in big letters in front of it all. Most recently, in addition to the massive amount of concrete poured to construct not one but two sets of tunnels over Memorial Drive, the conservancy has erected hulking grey concrete walls on both sides of the tunnels announcing who is responsible: Kinder. It’s the Kinder Land Bridge.

Well, we’re not sure that everyone is going to be thanking the Kinders for this, although they have been very generous (see also here) with their pipeline fortune throughout the city.

Sunrise over one of the two Kinder Land bridges in Memorial Park, Feb. 17, 2023

One Land Bridge Wasn’t Enough

Land bridges for wildlife over (better under) major highways is a good idea. But the idea that a land bridge over Memorial Drive was for the animals (including humans) has always been a farce, as our founding president Frank Smith has long argued. Wildlife – coyotes, bobcat, possum — have always found safe passage through the large drainage culverts passing under Memorial and Woodway. And as we have previously pointed out, the Conservancy has thoughtfully included a drainage culvert designed for wildlife passage underneath the land bridges, which officially opened Feb. 11. Based on reports from neighborhood residents, more wildlife likely died fleeing destruction of their habitat than before construction of the land bridges and prairie.

In addition, for humans who can’t navigate the crosswalks and stoplights to walk across six-lane Memorial Drive and back, there is a lovely, modest pedestrian bridge, known as the Living Bridge, a remnant of an earlier, more enlightened master plan from 2004 connecting the north and south sides of the park near the Running Center. Not that most people often have reason to do that. Generally you are either jogging or walking the Seymour Lieberman trail around the expanded golf course on the north side or strolling, biking, running (or getting lost) with your family and friends through the lovely bayou woods on the south side. (Yes, the Lieberman trail is much improved by routing it through woods and over streams instead of along Memorial Drive.)

But okay, so they really wanted a bridge over Memorial Drive: a high point over our low, flat prairie (and over the trees) from which Houstonians could view the sunset and sunrise and the surrounding vista. That’s cool. But wouldn’t one bridge, one set of tunnels have been enough? asks the amazing Mr. Smith, who at 101 years is still engaged, still concerned about the park that he promised Ima Hogg he would always protect. Did we really have to spend $70 million to build two massive bridges?

Top left: concrete walls surrounding the Kinder Land bridges. Top right: on top of one of the bridges. Bottom: Side view looking north of one set of tunnels. Photos Feb. 17, 2023

More Parks Needed

Do we not need other parks, many more green spaces? The Conservancy often touts the fact that many people drive a long way for the experience of Memorial Park. But we have long argued that maybe they do that because there are few other opportunities. (They certainly don’t do it to look at concrete walls.) Houston ranks 70th out of the nation’s most populous 100 cities in terms of parkland, investment, and access to parks, according to the 2022 ranking from the Trust for Public Land. Although note once again that this calculation is skewed by the vast acreage of parkland included within Barker and Addicks reservoirs in far west Houston, including Cullen Park, at over 9,000 acres one of the largest parks in the country.

The original 1,503 acres that were sold at cost in 1923 by the Hogg Brothers and partners to the City of Houston were intended as “an ideal wooded park” for “the common good.” Though the park is frequently touted as nearly twice the size of New York City’s Central Park, the comparison skips over the fact that more than 600 acres of Houston’s park is devoted to a (recently expanded) golf course, driving range, and related buildings, for which numerous magnificent pines and oaks were cut down. Not to mention the significant amount of acreage used by maintenance, sheds and green houses, or just simply ignored and abused.

But Wait! There’s A Concrete Prairie Wall Too. And Stairs

But wait! There’s more. Wander on over to the new prairie on the south side of Memorial and you can gaze upon another massive grey concrete wall with the names of more donors inscribed in giant letters. We won’t embarrass these generous people by naming them. It’s not their fault that this ugly wall rudely interrupts your view of the new green prairie and wetlands they helped to fund.

Read the rest of this post.

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