Houston Parks Board Falls Below State, National Standards
Confusion Over Public And Private Roles
June 14, 2020
The Houston Parks Board is confusing even to knowledgeable people. That’s because there are two parks boards: a public board and a private board. But the two boards, public and private, are the same people. And the problem is these people operate like a private board, making decisions in private.
As members of the public parks board, appointed by the mayor, they are required by law to have public meetings.
A parks board—our parks board—is supposed to be accountable to the general public, making decisions in a transparent way, on behalf of the community. Otherwise, it can appear that the developers, real estate investors, bankers, business lawyers, etc. who are on the board (in Houston and elsewhere) are making decisions that lean more towards profit than the health of the people.
Other Major Cities: Two Separate Parks Organizations, Public Meetings, Agenda, Minutes
Virtually every other major city in the country has two separate parks organizations: a public board and a supporting private foundation, with different sets of people.
And virtually every other major city, including every large city in Texas other than Houston, has a public parks board that announces its meetings and posts its agendas and minutes on its online website. (See Austin and Dallas and San Antonio and Galveston.) Some cities, like Minneapolis, even televise their meetings online.
Houston’s public parks board is a local government corporation required by law to hold open meetings. Its twenty members are appointed by the mayor and approved by city council. But our parks board makes no public announcements about meetings. Our public board has no website, no staff. By contrast, the private parks board, a private foundation, has a website and a staff of thirty people, including a chief executive officer who is paid almost as much (p. 18) if not more than the mayor. The 34 members of the foundation board include the 20 members of the public parks board.
We’ve been told, after nearly three weeks of asking, that the parks board, public and private, meets with itself briefly somewhere twice a year.
How to Fix This and Why We Should
To fix this unusual situation, the mayor needs to appoint new people to the public board. Four of the twenty positions are open, their terms having expired in January 2020. The mayor should appoint people interested in public accountability and the need for green space and nature in our city, especially during a pandemic. Fill the board with people who, in a time of declining budgets and increased demand, can guide us to low-cost, low maintenance rewilding of public spaces.
These are the kind of people who serve on parks boards all over the country. They are public officials, community activists, ecologists, even environmentalists. The kind of people interested in the social and health benefits of natural spaces in the city.
Green spaces and economic development are not mutually exclusive. It has long been understood that better public parks deliver material benefits: increased property value and investment opportunities.
Economic development is largely the purpose of Bayou Greenways 2020, the signature project of the private foundation, a project paid for with $100 million in public bond funds (p. 2) plus $120 million in private donations. City taxpayers also contribute over $6 million annually for ongoing maintenance of the Greenways. (p. 9)
What Difference It Makes
Why does it matter if our parks board is not truly public?
Our parks are public parks, and the people should know what’s being done in their name, for their benefit. But specifically, the parks board foundation recently and surprisingly announced that they were cutting down trees and razing the banks of Buffalo Bayou, a valuable and beneficial natural resource that belongs to the people. (See also this update.)
This was being done in preparation for building an artificial bank out into the channel and installing concrete riprap and metal walls to hold it up. The project is described as “restoring” the bank, filling in land lost to Harvey, although the bayou was already naturally doing that: collecting sediment, rebuilding, regrowing. The location is a narrow strip of land behind two apartment complexes on Memorial Drive, purchased by the foundation and valued at $1.15 million. The foundation is funding the “repair” project with $2.6 million in private funds, according to CEO Beth White. Their plan is to make room for some future concrete sidewalk along the bayou between Shepherd Drive and Memorial Park, part of Bayou Greenways.
Until this project, most of the 100-plus miles of 10-foot wide concrete hike-and-bike trails installed by the parks board foundation have been along channelized bayous, long ago stripped of nature, treeless, mowed, concrete ditches.
Why It’s a Bad Idea
If there had been some public discussion about this, we and many others would have explained why scraping and bulldozing the bank was a horrible idea, not just ugly but damaging to the beneficial functions of the stream (like cleansing polluted water), likely to cause future flooding and erosion problems, and in violation of the City’s Floodplain Management (p. 6) and Resiliency plans (p. 151) and goal of preserving and creating as much natural and green space as possible.
It also threatens to increase local premiums for flood insurance under the National Flood Insurance Program. The federal program gives discounts to communities “for protecting natural floodplain functions, thereby protecting or restoring wildlife habitat, some of which may be home to threatened and endangered species.”
This remarkable stretch of urban river is home to families of alligator snapping turtles, a threatened species in Texas; beaver, herons, hawks, otters, giant scaly fish (yes, they are alligator gar), dragonflies, and many more beneficial creatures that have been here much longer than we have. They can’t nest in metal and concrete. The loss of biodiversity, particularly in cities, is a global threat to our health and future.
So the solution is simple. In order to bring Houston up to state and national standards, the mayor should appoint new people to the public parks board.
That way we can have transparency, accountability, and a balance of interests in decisions about our public parks, green spaces, and natural areas.