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, or 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.

The concrete donor wall blocking the view of the new prairie and wetlands on the south side of Memorial Park. Photo Feb. 17, 2023

And then there’s the concrete stairs. Recycled from the roadway that was pulled up to move Memorial Drive. More repulsive hardness but in the end it’s quicker to go up and down the land bridge using these slippery stairs rather than the more-accessible zig-zagging concrete sidewalk.

Land bridge stairs recycled from bed of moved Memorial Drive. Photo Feb. 17, 2023

Pines Belong There. Next Phase

And yes, despite long-running claims that those tall pines (and other old trees) didn’t belong there, or were planted or dead or something, justifying their expensive and cruel removal, the answer is yes, they did belong and do. Early surveys of the bayou from 1831 through 1848 (p. 42) as well as letters from a soldier at Camp Logan in 1917 describe the pines of what is now Memorial Park.

However, the Conservancy now acknowledges that pines do belong in Memorial Park and they have been planting pines. In addition, the next phase of the Ten-Year Plan visualizes a monoculture of native pines to be planted in orderly rows on the west side of the park, “to recall both the pine-dominated landscape of Camp Logan, and individual soldiers in formation standing at attention.” It’s a terrible idea: nature (and people) need diversity. However, for now, the Memorial Groves “remains a conceptual design and as such has not undergone an evaluative site assessment or design process,” according to the Conservancy’s website.

Research has shown that humans want and need not just big urban parks, but wild ones.

The Irony. The Benefit.

The irony is that this master plan project was supposed to be a “triumph of ‘green’ over ‘gray’, healing the divide cut by Memorial Drive through the middle of this treasured urban wilderness park half a century ago,” according to the Conservancy.

But there are benefits. We note that moving the noisy, brightly-lit playing fields to the north side of the park, out of the woods, and uniting the south side as a nature area is a good idea, although we wish they had spared the trees. The boardwalk through the Eastern Glades, with its educational signage explaining the benefit of dead trees and snags and wetlands is truly wonderful. We hope the Conservancy uses such a light and enlightened approach for the rest of our precious woods on the west and south sides.

And of course, the nearby Uptown real estate developers get the benefit of lots of awe-filled publicity from the land bridges, which is a large part of the point.

Olmsted’s Vision

What would Frederick Law Olmsted think? The great urban park designer thought parks should be a respite from concrete. He had an influence on those who initially shaped Memorial Park long ago.

Through the involvement of planner Arthur Comey and the Hare & Hare partnership, [Memorial Park] was largely shaped by professionals who were trained in the tradition and philosophy of the Olmsted legacy. Olmsted … designed urban spaces where active and passive recreation “were to be enjoyed in enhanced parklands where ‘sequestered and limitless natural scenery’ could have a poetic and tranquilizing influence on an urban populace otherwise surrounded by brick and steel, cement and fumes.” — Memorial Park Cultural Landscape Review, 2015. p. 120 (See also pp. 29-31 for Olmsted’s description of his travel through Houston in the 1850s, included in his book, A Journey through Texas.)