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Houston's New Buffalo Bayou Park Reimagines Urban Waterfront

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In 1972, when boaters raced around the Buffalo Bayou, which threads through the center of Houston, they called their annual competition the "Reeking Regatta," a commentary on the polluted state of the waterway. Boaters from that era would be surprised to see the new face of the waterway today. Part of a larger movement to revitalize the city core and clean up the bayou, the new Buffalo Bayou Park opened last month. A series of disconnected, occasionally overgrown green spaces has been reconnected and redesigned as a centerpiece urban park by locally-based SWA Group. The $58 million project connects 160 acres that border a 2.3-mile stretch of the bayou, providing a new link between two important city thoroughfares, Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway. As the name of the park implies, the sunken, snaking waterway isn't the easiest place to build.

"Putting a park in a floodway isn't typical, says Scott McCready, a landscape architect and principal of SWA.

When SWA was approached to redesign the parks on the bayou, they were also being asked to revisit a landscape that was vital to the history of the region. The first settlers who scoped out what would later become Houston initially traveled up the bayou, a 53-mile waterway leading back to the gulf (Kevin Shanley, a planner and principal at SWA, describes the network of rivers and bayous as veins of a leaf running from the city to Galveston Bay). The idea of turning this channel into parkland has been discussed for at least a century. In 1910, landscape architect Arthur Comey proposed a grand city park on its banks, and a 1914 plan by George Kessler, which ran out of funds due to WWI, envisioned pavilions and golf links. While the bayou did become parkland eventually, over the decades, frequent flooding, as well as urban development, suburbanization, and interventions by the Army Corp of Engineers (which straightened bends in the bayou in the '50s to help facilitate the flow of water out of downtown) have all curtailed efforts to make a more grand public space. Dams, concrete and other manmade structures put a straitjacket on the river, says Shanley, but the channelization didn't prevent flooding.

A movement to rework this centrally located waterway, led in part by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, founded in 1986, took a big step forward in 2010, when a $30 million grant from the Kinder Foundation helped fund the redesign. Curbed spoke with McCready and Shanley about the project and the concepts that informed the design, which didn't wipe the slate clean as much as reshape the landscape.

Open Up the Bayou
This stretch of parks previously had few entrances and exits, decreasing its usefulness as a transit path. A new series of entryways, a pair of pedestrian bridges, and recently completed event and entertainment spaces, such as the Johnny Steele Dog Park, Lost Lake and The Dunlavy event space, make the riverfront more open and easier to navigate. New lighting and a series of side trails and footpaths opened up the area and expanded usability.

"It's a very linear park," says McCready. "This project was focused more on gathering spaces, architecture and artwork – more of a hybrid. Think Discovery Green (a park in central Houston) put it in a bayou."

McCready sees the entire stretch of green space as having its own network effect, increasing and encouraging density and development around the park as well as more traffic in the urban core.

"Will people feel safe walking on the bayou at 10 at night?" says Shanley. "In that respect, I think we've been successful."

Don't Fight the Flooding
While the Texas of popular imagination may be a parched landscape, Houston actually gets more rain every year than some areas of the Pacific Northwest. It just comes in massive downpours that flood the city, as well as push silt onto existing waterfront trail systems. SWA's solution was to design a landscape that channels excess water from higher ground and is better equipped to bounce back after a major storm. The team used fluvial geomorphology (the study of riverbanks and flooding patterns) to carve into the land and improve the flow of runoff, elevate some of the performance spaces and stages and even reworking the contours of the river, adding additional turns and curves. Benches were also positioned and manufactured to be easier to clean off after flooding; maintenance crews can just push off the silt that covers them after big storms. Frequently used trails were set higher up the banks, too. The handrails and structures introduced to the new park, made from galvanized steel, Corten and concrete, offer more neutral colors and are tough enough to withstand flooding events. A recent test from post-Patricia rainfall found the park responding well to the overflow.

Utilize Natural Processes and Plants
To help the bayou fulfill its natural role as a sponge for water, native plants were added to stabilize and soak up water, including cypresses on the higher banks and cottonwoods and sycamores on the lower sections. Turf was swapped out in favor of natural grasses, helping recreate the natural state of the landscape.

"Think of the bayou as a cross section from the water's edge to the street," says McCready. Plantings were designed to work with that progression, with plants at the bottom accustomed to being underwater. He points to a portion of the project called GreenTree that remained untouched and in its natural state. Houstonians can stroll through it to get a sense of what the area was like before it was developed. "It gets pretty primeval," he says.

· Shaping The Blob That Ate East Texas: Houston's New Adventure in Urban Planning [Curbed]
· Design Heat Maps: 12 Essential Stops in Surprising Houston [Curbed]
· How The Drought Will Reshape California Landscape Architecture [Curbed]