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Buffalo Bayou Park and designing a resilient future for Houston

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One of Houston’s newest city parks hints at how waterways can become part of a more resilient future

Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston
Max Burkhalter

As Hurricane Harvey continues to impact the Houston area, many of the most poignant and striking images being shared on social media feature before-and-after scenes of the flooding, and just how much of downtown Houston and the surrounding floodplain have been inundated.

One of the many landmarks being used as a yardstick for the storm’s power is Buffalo Bayou, a recently opened urban park and greenspace that connects the 160 acres of parkland bordering a 2.3-mile stretch of the bayou, which connects the city with the Gulf.

Currently overflowing with water, the park shows the challenges of resilient design within the Houston metro area, a floodplain that’s seen its population and development rapidly expand over the last decade. To get a better understanding of the challenge of resilient design in Houston, Curbed spoke with one of the landscape architects behind the park, James Vick of SWA, as well as other area experts.

Bayou Greenways Site Plan
SWA

Growing a greenway network

Buffalo Bayou was initially built with flooding in mind. SWA created a landscape specifically meant to help channel runoff away from the densely built downtown blocks nearby. Using what’s called fluvial geomorphology (the study of riverbanks and flooding patterns), the SWA team carved channels into the landscape to help direct overflow, and built the entire infrastructure of the park (raised trails, galvanized steel, Cor-Ten, and concrete structures) to withstand and bounce back from flood events. Buffalo Bayou, of course, wasn’t designed to handle a storm as intense as Harvey.

One of 22 bayous that rings metro Houston, it was one of the original outlets Houstonians used to move goods and people to and from the Gulf of Mexico. Like anywhere else, residents of southeast Texas enjoy living near water, which has meant more growth around the bayous, and therefore less natural ability to soak up water and more overflow directed to adjacent floodplains.

“The floodplain west of Houston, in Katy, has always been an incredible sponge,” says Vick, an architect and principal at SWA.

Flooding, especially from the bayous, has been a common occurrence since modern Houston was developed. In the 1920s, the city built a pair of reservoirs on the Buffalo Bayou to help prevent repeated flooding that had caused extensive damage to Houston’s nascent downtown at the turn of the century. Hurricane Harvey’s impact was so strong that the reservoirs were actually opened, adding to the region’s flooding.

Could Harvey provide impetus to expand greenways like Buffalo Bayou, and create both a more resilient and green city? Vick believes that perhaps expanding parks and places like Buffalo Bayou, maybe even designing similar spaces around other bayous in the metro area—in concert with larger plans for resilient infrastructure, and buy-back programs to reduce the number of high-risk homes in the area—could make a big difference.

“The procedure could be optimized and made more equitable by, among other criteria, coordinating with a broader plan for expanded, connected park and open space, expanded and enhanced natural habitat and water quality features,” says Vick.

Resilience should come first

Other area architects and designers believe there’s an opportunity to create a higher standard for resilient design. Two colleagues at Perkins + Will, Cindy Villarreal, Project Architect, and Julie Frazier, Senior Associate, are both on the firm’s Resilience Task Force, and have been developing and promoting what’s known as RELi, a comprehensive approach that advocates resilient building standards and preparedness.

“The idea is to build with resilience solutions first, instead of thinking about fixes later,” says Frazier, who works in the Dallas office. “It’s about the social, economic, and environmental aspects of design.”

Both Frazier and Villarreal say Houston and other cities need to rebuild with 500-year storms in mind. Weather is more severe, and typical planning won’t cut it anymore. The city needs to design with these types of situations in mind and think about building with more permeable structures to soak up rainwater.

“It’s not just about green infrastructure, it’s about gray infrastructure,” says Villarreal, who works out of Houston. The colleagues also point to projects like the Bayou Greenways, which is seeking to create a network of parklands around the city’s waterways.

Perkins + Will

“When the bayous reach their capacity, that’s when the massive flooding occurs,” Villarreal says. “At least now, I think they’re a much bigger part of the local conversation about how to be more resilient. I would consider the bayous are more part of the local conversation. It’s a challenge, as Houston has been developing so quickly, and there’s so much more of the impervious cover.”

Along with more resilient buildings, this type of planning and landscaping can minimize the impact of future extreme weather events. They pointed to the recently designed CHRISTUS Spohn medical facility, currently under construction, that includes oversized roof drains, siting above the 500 year flood plain, additional storage, and redundancy throughout the power system.