A tour of extraordinary park experiences, made possible through public-private partnerships.

During a recent visit to some of Houston’s premier parks, the Conservancy’s President and CEO Tomás Herrera-Mishler witnessed first-hand that city’s commitment to extraordinary park experiences, all made possible through public-private partnerships. He describes memorable visits to four different parks below, highlighting many successes in enhancing park accessibility, amenities, and visitor engagement in the Houston area.

Hermann Park

Hermann Park Conservancy is a mature organization ably led for the past 15 years by Doreen Stroeller, a lifelong Houstonian who spent her early career in the high-tech business field before taking on the leadership of the Conservancy. My first awareness of having arrived in the 440-acre park was a glimpse of the park’s name carved in a beautiful limestone planter down the center of a grand entrance into the park. We arrived at a roundabout with Sam Houston proudly astride a horse on a massive granite plinth. City park workers were busy planting new rose bushes along the handsome entrance boulevard. My Lyft driver was pleased that I was heading to the Conservancy’s office where he coincidentally serves as a volunteer. He told me to “let Doreen know that Patrick says ‘hi!’” This speaks to the depth of the Conservancy’s engagement in the community and Hermann Park’s place in Houston. I was particularly interested in visiting the Hermann Park Conservancy, as it was one of the case studies in the landmark report “The Future of Balboa Park, Keeping the Park Magnificent in the 21st Century.”

The Hermann Park Conservancy recently completed a new master plan, which describes the different eras of the park’s evolution. Currently, the park’s layout is described as “fragmented,” and the plan proposes ways to increase the connectivity within and to the park. I was envious of the light rail train that runs through the park, with stops near the Natural History Museum and the Zoo, connecting the park directly to downtown Houston. The park’s wayfinding and signage system is elegantly contemporary and effective, with a fresh look that enhances the park experience.

After national searches, the Hermann Park Conservancy selected a renowned design team to create the McGovern Centennial Gardens. Hoerr Schaudt, the Chicago landscape architecture firm, collaborated with White Oak Studio in Houston on the garden’s design, along with Dr. William C. Welch of Texas A&M University consulting. A new entry pavilion, named the Cherie Flores Garden Pavilion, was designed by architect Peter Bohlin of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the famed designer of the glass Apple stores worldwide. The garden has a distinctly formal layout, with a central lawn that terminates at a spiral walk up a viewing area at the top of a conical hill. There is plenty of shade for the long, hot summers and a diverse sculpture collection.

Memorial Park Conservancy

A short ride on Lyft took me to the headquarters of the Memorial Park Conservancy. This 1,500-acre park is very popular with runners from throughout the Houston region, but an exciting new master plan for the park will create much more access and opportunities for Houstonians to enjoy the varied landscapes found throughout the park. According to the Conservancy’s website: “…In 2013, the Conservancy and its partners initiated a nationwide search for a landscape architectural firm to develop a Master Plan for the Park. After a 6-month screening process, the planning team retained Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW), a world-renowned firm whose achievements include the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve (also known as the 10,000-acre Boy Scout Jamboree national site) in West Virginia, the Orongo Station in New Zealand, Hudson Yards in Manhattan, and Centennial Park in Nashville.”

The new master plan was led by another lifelong Houstonian, Shellye Arnold (who joined the Conservancy in 2013 after a very successful consulting career), and is funded by Uptown TRZ, an adjacent Business Improvement District. The master plan calls for changing the existing roadways that currently limit access to large parts of the park, linking the surrounding community to the parkland amenities, and relocating and improving active recreational amenities. An important element of the plan is to reestablish and enhance the landscape based on the native ecology. The Memorial Park Conservancy has grown quickly in its first five years, and work is underway on the first implementation phase of the ambitious master plan.

Memorial Park Conservancy’s master plan is expected to take approximately 20 years to complete with the help of a combination of public dollars and private philanthropy. Implementing the master plan in priority phases will allow for projects that require new infrastructure, such as roads and public water sources. In 2015, the Conservancy, joined by its partners, broke ground on the first major project of the plan, the Eastern Glades. Designed to reflect the 1920s master plan for Memorial Park, the Eastern Glades will introduce amenities not currently accessible due to forest overgrowth, lack of a trail system, and an ill-placed park road.

Buffalo Bayou Park

Next up was a visit to the Buffalo Bayou Park (“bayou” is what they call a river in Houston!), developed and operated by another stellar public-private partnership—the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. The devastation of the recent floods was clearly visible. Massive erosion and siltation problems now mar this new water’s-edge park. Despite this condition, the park’s trails were full of joggers and folks out for an evening stroll or bike ride.

Designed by SWA Landscape Architects, the park is intended to serve as a natural buffer for storm water, and it served that purpose exactly during the recent massive floods. One highlight was visiting the park’s restaurant, which was hosting a painting class. All of the tables were filled with millennials sipping wine and noshing on passed hors d’oeuvres as they painted their canvases. The room had a terrific vibe, as the participants enjoyed the park setting, good food and wine, and each other’s company.

Historic Market Square Park

Shellye Arnold then took me to my final stop on the Houston parks tour, Historic Market Square Park, a delightful historic park in the center of downtown. A modern shade structure and small café featuring Greek food, centrally located in the park, and a moving landscape memorial to the 9/11 tragedy are memorable park components. We also enjoyed a Yellow Rose IPA at the Carafe, an establishment located in the oldest building in Houston. Lastly, we finished off an amazing day of park experiences at Discovery Green and its restaurant, the Grove. Located in front of the Convention Center, this amazing art park has a beautiful alley of live oak and striking art elements.

The project was sponsored by Houston’s major philanthropic foundations and guided by the Project for Public Spaces, with the intent of transforming a concrete wasteland into a dynamic community green space. According to Shellye Arnold, downtown was not a very pleasant place to visit not too long ago, but the massive investment in well-programmed and well-maintained public landscapes has helped to rebrand the city, drawing visitors and residents back into downtown to work, live, and enjoy life—even on a Wednesday night in February! Designed by Hargreaves Associates out of San Francisco, the design was led by landscape architect Mary Margaret Jones.

Houston seems to have cracked the code on P4 (Public-Private Park Partnerships). I think I will need more time on my next visit to see all that is going on with parks and landscape architecture in this amazingly diverse, resilient, and economically vibrant city!

Tomás Herrera-Mishler

February 8, 2018