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Transforming Houston with Bayou Greenways

The following article is a guest blog post by Jen Powis, Advocacy Director, Houston Parks Board

Imagine Atlanta’s Beltline meeting Portland’s Master Bike Plan, and you’ll get a strong sense of what the completed Houston Bayou Greenways will look like over the next decade.  And that’s why there is so much excitement over what the City of Houston is doing for its urban parks.

Houston is a sprawling, cosmopolitan city of over 650 square miles and 2.3 million people.  But this November, if citizens approve $166 million parks bond, Houston will also have over 150 miles of connected biking and walking paths along nearly 2,000 acres of new parkland, completely separated from cars.

The bond dollars will help complete a system of connected parks throughout Houston known as the Bayou Greenways.  Bayou Greenways are linear public parks along the major bayous flowing towards the Gulf of Mexico that connect many of Houston’s signature parks like Herman Park and Eleanor Tinsley Park.  Much of the land along Houston’s bayous are either in the floodway or the floodplain, and thus not suitable for major development.  By leveraging this otherwise natural land for the development of a connected park system, we accomplish multiple goals for less than half the cost.  These lands are first and foremost parks: places to walk and bike, exercise or sit under a tree.  But they also provide wildlife habitat, help our water quality and flood control, and unite our communities with safe, off-street, and connected access to our existing bus lines and sharrows.

Houston currently has 75 miles of shared use paths and nearly 40,000 acres of parkland.  With the addition of another 2,000 acres of parks directly along the bayous, Houston is poised to have a one-of-a-kind, off-street trail system that re-envisions transportation while at the same time, completing an urban park system like no other.

100 Years Later
In 1912, one of Houston’s first visionary architects recommended to the city that it should take advantage of its natural ecology—the bayous, creeks and ditches that make Houston the swampy port city that it is today.  Since that time, countless individuals and stakeholders have slowly been crafting a system of parks that are connected along the major bayous that flow directly through the city center, making their way to the Gulf of Mexico and the Houston Ship Channel.

There are 10 major bayous in the Greater Houston area.  Many of those bayous currently have sections of trails, linear parks and other larger parks sprinkled throughout each corridor.  Because these linear parks and trails are not connected and continuous, the greenways lack the transformative impact they could potentially have on the area.

So far, the investment in existing trails and parks along our bayous conservatively exceeds $2.4 billion. The only remaining task is to connect them all.  The cost to complete the greenways, trails and new parks within the city limits is $205 million.  The bond would provide approximately $100 million to make those connections and private individuals and community groups have pledged to match the public dollars to complete the job in Houston.

Transformative and Beneficial
Parks play an anchor role in an urban environment, and with the Bayou Greenways completed, Houston will have one of the best systems around.  The health, environmental and economic benefits associated with a project like this are all aspects of a citizen’s quality of life.  They feed into whether a city can attract new talent, and keep its retirees.  It also feeds into larger business relocation decisions, as a company often wants to be associated with a city—like Houston—that was recently named the “coolest city” in America.

We were so sure that implementation of the Bayou Greenways Initiative would have positive economic, environmental, and physical and mental health benefits, that we commissioned a study by a well known professor at Texas A&M University.  Conservatively, the benefits that were assessed a dollar value demonstrate a returning annual benefit of $117 million a year.  That’s a pretty amazing return on investment and another example of why urban parks are so important in today’s fast paced world.   For Houston, there is unlikely to be any other investment that will transform its image from a “cement city” to one that embraces green.

For years, the City, the County, non-profits, and community organizations have been working on different segments of the Bayou Greenways, completing segment by segment and connecting park to park. It’s time to finish the job of uniting the bayous with greenways, trails and parks. That is why the Bayou Greenways Initiative was born.  And this November, it will finally be on its way to completion.

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