Bayou Greenways 2020 to reshape city's urban fabric

More than 100 years ago, urban planner Arthur Comey laid out a master plan for Houston that included a park system organized around its bayou corridors, a plan that created continuous ribbons of green along Houston’s bayous that tied together parks and diverse communities.

By 2020, that vision could finally become a reality.
 
Bayou Greenways 2020, a part of the Bayou Greenways Initiative, is organizing and pushing the completion of the greenways connections, a 150-plus-mile, continuous line of all-weather trail along a least one side of Houston’s nine major bayous. That will make Houston the number one city in the United States for off-street walking and biking paths, Mayor Annise Parker said.
 
The bayous that will be connected by a continuous ribbon of green space by 2020 are Cyprus Creek, Greens Bayou, Halls Bayou, Hunting Bayou, White Oak Bayou, Buffalo Bayou, Brays Bayou, Sims Bayou and Clear Creek. 
 
“The beauty of these bayou corridors is that they crisscross our city and our county. They touch every corner of the city,” said Roksan Okan-Vick, executive director of Houston Parks Board, which is leading the private fund-raising efforts and managing the acquisition, design and construction of Bayou Greenways 2020. 
 
“Part of our mission at the Parks Board is to increase equitable distribution of these types of green spaces to benefit all citizens of the greater Houston area. That benefit is that you are closer to this kind of a space where you can take the dog out, throw a Frisbee, and walk an extra day a week because it’s easier, it’s closer to you,” she said.
Those bayous have a way of stitching those communities together like no other method, Okan-Vick said. 
 
Houston is known as “The Bayou City,” but really, it hasn’t effectively used the bayous, instead focusing on roadways as the city has grown. 
 
“We really want Houston defined by its most significant natural resource, its bayou corridors. The Bayou Greenways 2020 project will reshape the city’s urban fabric in a way its roadways haven’t quite been able to,” Okan-Vick said. 
 
“You’re stitching institutions and places together that otherwise did not have a chance to mingle except through roadways,” she said. “And, being out in person, outside of a vehicle, is a different experience. Residents are able to be out there in a space that we all feel comfortable in, in a park space where everybody is equal, and being able to go back and forth between your neighborhood, your little part of the world, through other communities, through other places.”
 
The green space will be natural habitats complete with birds, bugs, butterflies, tree cover, meadows and/or tall grasses. The width of the “shared-use trails,” which will be shared by bikers, walkers and others – anything but a motorized vehicle – will vary.
That access can have significant impact on the quality of life for residents of a city not so long ago dubbed “America’s Fattest City” by Men’s Health magazine. When a person walks a few more times a week, the health benefits can be considerable.
The bayous float to the top of the priorities list.
 
Over the past 100 years, connecting the bayous dropped down the list of priorities. It wasn’t deliberate, Okan-Vick said, but city leaders just sort of forgot about it as the city dealt with the pressures of growth. 
 
“We, sometimes, just looked at those bayous as just the drainage ditches, something that were there by necessity,” she said. However, 10 or so years ago – around the time Houston first earned the “America’s Fattest City” moniker – the city gained an increased awareness of the benefits green space along the bayous could bring. 
 
Now, this $220 million project is “unleashing” more than $2 billion worth of existing green spaces and bits of trails, Okan-Vick said. 
 
“We’ve been building hike and bike trails along our bayous for years,” Parker said. “What has been missing are the connections. I wanted the job finished.”
 
“It’s a huge generator from that standpoint, in terms of bringing some of the assets to life that we really weren’t quite able to use like we will be when these bayou greenways are completed,” Okan-Vick said.
 
A combination of private funds and public funds from the bond that passed in 2012 are paying the bills for the project. Private funds will cover $120 million; as of press time, the Parks Board had raised $81 million.
 
“Roksan understands the importance green spaces provide to our quality of life,” Parker said. “Without her drive and determination, we would not have the funding needed to pay for all of the planned improvements. This is a true example of the benefits of a public/private partnership.”
 
Moving along
A couple of years into the project, there’s activity taking place in different segments.
In the large segments, the Houston Parks Board is acquiring lands which will be turned over to the city after the projects are completed. Other sections are seeing design work and construction.
 
The Brays Bayou segment was recently completed, and soon the White Oak Bayou segment will be finished too.
 
Okan-Vick grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, a beautiful, historically significant city with an incredible urban fabric, she said. She came to Houston to earn her master’s degree in architecture at Rice University.
 
“Thirty-five years ago, I don’t believe we had the maturity to embrace the greenways like we are today,” said Okan-Vick, who worked for the Friends of Hermann Park and was the city’s first female director of the Parks & Recreation Department before joining the Houston Parks Board in 2004. 
 
She continued, “I think we now have an increased awareness — because of how fast we are growing — that this is the most beautiful natural asset we have. If we don’t protect it, we are really hurting our city. We are doing a disservice to future generations and the future livability of our city. There’s a way to embrace both the growth and the stewardship of these natural assets to make the city one of the top livable cities in the United States.”
 
Dave Schafer is a free-lance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.
 
 
 
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