Houston is often considered synonymous with the big oil and petroleum companies that are headquartered there. But if Roksan Okan-Vick has her way, very soon more people will think of the “Bayou Greenways” and alternative transportation when Houston is the topic of conversation.
Indeed, an ambitious $220 million public/private partnership now underway is radically transforming and creating 300 miles of greenways throughout the bayou waterway system in Harris County that leads into Houston and criss-crosses throughout the city. The plan is to create a continuous path of biking, running, and walking that will touch just about every community in the city, according to Okan-Vick, executive director of the Houston Parks Board, a nonprofit organization that works in partnership with the city of Houston on parks and other green spaces. The initiative will connect mismatched pathways and build new ones where none exist. Some 4,000 acres of new green space up and down the corridors alongside the bayous will be created as well, she says.
“The bayous already are part of the fabric and quality of life we have here,” explains Okan-Vick, who also is an architect and urban planner. “They drain the lands all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. But they also are the most beautiful natural happening in our city with bayou corridors that are incredibly rich ecologically.”
Many other U.S. cities are undertaking their own flavor of off-road trails as alternative means of transportation for residents to get around for both work and play. The Houston initiative, however, is more ambitious than most in the sheer magnitude of the pathways that will be created and interconnected. City planners also were intent on making sure that every neighborhood in Houston benefits from this project instead of just carving out neighborhoods with high real estate values for the benefit of a smaller fraction of the population.
What’s more, city officials intend to tout this project as a reason for people to move to Houston. The city won’t just be about oil any more.
“We’re growing so fast as a city and we want to make sure we can attract the best and brightest to come live here,” says Okan-Vick. “Environmental leadership is something we need to pay attention to in a real way and the Bayou Greenways project is a way to use our natural assets as a draw to our city.”
Big population boosts can offer both a blessing and a curse. The greater Houston area has close to four million people today (about 2.2 million living within the city limits) and is on track to double in the next 30 years, says Okan-Vick. From an urban planning standpoint, there was some urgency to create solutions for the projected congestion of so many more cars anticipated on the roads that go hand in hand with population growth. The Bayou Greenways will hopefully inspire many people who work relatively close to where they live to ride bikes to work and leave their cars at home, she notes.
“We are so in love with our cars in this city that it will take a mind shift to get people out of their cars to use the greenways instead,” she suspects. “But we have a few counters in some spots and the numbers of people using the greenways there are staggering. When we build more of it, I’m sure more people will use it.”
Houston is known for having a decent amount of green space but much of it is clumped together in big parks. Many underserved communities in Houston have relatively little or no green space at all, explains Okan-Vick. An important element that got city officials and some private donors on board with this project was the underlying equity factor: The greenways would be equally distributed throughout the county and all neighborhoods within the city of Houston, says Okan-Vick.
“Some parts of the city are park-poor and that population doesn’t have access to nature where they can get exercise and stay healthy,” argues Okan-Vick. “The need for these greenways is more important in these neighborhoods where there are higher obesity rates. By bringing those green assets closer to these residents, there’s an incentive to take a dog on a walk or go for a run. This is really important for the health of our city.”
When the entire project is complete, it’s expected that more than half the population of Houston and Harris County will be within 1.5 miles of a greenway path.
Another impetus to get this project off the ground was an analysis that determined more established greenways alongside the bayous will aid in flood control of storm water, and overall water quality enhancement. More land next to the bayous will absorb more water during major rain events and could prevent floodwaters from heading into nearby neighborhoods, she says.
“By virtue of having green, spongy land next to the bayous, the stormwaters slow down and filter into the water, which improves the overall quality of our water,” explains Okan-Vick. Besides, “It’s harder to build in a flood plain so it’s not likely that highrises would get built on that land any time soon.”
The initiative for this mammoth green project started about five years ago with various players gathering to look at the best ways to maximize the natural resources of the city. They settled on the obvious: connecting a long corridor of paths for biking and hiking that would run along the hundreds of miles of existing bayou waterways. After analyzing the full scope of this endeavor, the project’s planners concluded they would need $490 million for the countywide component, recalls Okan-Vick. They decided to divide the project into two phases—the first phase would focus on the area within the city limits with a cost estimate of $220 million.
They approached the Mayor of Houston, Annise D. Parker, and asked if she’d include a request for $100 million in a planned $410 million special bond issue referendum that was scheduled for a vote by city residents in November 2012. The nonprofit told the mayor they would launch a fundraising campaign to solicit the remaining $120 million from private foundations and corporations.
The mayor agreed and the bond referendum passed with approval for the $100 million earmarked for the Bayou Greenways initiative.
Now that the project is underway, “The Bayou Greenways 2020 is a showcase project for Houston because it demonstrates the interconnectivity of sustainability and resilience,” says Mayor Parker. “The connected greenways and hike and bike trails demonstrates our commitment to providing alternative transportation options. Bike commuters will have an added option of taking a scenic ride along the bayou to get to work, and we are excited about this opportunity to help alleviate some traffic congestion in our city.”
Okan-Vick was grateful to the mayor for getting behind the project in its early stages and supporting the request for public funding. “I need to give the mayor credit because she led this effort not knowing how it would turn out,” she says. “Public funding for these projects can’t happen without elected leadership behind it.”
On the private donor front, an impressive $80 million of the total $120 million was raised as of late 2014. Some of the private funds already are being used to buy land next to the bayous that are owned by the county, and other private interests.
Big chunks of donations have come from prominent family foundations. The Elkins Foundation, which focuses on Houston-based projects, was eager to get on board.
“The Bayou Greenways project touches almost every corner of our city and will enable many more Houstonians to have access to the most significant natural assets we have in the midst of our fast-growing urban environment,” says Leslie Elkins, a trustee of the Elkins Foundation and an architect whose work is rooted in sustainability. “It resonated with our trustees because of the huge impact it will have on the quality of place for all of us who live and work here.”
In 2013, Mayor Parker told the C40 Cities Climate Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, that “Houston has proven to the world that it can maintain its title as the energy capital of the world while at the same time pursuing green policies that lift our reputation as a world leader in sustainability.”
The entire Bayou Greenways project is expected to be completed in about six years. Luckily, they have had community support that included residents at the grassroots level voting in favor of the bond issue, private funding stepping up, and elected leaders in high office getting behind it too.