Houston is making a serious effort to reconnect with its green spaces and shed its reputation as a concrete wasteland. The city's "Leading with Landscape" effort can be a lesson for Milwaukee.
“You could get lost,” Shellye Arnold told me when I asked how I might hike from the pavilion in the middle of Memorial Park to the bayou that forms its edge. “Even I have gotten lost in this park,” she added. The idea ignited my imagination and further incited my interest in exploring Houston’s largest park. If the CEO of the Memorial Park Conservancy can get lost here, it must be a magnificent urban wilderness indeed!
Along with Thomas Woltz, principal and owner of the New York firm Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, Arnold had just led a guided tour of the park, which I’d attended. It had been my fourth park tour that day, and despite the lowering afternoon sun I wasn’t ready to quit. Not prepared to actually get lost, I stuck to a power line and railroad corridor that bisects the 1,300-acre park. While I made it to the bayou and back before dark it merely whetted my appetite. I knew I had to return to Memorial Park before I went home to Milwaukee. The idea of losing myself in a forest in Houston was just too enticing.
The tour of Memorial Park was just one of nearly 30 guided tours featured during What’s Out There Weekend Houston as part of a conference organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF). The mission of TCLF is to “broaden the support and understanding for cultural landscapes nationwide, to help safeguard our priceless heritage for future generations.” The theme of the conference was “Leading with Landscape: The Houston Transformation.”
I had decided to make the long trek from Milwaukee to Houston for the conference because I’d found that theme intriguing. I had been to Houston only once, a number of years ago. That visit had left a somewhat foul impression that several of the conference presenters acknowledged was pretty common: A sprawling, pedestrian-unfriendly city dominated by traffic-clogged freeways and downtown towers celebrating unregulated development. Worse, for a nature- and river-lover like me, almost all of the bayous—as rivers are called here—had long ago been straightened and lined with concrete.
There must be another side to Houston, it seemed to me, if TCLF had chosen to highlight its transformation. At the day-long conference it didn’t take long to identify one of the key components of this phenomenon. “Everyone is talking about reconnecting people to nature,” said the very first speaker, Keiji Asakura of Asakura Robinson Company, Houston, in his introductory remarks. This, he said, includes city planners, which for Houston historically has been something of an oxymoron. “Houstonization,” as the sprawling development patterns came to be labeled, famously occurred in a climate that rejected the zoning and urban planning typical of most U. S. cities.
Houston’s history might have turned out differently. Charles Birnbaum, TCLF President and CEO, presented a comprehensive plan that had been proposed in 1913 by landscape architect Arthur Comey. It showed an integrated system of parkways aligned with the bayous. It reminded me immediately of the current Milwaukee County Park System, designed in 1923 by Charles Whitnall and subsequently implemented. In Houston the well-regarded Comey plan was derailed in large part by the discovery of oil. “It was a game-changer,” said Birnbaum.
Today, in an effort to reclaim some of its early promise, Houston is “desperately trying to shed its reputation as a concrete wasteland,” according to an article in the Houston Chronicle. The goal now is “to reinvent itself as a place of verdant, world-class parks.” At the conference, speaker after speaker illustrated ways in which this was happening—with greenways along bayous, carefully designed new parks, refurbished old parks, natural areas re-vegetated with sustainable native flora, and so on. As appealing as many of these individual examples were, the bigger picture was emphasized by Birnbaum: Houston’s planners and designers were “moving from building objects to systems and landscapes.”
Walking through a number of those landscapes, as I did for the next several days, I was struck by their popularity. They were not only being used—for strolling, jogging, biking, picnicking, playing a variety of games, dog walking, etc.—they were crowded. There was evident activity even on greenways that were little more than barren grass strips beside concrete channels. The excitement present in the conference auditorium, coupled with the bustling scenes on the ground, was truly invigorating. I came away with a very different impression of Houston than I had on my first visit.
I also came away with questions for Milwaukee. First, though, I must acknowledge that Houston confirmed my long-held appreciation for Milwaukee’s existing green infrastructure. Because, for all the good things I learned about Houston’s progress, they are still playing catch-up after a hundred years of “Houstonization.” In many real and significant ways, Milwaukee is far ahead. We already possess verdant parks, interconnected greenways along our rivers, and an unparalleled swath of public land on our Lake Michigan shoreline. On top of that, we are creating new parks on abandoned industrial brownfields and removing concrete channels from our rivers.
But where is the excitement that I found so palpable in Houston? They have world-class landscape architects lined up to contribute to the city’s transformation. Why not here? Where’s the buzz about Milwaukee’s already outstanding urban parks and cultural landscapes? Perhaps we’ve had it too good for too long. While Houston was slowly discovering the importance of re-establishing a lost natural balance, Milwaukee has seen a steady erosion of support for its valuable legacy of natural assets.
While Houston spent millions of dollars creating riverfront parkland on a scoured ship channel, our gold medal award-winning park system has gone underfunded for decades. Houston’s spectacular and treasured 64-ft. tall Waterwall, designed by world-renowned architects Johnson and Burgee, is well-maintained; our spectacular and treasured Mitchell Park Conservatory (aka The Domes) is currently closed due to deferred maintenance and even threatened with demolition. Houston is investing in several signature downtown parks; but here it took a razor-thin vote by the County Board of Supervisors to prevent the outright sale of O’Donnell Park, Milwaukee’s most valuable piece of real estate because of its prime lakefront location.
There are good things happening in Milwaukee. But even a prominent and positive initiative can labor against tepid commitment. The proposed Lakefront Gateway Plaza, intended to integrate and connect disparate existing features, such as O’Donnell Park, Discovery World and the Milwaukee Art Museum, seems like a winning concept. However, the competition process for the design, which did attract national attention, as well as the winning design itself have both been criticized as flawed and the small space available over programmed. Worse, worthy or not, the project was initiated without the funding needed to see it through to completion. What a contrast with the passionate commitment I witnessed in Houston!
Why the difference? Is it because Milwaukee never experienced the kind of “Houstonization” that has made that city’s population crave every new scrap of nature being re-established there? Houstonians are hungry for what Milwaukee has always had. They have the political will, financial support, and popular demand to transform a degraded urban environment into a magnet for innovative landscape architecture. But where is the drive to leverage Milwaukee’s already enviable natural landscapes in a way that would proudly proclaim its inherent attraction? We too could be “leading with landscape.” All we need to do is reinvent ourselves as a city that cares for and about its heritage.
I did go back to Memorial Park to taste Houston’s explicitly dedicated urban wilderness. I found a narrow, rugged and twisted trail leading into a forested section. By the time I reached the bayou I could easily imagine getting lost. But if I had I could easily have asked directions from one of the people I ran into who were also enjoying the wilderness. The transformation of Houston isn’t so much about nature per se as it is about doing what’s best for people. Humanization is the new Houstonization. It’s something to which Milwaukee can aspire. We’ve had a head start. What are we waiting for?