Buffalo Bayou Park, 2017–2018 Global Awards for Excellence Winner

Location: Houston, Texas, United States
Developer: Buffalo Bayou Partnership
Designers: SWA Group, Page
Site Size: 160 acres (65 ha)

The renewed 160-acre (65 ha) Buffalo Bayou Park is a critical urban green space, extending upstream from downtown Houston along Buffalo Bayou, the principal drainage system for much of the city.

Stretching over 2.3 miles (4 km), the park offers Houstonians access to one of the region’s last unchannelized urban waterways. Over ten miles (16 km) of pedestrian and bike paths, including four pedestrian bridges, offer opportunities to explore the restored ecology of the bayou while promoting healthy activities for Houston’s growing population. Large event lawns, signature gardens, a nature play area, and flexible plazas provide the infrastructure to support year-round events, bringing together Houston’s diverse population at the historic birthplace of the city.

The park’s designers overcame many obstacles to create the right balance among hydraulic, ecological, and park-user needs within a bayou corridor that drains more than 100 square miles (260 sq m) of densely developed urban land. Houston’s floodwaters frequently submerge much of the park, necessitating creative design techniques to establish a resilient park environment able to withstand these destructive forces while protecting the investment of valuable public amenities. Since breaking ground in 2012, these park techniques have been tested by an unprecedented series of severe storm events, including three 500-plus-year flood events within the past three years. Most recently, Hurricane Harvey unleashed over 1 trillion gallons (3.8 trillion liters) of water over the Houston region, exceeding the city’s average annual rainfall within just a three-day period. Through these events, the park has demonstrated the resilience of the design, sustaining minimal damage to primary amenities and following expected patterns of erosion and silting within the lower banks of the bayou.

 

Lost Lake Pavilion at Buffalo Bayou Park: Houston, TX, Architect: Page Architects
©Albert Vecerka/Esto. The interior of the new restaurant building at Lost Lake rests just above the 100-year flood elevation. Here, visitors dine with a panoramic view of the bayou environs, experiencing the contrast of the wildness of the bayou landscape and the luxuriousness of the building’s interior.
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Jonnu Singleton, SWA Group. The park is designed to facilitate many different types of engagement with nature through cycling, jogging, paddling, and exploration. A nature playground provides intimate contact with natural play features for children. Features of the play area include a boulder rock scramble, a rolling lawn, a stream and waterfall, climbing logs and stones, and 33-foot slide.

The original $58 million project was funded through a public/private partnership, kicked off by a gift of $30 million from the Kinder Foundation, with additional funds from the Harris County Flood Control District and private funds raised through a capital campaign supported by more than 850 local entities. Critical to the long-term success of the park, $2 million for annual maintenance is funded for 30 years through a local tax increment reinvestment zone.

 

The park has become one of Houston’s most sought-after urban amenities, serving as a catalyst for nearby real estate development and helping rebrand the city as one that celebrates its diversity and supports a high quality of life. As increasingly crowded cities search for more parkland, Buffalo Bayou Park acts as a global benchmark for applying creative design and funding to unlock critical green space in the heart of communities.

Free Press Summer Fest 2
Houston First. Eleanor Tinsley Park hosts thousands of visitors during some of Houston’s largest community celebrations including the annual Free Press Summer Fest Music Festival and Freedom Over Texas (Houston’s Independence Day Festival).
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Jonnu Singleton, SWA Group. New pedestrian bridges provide more frequent crossing opportunities, as well as separate these modes from vehicular bridges, where sidewalks were undersized and unsafe.

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