Feature Article - November 2009
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Parks Are People & Place

The Intersection of Culture & Ecology in Landscape Design

By Emily Tipping

From Blight to Bright

Buffalo Bayou Promenade
Houston, Texas

Winner of the ASLA 2009 Award of Excellence in the General Design Category, the Buffalo Bayou Promenade is a showpiece for Houston, bringing people back into an area that has been long neglected. SWA Group of Houston designed the project for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership.

The site presented unique challenges, with criss-crossing freeway structures towering above, blocking the sunlight and dumping sheets of water from their sides during storms. In addition, the bayou's waters naturally bring trash, debris and silt, depositing them along the bank, creating a litter-strewn eyesore. The site, 30 feet below the grade of the surrounding streets and with few access points, was intimidating to pedestrians who wandered that way.

The design team aimed to reverse this and create a successful environment for pedestrians. The site was regraded to change the slopes, allowing for improved views into the park, and at the same time reducing erosion and improving flood water conveyance. Access points were added at each roadway crossing, and lighting was incorporated into the site to improve the impression of safety.

The heavy-duty materials used on the site were chosen for their durability, cost-effectiveness and appropriateness for this context. They include exposed concrete, recycled crushed concrete and galvanized steel. Recycled concrete cobble-lined swales help reduce the impact of high-volume flows of water running over the freeway.

The site was planted with native, flood-resistant riparian plants and trees to the tune of nearly 300,000 plants, including more than 640 trees.

With a goal of ensuring a safe environment for pedestrians, lighting was a central feature of the design. There are three orders of lighting in the park.

Primary trail lighting poles are relatively closely spaced, showing pedestrians exactly where the path will go next. Because the site is subject to flooding, careful attention was given to ensure the lights could handle periodic submersion, as well as withstand the rigors of vandalism.

The second order of lights serves to light up the dangerous spots—like the dark urban corners under bridges—to alleviate safety concerns. The whole site doesn't need to be flooded with light, as long as careful attention is given to direct illumination at these spots.

Finally, the third order of lights is more artistic, connected to the ebb and flow of the bayou and the waxing and waning moon. Floodlights under bridges and LEDs atop each light fixture change from blue to white to blue with the lunar cycle.

The site also features artwork that helps create a connection between the city's art district and the historic channel.

The site is now used by pedestrians, bikers and boaters below, while the drivers above can enjoy the impact of the creative lighting systems. And Houston has turned 23 acres of dangerous eyesore into a necklace of lights and water in the heart of the city.