Feature Article - September 2015
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Naturally Urban

Connecting City Dwellers to Nature Via Parks & Trails

By Emily Tipping

Houston's Bayou Transformation

Houston is a city that grew up along a network of bayous, but many of its citizens are unaware as they cross the bridges that carry them over this crucial natural resource. Now, a public-private partnership between the city's parks department and various other groups, including the nonprofit Houston Parks Board, has undertaken an ambitious initiative to link many of the city's major parks and existing greenways via a project called Bayou Greenways 2020.

"In Houston, we're not known for natural resources," said Catherine Butsch, communications manager for the Houston Parks Board, but we do have the bayous. For a long time they've been overlooked. What Bayou Greenways 2020 is looking to do is transform those bayous and help us appreciate them as the natural resource they are."

By the time the project is complete, more than half of Houstonians will have a safe bayou trail within 1.5 miles of their home or work. A part of the larger, overarching Bayou Greenways initiative, Bayou Greenways 2020 will link existing stretches of linear parks, trails and larger traditional parks with new greenways, ultimately creating a continuous system within the city limits of 150 miles of parks and trails along the bayous.

"The project will bring parks to neighborhoods in Houston that don't have great access to parks now," Butsch explained. "Right now there are about 70 miles of shared-use hike and bike trail that preexisted the project, so we're filling in the gaps so there will be continuous links of trails and greenways within the city limits."

These trails will not only provide an outlet for Houstonians looking to get in a good walk or bike ride, they'll also provide natural views of fish, waterfowl and other birds and animals—all in the heart of the city.

The entire project comes at a cost of $220 million, Butsch said, and is being funded both publicly and privately. "We're a nonprofit working with the city of Houston Parks and Recreation and the Harris County Flood Control District," she explained. While $100 million for the project was made available via a city bond passed in 2012, the Houston Parks Board aims to raise the additional funds, and so far has raised more than $90 million, she added.

"We've only been executing the project for a few years," Butsch said. "Planning and permitting takes quite a while. So we've gotten to open a few here and there, but we have a lot to go. The neighborhoods that have seen us open so far, though, are very excited about it."

Springfield Invited Kids & Families to the Trail

Encouraging kids and their families to get out into parks and onto trails to experience all of the benefits of nature and the great outdoors was one of the goals planners were aiming for when they created the South Creek Linear Park Trail in Springfield, Mo.

"The goal of the project was to experiment with the features that might offer unique and interesting elements to the trails that could encourage more trail visits and trail usage by youth," said Terry Whaley, executive director of Ozark Greenways, a nonprofit group of private citizens in greater Springfield working to develop a greenway trail network. "The thinking being that if we could make the trail interesting to youth, their parents would accompany them for trail visits, thus encouraging trail activity and family-based activity on the trails."

A partnership sprang up between the Springfield-Greene County Park Board and Ozark Greenways, who worked with the Pathways for Play program developed by the Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, NC State University, in partnership with a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that advances play through research, education and partnerships. The group set their sights on developing a "playful path"—a path that would incorporate a variety of play events designed to fit into the natural surroundings and engage children in nature-based play.

Initial steps, according to Anne-Marie Spencer, vice president of marketing and communications for the play company, involved evaluating where to put the playful path. "The site containing the South Creek Linear Park Trail was finally selected as it met all six of the test areas, and was close to the Springfield Greene County Botanical Center," Spencer said. "The pathways crossed the park property, so pathway infrastructure that was easy to navigate was already in place."

"The play pieces were placed along a short section of one of our most visited greenways and a section of trail that passed through a well-used and visited park," Whaley added. "This site was chosen to best fit into supervision, maintenance and security of the structures within current park operations. Location and placement of structures must be seriously considered so as not to interfere with normal trail usage or add to user conflicts."