Houston's Buffalo Bayou

Written by Scott Kratz

Houston is booming. It’s one of the fastest growing places in the country and is already the United States’ fourth largest city. As municipalities like Houston expand, we need to design our infrastructure to meet multiple needs. A great example is Buffalo Bayou, a slow moving river that runs through downtown. The Bayou serves as a critically needed flood channel (over 17 inches of rain fell in less than 24 hours last April) pushing water out to the Gulf of Mexico. For the last 20 years, the folks at the Buffalo Bayou Partnership are ensuring that these civil engineering projects can also serve as a place for recreation, transit, art and natural habitat. I visited Houston twice this year to explore the river by boat, foot and bike. As we restore the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., there is much we can learn from our Texas colleagues.




Recreation and Transit

A key priority of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the non-profit organization that is revitalizing and transforming the Bayou, is to build a continuous system of trails that will eventually reach over 20 miles of biking and walking paths. These routes travel along the river, across bridges and even under freeways. In a city notorious for snarled traffic, these routes can provide a welcome alternate commute for bikers while establishing beautiful hiking trails landscaped with native vegetation. One morning I arose at dawn to experience sunrise while cruising the Bayou’s trails. While biking along the Bayou’s banks, it made me think of our own amazing new Anacostia River trail that connects the future Bridge Park site all the way to Bladensburg, Maryland.

Art in the Park

In 2015 the Buffalo Bayou Partnership led a series of stunning installations by local artist Anthony Thompson Shumate. Called “Monumental Moments,” these human-scaled word sculptures are scattered throughout the park. Earlier this year, the Partnership transformed a 1926 underground cistern into a fabulous light and sound installation by Magdalena Fernández – a project in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Back in D.C., we’ve been working on a similar effort to establish art works along the Anacostia River. In the next few weeks we’ll debut sculptures created by talented students from Ballou and Eastern High Schools, historic photographs on the Navy Yard wall and lighted picture frames under the 295 Good Hope Road underpass.

Resilient Nature

What once was an open sewer, Buffalo Bayou now teems with egrets, turtles and butterflies. Carp, perch and catfish swim in its waters. A quarter million Mexican free tail bats live under the Waugh Bridge. Visitors can rent kayaks for up close wildlife sightings. For a similar experience, I’d encourage readers to head down to the Ballpark Boathouse and paddle on the Anacostia or participate in one of the Anacostia Watershed Society’s free paddle nights. You’ll have the chance to see osprey, blue herons and even the occasional bald eagle soaring above the river.

Once forgotten rivers and flood channels are now being transformed across the country in places like Los Angeles, San Jose and Dallas. By thinking creatively, we can make our cities a little more green, a little more resilient and even a little more beautiful.