Memorial Park in the 21st Century – A Master Plan
Houston’s Memorial Park has been fragmented by roads and by the placement of recreational program in sensitive wilderness areas, leading to ecological degradation and diminished quality of spaces. Recent hurricanes and years of extreme drought have devastated the park manifesting widespread canopy loss. This major and sudden change in the character of this beloved 1,460-acre park has led to public outcry and demand for a call to action, providing the opportunity to reimagine its future. The park is envisioned to become central Houston’s most valuable ecological resource that will serve as a place for retreat, recreation, and learning.
The landscape architect in partnership the client, stakeholders, and a team of consultants embarked on an ambitious two-year planning process. An 18 month-long public input process and a year of ecological forensics and rigorous research revealed a design logic that informed the master plan. This approach continues to inform the design as the first phase of implementation has commenced. The vision prioritizes ecological resilience, interpretation of the site's historical narratives, and the reconnection of disjointed spaces to create a healthy and vibrant park.
Memorial Park Master Plan Houston
Memorial Park lies within the 610 Loop, adjacent to Buffalo Bayou, four miles to the west of Downtown Houston and at the heart of many Houstonians. At nearly 1,500 acres of parkland in the fourth most populous city in the United States, this former training camp for WWI soldiers is full of rich histories and complicated relationships. Established in 1924 as a memorial to the soldiers who died fighting in the European theater, this landscape and the people who have tended and nurtured it for almost a century have much to reveal about its ecological and cultural origins.
Recent and extended droughts and a significant hurricane decimated the existing pine-dominant canopy of the park. The loss of the trees cherished by so many Houstonians created a massive public outcry. Three entities - the City of Houston, the Uptown Development Authority and the Memorial Park Conservancy – initiated a master plan process to reevaluate the long term planning strategy for the park and to assess the challenges created by a century of urban expansion on the cultural imprint and ecological systems contained within.
The dense forests that Houstonians grew to love were not necessarily sustainable in this landscape but were a byproduct of decades of deferred maintenance and benign neglect. Understanding the authentic, native ecologies of the site led to ideas of restoration not of one type of forest but rather a matrix of landscape types that could resist drought and flood into the future, just as they had done for hundreds of years prior to European settlement. As part of the master plan process extensive studies were performed to understand the ecology and geology of the park in both a deep historical and contemporary context. Research revealed that the ecotype—a pine-dominant forest—that has thrived at Memorial Park over the past 70 years is not endemic to the site. The thicketized understory is comprised of invasive species, in some places up to 99 percent.
The proposed design targets areas for increasingly diverse ecologies through implementation and management strategies, areas for conservation efforts, and the concentration of new and relocated programming in the most disturbed areas. This scientific and cultural data revealed that the greatest potential for wildlife connectivity and biodiversity lay in the southern half of the park where the interplay between cultural and ecological manipulation had persisted for centuries. With Buffalo Bayou occupying the southern border of the park, a suggested gradation of ecological zones presented itself, projecting from the bayou: riparian hardwood forest, mixed pine and hardwood forest, pine-hardwood savannah and open native grass prairie. The Bayou Wilds is the name proposed for this region of Memorial Park, as it will provide access to these gulf coastal prairie ecologies along 20 miles of boardwalks and hiking trails.
The park uses 85 million gallons of Houston’s drinking water per year for park irrigation. This led to the realization that with strategic impoundment, the designed site could capture enough runoff from storm events to offset 60 million gallons annually. Proposed retention ponds will also increase the biodiversity of aquatic habitats within the park and provide an amenity for park users. In collaboration with civil engineers, the research on the park’s natural and constructed hydrology generated maps of the drainage patterns within the site and the watershed.
In addition to the ecological history of the site and the ambitious goals for conservation of wildlife and water, the cultural history of the site offered a layered repository of traces of the city's and park’s development over time. Many of these discoveries directly shaped the design proposals for the new master plan as they brought legibility to forgotten histories.
The range of early uses of the site included livestock grazing, logging, orchards, plant nursery, brick kilns, and charcoal production throughout the 19th century. With America’s late entry into World War I in 1917, it was necessary to build military training facilities across the United States. Houston won a contract to build one of the thirty-two training centers. The site of what would become known as Camp Logan, was chosen for lease due to its rural nature and proximity to existing rail lines that provided easy transportation of construction materials, supplies, and soldiers. During the camp’s existence, tens of thousands of National Guard soldiers trained for campaigns in France. Only concrete building foundations can be found in the park today, fading reminders of those to whom the park is offered as a memorial. The master plan proposes a living memorial to these soldiers with the planting of nearly 65 acres of regimental pine groves. Four native coniferous species planted in grids correspond to the original layout of the infantry camps, enveloping existing motts of hardwoods and pines.
Another design initiative rooted in the site’s cultural history lies on the eastern edge of the park - the 1920's Hare and Hare plan for Memorial Park revealed an area called out as "Garden" set within an ovoid formal path and centered on a building, perhaps a conservatory. This research directly inspired the design of an area of high loose canopy, grass for passive recreation, a pond, and woodland walks all framed by a series of concentric elliptical paths and tree plantings. Thanks to the cultural landscape research, this area, now called the Eastern Glades, simultaneously evokes the formal gesture of the Hare and Hare “Garden” while revealing the original formal entry to Camp Logan at the terminus of Blossom Street.
From the founding of Memorial Park to today, numerous highways and roads have been constructed within the bounds of the park subdividing recreational areas and habitats and compromising public safety. One of the most ambitious goals of the landscape design is to construct a pair of land bridges inspired by large-scale wildlife crossings, here planted with trees, shrubs and prairie grasses. The land bridges would re-stitch the northern and southern halves of the park offering connectivity for the ecology and the people of Houston.
The Memorial Park master plan strives to accommodate contemporary demands of recreational use on this major urban park while safeguarding the qualities of a major urban wilderness that Houstonians value. Consolidating similar and compatible programs will enhance the experience of each park user and will dramatically reduce user conflict. Additionally this consolidation will allow for better access to amenities and more efficient circulation in the park for improved safety and orientation using gateways, and distinctive paths providing a logical and clear understanding of circulation within the park. Proposed connections will allow for increased park use, and improve safety for park access by foot, wheelchair, bike, bus, or car.
When implemented, the design initiatives of the Memorial Park Master Plan will create a resilient park connected to a diverse native ecology as well as its cultural and historic past. The contribution of multiple stakeholders has helped create a master plan that will continue to guide the evolution of Memorial Park. The first phase will begin construction in the fall of 2016.
Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, Charlottesville, Virginia - Design Landscape Architect
Consultants / Partners