Buffalo Bayou

Buffalo Bayou Park, Memorial Dr, Houston, TX, 77007, USA

What started this project: 

Houston is the most populous city in one of the fastest-growing, racially and ethnically diverse metropolitan areas in the nation. With increased development, loss of natural areas such as wetlands can occur.47 This is a concern in places where development has occurred without a plan, as it had in Houston.48 With recent natural disasters, including Hurricane Ike and a multiyear drought, protection and stewardship of Houston’s ecosystems is essential. When these natural areas are lost, so too are the important benefits that the close-tohome connection to nature provides. Exposure to the natural environment, coupled with effective design can make urban parks and parkways an invaluable resource. Furthermore, influxes of new populations need opportunities to explore and connect to local and unique environments, as well as to one another. The area’s more than 2.2 million people, over 145 different languages spoken, and a relatively young population provides a significant opportunity – and a need – to engage residents in creative and innovative ways. Texas is famous for its bayous, or systems of extremely slow-moving streams, rivers, or marshy areas. Buffalo Bayou, which starts near Katy, Texas, and flows approximately 53 miles east to Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, greatly influenced how Houston evolved since its founding in 1836, and remains one of Houston’s most significant natural resources. Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), a nonprofit organization, was founded in 1986 with a focus on revitalizing and transforming a 10-mile stretch of the Buffalo Bayou. BBP collaborated with the City of Houston, the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, and the Harris County Flood Control District to develop and operate the 160-acre Buffalo Bayou Park, which includes recreational facilities, programming and events, and various permanent and temporary art installations.


Buffalo Bayou was for a long time an infrastructural space, not construed as an “environment” or as something natural. It had long been designed as something to contain and not as something that could offer area residents joy or pleasure. The goal of the project was to educate Houstonians, a community with radically changing demographics, that the Bayou was part of their cultural landscape. For the longest time, Buffalo Bayou was green in every sense of the word. It had plentiful trees and flora; it had an ever-changing waterway, and it had wildlife and fauna. But for area residents, to find “nature” they had to leave Houston and enter the beautiful, arid landscapes of Texas, or cross the causeway and dangle their toes into the Gulf of Mexico. The Buffalo Bayou Park, a $58 million project, was an effort to create a forward-thinking urban park with access to nature for all. Thanks to the generous support of foundations (including a $30 million catalytic gift from the Kinder Foundation for Buffalo Bayou Park), corporations, individuals, and government agencies, BBP has raised and leveraged more than $150 million for the redevelopment of the bayou overall. But this effort was not just focused on providing a 21st-century park, it was also focused on building a community around that park.


From the beginning, park leaders knew that a strong arts-based strategy would help to bring people to the new park and to educate them about the environmental challenges that created the bayou in the first place. The public art within Buffalo Bayou Park is intended to complement the environment of the park; in addition, the art celebrates life in Houston. Overall, the goal is to lead the development of the city through parks and culture. There are numerous thoughtful, recognizable pieces of public art along Buffalo Bayou. These pieces reflect the local conditions – aspects of the city’s history and people, natural cycles and elements, activities that take place in the parks, and emotions elicited by the space. Stephen Korns installed a multisensory video, audio, and sculpture work, just one block from Buffalo Bayou. According to the artist, these stories and visuals urge visitors to ask questions about what the city is or can be, what histories are represented, and who has access to spaces and their legacies. Entryways and access points to Buffalo Bayou also integrate large-scale public art. Artist John Runnels’ 12 elegant, 20-foot stainless steel canoe sculptures were installed between 2006 and 2014. These reflect the recreational opportunities that the local waterways provide, but also pay homage to an important resource – Buffalo Bayou – that the artist has called Houston’s “birth canal.” Another example is the “Monumental Moments” project created and installed by artist Anthony Thompson Shumate. This installation involves a series of five human-scale word sculptures; the words Explore, Endure, Pause, Reflect, Listen, Emerge, and Observe are placed intentionally around the pedestrian pathways to elicit surprise and unexpected moments as visitors explore the park. A recent piece involves improvements made to the Cistern, a former 87,500 square foot underground water reservoir. With funding from The Brown Foundation, BBP transformed the Cistern into a magnificent public space. As part of this, Donald Lipski created a permanent artwork, Down Periscope, that allows users to peer into the depths of the Cistern from the lawn above. In addition to history tours, the Cistern periodically houses art installations.


As a means of restoring a neglected waterway, the implementation of murals, sculptures, and other works from local artists has created a welcome and inviting space for residents. Since the opening of the Buffalo Bayou Park, the community has been able to engage with the public land that was once abandoned and forgotten. The arts have helped to tell the story of what it means to be a Houstonian, and how the natural and urban landscapes come together to create a sense of place. The Cistern, once an invisible piece of infrastructure, has become one of the most popular spaces in the park, and in Houston. Since opening in May 2016, over 50,000 visitors have experienced the space. To encourage exploration and promotion of these elements, the Houston Parks and Recreation Department uses a multiplatform guide, known as “Art In Parks,” to assist visitors and promote outdoor art within the parks system. Details about 91 pieces of municipal art in 24 parks across the city are made available in print, by cell phone, or the web. Overall, the art along Buffalo Bayou has transformed this space into a key destination – for residents and visitors alike. Buffalo Bayou Park has also received prestigious external recognition and was named a 2017 Urban Land Institute’s Global Awards for Excellence finalist. Described as a surprising, award-winning gem, this area has become a “must-see” for visitors and a respite for residents.