ULI Award-Winning Houston Park Weathered Harvey, Offering Lessons For All Flood-Prone Cities

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The SWA-designed, 160-acre Buffalo Bayou Park considerably lessened the impact of three severe storms, protecting lives and surrounding property.

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Photos by Jonnu Singleton/SWA

The creative techniques employed by SWA to withstand these destructive forces show that riverside parkland can be part of a city’s overall resilience strategy, offering both flood conveyance and critical open space for the communities that surround them.

What if cities could rely on their parks for help during extreme flooding events like Hurricane Harvey?

In late August, Houston’s popular Buffalo Bayou Park weathered Hurricane Harvey and demonstrated how thoughtfully designed open space can substantially mitigate flooding. Two months later, it won the Urban Land Institute’s coveted 2017-2018 Global Award for Excellence for serving as a “critical urban green space.” Learn more: http://bit.ly/2zYQ4RX

The 160-acre park was designed by landscape architecture firm SWA to anticipate heavy floods. With its location upstream and along the banks of the city’s principal drainage system, Buffalo Bayou, the eponymous park is tested regularly.

“Cities are looking to invest in flood infrastructure that improves quality of life during normal times and also increases preparedness for extreme events,” said Senior Director of ULI’s Urban Resilience Program Katharine Burgess. “Buffalo Bayou Park has been a national model for resilience, surviving three major floods, including Harvey.”

SWA principal Scott McCready, the landscape architect who led the design team, reflects on the recent storm: “Hurricane Harvey unleashed more than one trillion gallons of water over the Houston region, with four-day rainfall totals approaching the city’s average annual rainfall.” The park absorbed much of the storm’s impact, facilitating the bayou’s critical role in protecting surrounding property from rising flood waters. “Once again, the park’s design has demonstrated its resilience,” McCready continues. “It sustained minimal damage to primary amenities and, while more extreme than in previous events, followed expected patterns of erosion and siltation within the lower banks of the bayou.”

With clean-up efforts still underway as workers remove tons of silt from Harvey, McCready notes that the park will take time to recover from the extreme impacts of the storm. But the creative techniques employed by SWA designers to withstand these types of destructive forces show that riverside parkland can be part of a city’s overall resilience strategy, offering overlapping uses of flood conveyance and critical open space for the communities that surround them.

Stretching over 2.3 miles, Buffalo Bayou Park offers Houstonians access to one of the region’s last unchannelized urban waterways. More than 15 miles of pedestrian and bike paths, including four pedestrian bridges, provide opportunities to explore the ecology of the bayou while promoting healthy activities for Houston’s growing population. Large event lawns, protected gardens, nature play areas, and flexible plazas support year-round events, celebrating Houston’s diversity at the city’s historic birthplace. Crediting SWA’s exceptional client, the nonprofit Buffalo Bayou Partnership, McCready says, “Together we overcame many obstacles to create the right balance between hydraulic, ecological, and park user needs within a bayou corridor that drains over 100 square miles of dense urban development.”

SWA is an international landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm celebrating 60 years of creating award-winning open spaces worldwide. Allow SWA to share with you some of its pre-emptive flooding measures for Buffalo Bayou Park, and learn how they can be applied in any city. http://www.swagroup.com

Contact SWA Communications Manager, Julie Eakin: jeakin(at)swagroup(dot)com

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