Memorial Park has always been a haven for Houstonians, a place to escape the concrete jungle and reconnect with nature. Now the 1,500-acre urban park has added the Kinder Land Bridge and Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Prairie, which, in the words of Randy Odinet, vice president of capital projects and facilities for Memorial Park Conservancy, “stitches together” the north and south halves of the park.
Memorial Park is nearly twice the size of New York City’s Central Park and is at the heart of Houston’s most diverse communities. Jogging its trails or strolling along its prairies is a feast for the eyes and soul as people from all walks of life come together in this community space. But in the years since its construction and as various roadways were added, the park became divided into 27 pieces: Visit one part of the park, and you may never realize there are others.
The 2015 master plan designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects set out to change all that. The goal was to create a land bridge that did more than serve a functional purpose of joining two spaces. This bridge would accommodate spots for family-friendly activities, areas for passive recreation such as wildlife and prairie viewing, the trails to Buffalo Bayou, and safe access and connectivity to different sections of the park.
After Houston City Council unanimously approved the plan, experts in storm water management, historians, 25 ecologists, and 3,000 locals weighed in with ideas and feedback. The Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Family Foundation committed $10 million toward the reintroduction of native Gulf Coast prairie to Memorial Park, and The Kinder Foundation, which has helped develop other green spaces in Houston including Discovery Green and Emancipation Park, became a key catalyst funder for the project. Their donations—and that of many others—can be seen in the impressive finished product.
“This land bridge has met all the desires of the local community,” says Odinet, who adds that the project received unprecedented support from the get-go.
And no wonder. Nearly 45 acres of native Gulf Coast prairie have been planted along the corridor, creating a more resilient ecology while providing a utilitarian benefit—the managing of stormwater to decrease the flooding notorious to this city. Memorial Park Conservancy’s BioCycle Program composted trees lost in the 2011 drought, along with those removed within Memorial Park, into a rich soil that provides a healthier habitat for wildlife and absorbs greater amounts of stormwater.
As visitors arrive, they’ll notice two mounds forming the land bridge. The land drapes itself over the tunnels—two in each direction that open in the middle for glimpses of the park from the road. It’s as if someone sliced the tunnel in half, its design providing light and openness. Those using the park hear the hum of traffic in the tunnels, but most of the noise is buffered by the mounds and the green spaces. Where the running trail once ran along the busy highway (read: car exhaust, safety hazards, and road noise), it now meanders along the land bridge, surrounded by green.
Hard-surface walkways ascend a slight grade that unfurls swaths of green space. Here, atop the tunnels below, freshly planted oak and elm trees dot the landscape. Circular, knee-high walls curve gracefully around one end of the park and provide seating; from there, visitors can gaze at structures that mark the summer and winter solstice and vernal and autumnal equinox. The second mound is smaller than the first, with a “scramble” created from large concrete cut-outs from the original Memorial Drive. Glance down and you’ll spot a smattering of paw prints etched into the concrete. It’s a reminder that this land is meant to respect and nurture the wildlife that makes it their home.
And speaking of wildlife, you can spot them up or down because while the land bridge provides connectivity for wildlife over Memorial Drive, a stream corridor constructed through the prairie and a culvert provide connectivity under Memorial Drive. Nicknamed the “critter crossing,” the culvert even provides shelving for animals, so they can scurry from one side of the park to the other and avoid the water below.
Both mounds provide places to relax and enjoy new vistas of the prairie, trails, and the city beyond. The urban skylines of downtown to the east and uptown to the west play against a border of trees and the expansive space provided through this development, a perfect example of “green over gray” that transforms highways into green spaces.
Odinet says that every step of this process has brought local interest. “After completion of the tunnels, we invited the public to an open house,” he says. “It was their opportunity to check out the new tunnels before they filled with cars. Over 7,000 people showed up, and that speaks to the interest people have in this development.” He adds, “We’ve seen over 4,000 users on the trail that runs along the project, checking out the mounds, looking at the prairie, and commenting on the beauty and their excitement.”
The Kinder Land Bridge and Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Prairie holds its official grand opening, titled “The Biggest Picnic in Texas,” on Feb. 11 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. With picnic baskets from H-E-B, food trucks, activities for kids, and live music, the event is expected to have a big turnout in a community space that will serve as a model for future urban developments.