Standing atop the new 485-foot pedestrian suspension bridge in Mason Park along Brays Bayou in the East End, it’s hard to believe you’re still in city limits, save for the skyscrapers rising to the west. Pelicans soar. Turtles sun themselves. Everywhere you look, there are blue jays, cormorants, egrets, ducks. A great blue heron presides over newly planted wetlands. A bald eagle is rumored to live upstream.
You can bike here from Hermann Park along the Brays Bayou Greenway, a 10-foot-wide path that currently dead-ends at a railroad trestle just beyond the park. Soon you can go even farther: the path will extend east for another mile downstream, all the way to the end of the waterway.
The construction is part of the $220 million Bayou Greenways 2020, a partnership between the nonprofit Houston Parks Board and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, in collaboration with more public and private entities, that is stitching together 150 contiguous miles of hike-and-bike trails—greenways—and linear parks along our eight bayous by the end of next year.
“It’s a game changer in a lot of ways,” says the Houston Park Board’s Doug Overman, not only because it will help keep cyclists and pedestrians off of busy roads as they traverse the city, but because “it puts Houston on the map in terms of the national conversation about how cities are addressing livability and connectivity—the intersection between greenspace, mobility, and economic development.”
The effort places a large emphasis on access for underserved communities—some of the most beautiful segments of the greenway already can be found along the less-traversed Halls Bayou in northeast Houston and Sims Bayou in south Houston. Beth White, the parks board’s president, projects a $90 million annual return on the project.
While it’s certainly modern, the project is based on a 100-year-old master plan developed by urban planner and landscape architect Arthur Comey, who in 1913 called for area bayous to serve as the backbone of Houston’s park system. This sort of happened, says White—many of our parks already do sit on bayous. But the construction of a comprehensive network “was interrupted by recession and two world wars and growth in Houston, including our preferred mode of transportation—cars.”
When the Bayou Greenways 2020 project started construction in 2014, 77 miles of scattered trails already existed along the bayous. Today the city’s parks board has finished another 24 miles, and has 69 more to go. Despite minor delays due to Harvey, the project is still on track to finish by the end of 2020.
So what’s next? Bayou Greenways 2020 is part of the even bigger Bayou Greenways Initiative, which will continue to expand access to Harris County’s greenways and provide seating, trash and recycling receptacles, paved trails, quarter-mile markers, and signage along our waterways, while supporting indigenous trees, wildflowers, and wildlife. Here’s where you can get started and what’s to come by 2020:
Blessedly, much of this bayou through east Houston has been left in its original forested state. By 2020 it will offer 13 contiguous miles of trails. For now you can access a lush, 2.8-mile trail via East Tidwell Park or the lesser-known Brock Park, whose trailhead is located off North Green River Drive, just west of Ley Road, and whose mile-long boardwalk, Ribbon of the Woods, will soon connect with the greenway trail.
You’ll be able to take a 35-mile ride from the Ship Channel to the Katy Hike & Bike Trail out west. The work is 77 percent complete.
The lush, natural greenway along Sims Bayou in southeast Houston is worth checking out right now. It now offers easy access to both Milby and Glenbrook parks, near where the new botanical gardens are going in. “In places it looks like an old-timey painting,” says White, “all slopes and trees."
White Oak Bayou
A newly completed segment now connects White Oak to Buffalo Bayou Park and UH Downtown. But the last remaining, vital piece of the 15.8-mile greenway along White Oak—a trail through Stude Park in the Heights—will connect both ends of that bayou by the end of 2020.
The Houston Parks Board just finished a revamp of the Lee & Joe Jamail Skatepark. The Bayou Greenways Initiative is in the initial planning stages of a major project that will connect Memorial Park to Buffalo Bayou Park, possibly with a segment through the Ima Hogg Bird Sanctuary.