The Man on a Mission to Bring the Green

Joe Turner is transforming Houston’s parks—and all on an ever-tightening city budget. How does he do it? Teamwork.

By Katharine Shilcutt October 24, 2016 Published in the November 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Joe Turner in the Parks Department headquarters on Wayside Dr.

It’s a weekday morning at Shady Lane Park, which fronts a newly paved stretch of Parker Road just off the Eastex Freeway. The northeast Houston park is filled with people: Zumba dancers finishing up class in the clubhouse, mothers pushing strollers past playground equipment designed to look like giant alligators and hollowed-out tree trunks, women working out on exercise equipment under a covered pavilion, and a small group of elderly men who’ve posted up near the parking lot, eyeing everyone who enters.

“Every park has a mayor or a mama,” laughs Joe Turner, who for 12 years has served as executive director of the City of Houston Parks and Recreation Department, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The Galena Park native, who grew up playing baseball on his own neighborhood diamonds, strolls through the park—one of his personal favorites—in his crisp white shirt and tie. “Those guys are the mayors of Shady Lane Park.”

Recognizing these informal civic positions—and their importance to making parks a center of each community they occupy—is just one way in which Turner has made friends at every level of the city. The so-called mamas and mayors descend upon him when he visits their parks to debrief him on everything from unsavory activities to local gossip to their daily assessments of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s work so far in office.

For his part, the Parks Department director is a fan: “Mayor Turner has not cut our budget, so that is good,” he chuckles of the man he worked with for 13 years in the Texas legislature. “He was a big supporter of grant opportunities. He worked very hard for us at the state level.”

Creative funding helped Shady Lane Park go from an underused eyesore to a point of pride. Though the park itself dates to the 1950s and the community center to the 1970s, the grounds had become derelict before Turner and his department figured out a way to combine an overhaul with a flood-control project for nearby Halls Bayou in 2013.


The awesome playground at Shady Lane Park makes us wish we were 6 again.

A photo posted by Houstonia Magazine (@houstoniamag) on

Alongside a diversion channel, the parks department also built an interactive splash pad whose water travels throughout its own little channel to a Bayou Boat—built from sturdy cast concrete, like most of the other play structures here—where kids and adults alike can learn about our city’s waterways and the role they play. “Roseate spoonbills are already here!” he crows of the bright pink birds that have flocked to the new wetlands, a species as gregarious as he is. A small ridge nearby provides welcome terrain in the otherwise flat park, as well as a view onto the bayou itself, to further drive home the idea that green spaces and waterways can, and should, go hand-in-hand.

“It’s been beyond successful,” says Turner of the busy park, which his department showcased as a project when the National Recreation and Park Association held its annual conference here three years ago. It was a rare bit of bragging for a man who’s often too busy to take credit for his own ideas, including such ambitious projects as Bayou Greenways 2020, which aims to connect 10 of the city’s major bayous via a system of interconnected parks and trails.

In fact, Turner appears downright fixated on his mission of “meeting the needs of the city with our green space.” His days are packed with meetings and data-delving sessions, with his team using everything from 311 calls to demographic stats from the Health Department to figure out where they should be concentrating their efforts.

He’s always searching for the next partnership to help him construct or reconstruct a new park, whether it’s via state or national grants, public-works undertakings like flood-control projects, or non-profits such as the San Francisco–based Trust for Public Land and Houston’s own SPARK School Park Program.

What’s less important to Turner is who the parks ultimately belong to—elementary school playgrounds enhanced by a partnership between SPARK and his department still belong to that school district, for instance; part of Shady Lane technically belongs to the Harris County Flood Control District. If those who need outdoor access get it, he’s happy.

“We took a position that said we don’t have to be the provider of all the park land,” he says. “We just want to create availability. We are in the service business.” It’s an unusual statement for a government bureaucrat, but then, Turner spent 30 years in the fast food business, where he learned to appreciate economies of scale and operational efficiencies. He’s enthusiastic, yes, but also pragmatic about achieving his goals on an ever-tightening city budget. “We never have the funds,” he’s fond of saying, “so, okay, how do we do this project?”

A few miles from Shady Lane is another project just as close to Turner’s heart, the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy at Sylvester Turner Park in Acres Homes. It was the second of its kind in the nation when it opened in 2010, offering free year-round baseball and softball training for low-income youth through a partnership with Drayton McLane, Jim Crane and the Houston Astros.

“As a kid who grew up in Houston who thought he could play baseball,” Turner says, for him, the park was a dream come true—and so was meeting some of his own childhood heroes, like Jimmy Wynn, the “Toy Cannon” who fielded balls for the Colt .45s and the Astros for 15 years and came out to meet the young players.

Hundreds of children have come through the academy over the last six years, many of them also participating in its book club and summer-meal programs. These kids, says Turner, have been impacted in innumerable ways. “That’s what parks do,” he adds. “They change lives.”

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