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Houston's Urban Nature

Water, greenery, and wildlife along Buffalo Bayou and in downtown
Written by Margaret Shakespeare. Photographs by Will van Overbeek.

Kayaking on Buffalo Bayou offers a natural respite from the city bustle of Houston. (Photos by Will Van Overbeek)

The Houston Astros got things on the right track back at the turn of this century, when the ball club abandoned the Astrodome’s unnatural indoor confinement for the refreshing outdoor playing field
at Minute Maid Park. Swapping synthetic turf that can make balls bounce funny and players’ knees balk for real grass was maybe the smartest trade the baseball club has ever made.

Yes, the stadium’s retractable roof is closed for most of the season, but the move reflects a new attitude in Houston—to find, protect, and enjoy its great outdoors.

From my 17th-floor hotel room at the downtown Embassy Suites, I have an inviting view of Discovery Green park, a network of tidy pathways, multi-textured greenery of lawns, shrubs, and trees, and dashes of primary colors in groomed flowerbeds. Except for an isolated strip of century-old oak trees, this now-blissful 12-acre patch used to be an unsightly parking lot. Five years ago, by fortuitous convergence of public and private entities and a clever design team, it emerged as a new and wide-open heart of the city. With tickets for a game at Minute Maid Park, I descend to ground level for a walk that takes me directly through Discovery Green and gives a close-up view of the park’s attractions for the crowds of children and grown-ups I have been watching come and go.

Indeed, at one time or another, there is something for just about everyone at Discovery Green.  Its planners created 25 programmed spaces—from playgrounds to performance areas to a model-boat basin and putting green—that can be humming with activity all at once. Festivals happen here, as do family picnics, flea markets, and fitness classes. As I skip along past children frolicking in the Gateway Fountain, mourning doves coo their throaty plaintive solos.

On my return that evening, after watching the Atlanta Braves beat the Astros, a percussion ensemble of crickets and other night critters has turned up the volume in the wetlands grass around Kinder Lake. I catch a breeze along the allée of those live oaks that have hung on for a century. Through evening darkness, lights twinkle from within The Grove, a restaurant located in the park. It all conspires to entice me to pause for a minty-fresh Grove Mojito on the terrace.

A statue of President George H.W. Bush keeps watch over Sequisentennial Park on the banks of Buffalo Bayou.

I’m in Houston? A city symbolic of rapid urbanization, border-to-border pavement, and über-development? 

Less than 200 years ago, the Allen brothers—land speculators originally from New York—found this navigable spot along Buffalo Bayou where shipping commerce could thrive. They established the city, laying out an urban grid oriented to the bayou, and set its destiny to become a large and diverse population center. Railroads arrived, then booms of the oil and gas industries, and the sky seemed to be the limit for growth. Or maybe beyond the sky, because in the 1960s NASA gobbled up more than 1,500 acres of coastal prairie for its Johnson Space Center, triggering more waves of development for housing, roads, and shopping. NASA, as part of its mission to be a good steward of Earth, did reserve an untouched swath of the prairie for wildlife—deer, small mammals, songbirds, waders, birds of prey—and a captive breeding colony of the highly endangered Attwater’s prairie chickens, which once thrived here by the millions.

But what about other natural remnants? Importantly, what about Buffalo Bayou, which flows more than 50 miles from Katy to the Gulf of Mexico? Does it provide habitat for wild creatures?

The next morning I meet up with Larry Mason of North Lake Conroe Paddling Company to find out. He’s got a kayak ready for me to put in near the Shepherd Drive bridge west of downtown, one of multiple launch points along the bayou in Houston. There has hardly been a glimpse of the water on the drive over. I scramble down a bank, and slog through some mud before a view of the bayou opens up. As soon as I shove off and wave good-bye to Larry for a few hours, I feel a part of the environment of this languid opaque copper-colored stream, totally removed from the city.

OK, not totally removed, but remarkably at a distance. Traffic noises sometimes hum somewhere, unseen and insignificant. I attune my ears to birdsong and watch for turtles, plopped on rocks in the midday sun, and water snakes, slithering on their yellow bellies along gnarly tree limbs that swoop down over the water. It takes but a minute or two to synchronize my mental rhythm as well as my paddling to the steady flow of the bayou. Looks can deceive, and beneath the placid surface the muddy waters move with strength.

By the time my kayak drifts under the Waugh Drive bridge, I have forgotten that this span was built to carry cars and trucks over the bayou. To me, the bridge is the home of Houston’s Mexican free-tailed bat colony. I can smell them, or their guano, rather—earthy, faintly gamey—and hear them chirping at each other and shuffling inside the bridge’s expansion joints and crevices. At sunset, the bats will emerge en masse (about a quarter million of them flying at 60 miles an hour) to feed on insects. Spectators can perch on a viewing platform or take a bat tour on a pontoon boat. Unlike most other Mexican free-tailed bat colonies in Texas, these bats don’t migrate and make their home year-round under the Waugh bridge.

For most of my route, the bayou flows along the bottom of a ravine, and leafy banks climb up to parkland or hike-and-bike trails. 
In some areas, debris has collected on rocks and branches, likely not directly from littering but washed down here by natural forces—the watershed process in action. It’s stunning to know that several decades ago a proposal to remove vegetation and line the bayou with concrete nearly wrecked all this. Local activist Terry Hershey, along with then-Congressman George H.W. Bush, thwarted that plan. And 25 years ago, the nonprofit Buffalo Bayou Partnership started enhancing, protecting, and promoting this natural and culturally significant resource. They clean up debris, replace invasive plants with natives, and acquire and restore abused land for green spaces, mustering armies of volunteers. They also sponsor the annual Buffalo Bayou Regatta, a canoe and kayak race.

I contemplate all those paddlers challenging one another on this waterway, which I have had all to myself, while at the same time wondering when wood ducks will occupy their boxes placed close to water’s edge. Then, looking straight up at the clear blue sky, I am amused to suddenly see above the trees bold lettering—Service Corporation International—appearing across the top of what seems to be a misplaced, isolated building. Before I am quite ready—no egrets or red-shoulder hawks have been in residence today—more cityscape swings into view, and I am approaching Allen’s Landing, where Larry and dry land are waiting.  

Spanish artist Jaume Plensa creted the Tolerance art installation with seven aluminum human sculptures in Buffalo Bayou Park.

With several launch sites only a quick walk from downtown, paddlers short on time can still spend a worthwhile hour or two exploring the wilds of this urban bayou. Like I do, they’ll disembark with a whole new perspective on the Bayou City, a nickname inspired by Houston’s more than three dozen bayous.

And Buffalo Bayou provides more than just paddling opportunities for outdoor recreation. There’s also the new Buffalo Bend Nature Park project, which was recently resurrected from piles of industrial rubble and restored to health with native plants like pickerelweed and bulltongue arrowhead. Families of black-bellied whistling ducks have already made the park home, and little blue herons, white ibis, and other migrating species have come to layover or nest. Houston lies on the Central Flyway, used by birds migrating as far away as Alaska and Patagonia.

Heading back west, I see how 700 trees and 300,000 native plants have transformed Sabine Promenade (above the bayou ravine) from a dumping ground of blight, neglect, and erosion to a waterside park with footbridges, running paths, and outdoor art. Still farther west on Buffalo Bayou, I pay a quick visit to Bayou Bend Gardens, which the legendary Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg bequeathed to The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Hogg family chose the bayou environment, amid the tangled thicket of dogwood, redbud, pines, elms, and oaks, for their estate.

I conclude my exploration of Houston’s wild side with a visit to the zoo. The Houston Zoo aims to conserve one of Earth’s most im-periled ecosystems—the coastal prairie. Only a fraction of a percent of that ecosystem, which once covered the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Corpus Christi, remains untouched. Even grasslands and wildflowers that once covered Hermann Park, home of the zoo, have given way to cleared areas and non-native plant species. While working on some park-habitat restoration projects, the zoo also has vigorous programs to save endangered Texas animal species, including sea turtles, East Texas black bears, Attwater’s prairie chickens, and Houston toads.

Returning to my hotel, I wait on the MetroRail platform in the midst of Fannin Street traffic, and persistent bird chatter rises above all the urban clatter. I take it as an invitation to come again and find more surprises in the wilds of Houston.


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