After almost a month in Houston, I am surprised and not surprised at how quickly I have regained my happiness. Houston is one of those cities – and Texas one of those states – that elicit sneers and grunts from those who don’t know them. I endured my share of puzzled reactions when we excitedly announced that we would be leaving Chicago and Washington, DC, for the Bayou City, so my goal is to surprise my readers with some of the great things about my new hometown.
One of my favorite first impressions is the incredible outdoor link between my neighborhood and the city. Buffalo Bayou Park is a green space stretching for about two miles from the Montrose neighborhood to the edge of downtown Houston. There are bike paths, walking trails, a skate park, kayak rentals, disc golf, a dog park, and more, all nestled into a ribbon of land on both sides of Buffalo Bayou. Houstonia magazine called the park, finished less than two years ago, “Houston’s new front porch,” and that it is; from morning to night, people ply the paths, sit on the benches, and otherwise savor the outdoors here, just in front of the skyscrapers that stretch for block after block downtown.
My new morning routine is becoming a short walk or drive to the park, followed by a brisk hike, jog, or bike ride within the green confines. I can spend 30 minutes, an hour, or longer winding my way through the spring wildflowers on the banks of the bayou, watching dogs frolic in the Ritz Carlton of dog enclosures, or passing under the Waugh bat bridge, where thousands of Mexican freetail bats emerge and soar against the city backdrop each evening. I can stay low and close to the water’s edge and disappear into nature, or I can ride higher on the paths, closer to street level, and stop at any of a number of sculptures, fountains, gardens, or memorials.
One of the coolest surprises here is that the park was designed with the knowledge that it would flood. In Houston’s tropical climate, rains can be heavy, and the bayous and streets flood numerous times each year. Engineers took into account the fact that waters would rise up to and occasionally above the top of the bayou banks, so they placed electrical lines above the floodplain and used materials like raw concrete and galvanized steel that could hold up under water.
The lower paths are often sandy after a downpour, but the walkways and bike lanes were designed to be easy to sweep clean. Buffalo Bayou Park is built along a natural body of water that is an integral part of the city’s drainage system, so park planners also planted native grasses, trees, and wildflowers whose roots would absorb water underground.
Beyond the practical results of all this planning, the design and flora create a natural habitat for wildlife and make the park feel like a real refuge from urban life. The biggest and most wonderful surprise of all, though, is the moment when you crest one of the graceful park bridges and see before you a bucolic, riparian scene: a trio of kayaks slipping away from a rough, natural shoreline, framed by flowering trees and bordered by shady pathways – all reflected in the shiny spires of the city skyline. The city and nature coexist here in the most surprising and wonderful way, and this park has fast become one of my favorite parts of my new life here in Houston.