Houston Transformed a Highway into a Park

The highway that split the park in two has now been covered by land bridges.

Houston skyline from Memorial Park before the restoration.

(Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com)

Since the rise in car ownership in the 1950s, the US has engaged in building roads in cities, and across the country, to accommodate automobiles. But many cities are turning back the clock to make room for pedestrians, cyclists, and parks.

Memorial Park in Houston, Texas was bisected by the Memorial Drive Highway in the 50s; it has now been reunited. The highway is still there, but the road goes underneath the 1,500-acre  park, and grassy  parkland covers land bridges built over two tunnels, reported Fast Company. The Memorial Park restoration shows that cities can heal the disruptions caused by massive highways without having to tear them down.

Transforming Memorial Park

The restoration of Memorial Park is part of a larger plan that was drawn up the city suffered from an intensive drought. It was estimated that 80 percent of the forested canopy was dead. One of the ways to combat that was to reintroduce native flora and fauna.

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The city hired the  landscape architectural firm, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, to work with the Houston parks and recreation department, the uptown development authority and the Memorial Parks Conservancy.

“On that first visit, it was like arriving in a post-nuclear landscape,” Thomas Woltz told Fast Company.

The architects, led by Woltz,  were inspired by wildlife crossings in the Northwest US, and explored the possibility of using this concept in Memorial Park.  During a series of public input meetings, he discovered how the subdivided park upset local residents.

Over the years, the park was cut into 20 pieces that were divided by highways, roads, and parking lots. The only crossing was a 12-foot bridge. Building tunnels for the highway to run underneath the land bridges required tearing up sections of the road, but when completed a major part of the park would be reunited and restored.

Fast forward to today
After 10 years of planning and constructing, the Kinder Land Bridge officially opened in early February, 2023, reported ABC13 News. The tunnels were completed in May 2022.

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“The project took two years,” Shellye Arnold, president of the Memorial Park Conservancy, told ABC. “We broke ground in August of 2020 and now were in February of 2023, so a little over two years.”

The bridge is comprised of 100 acres of greenery, and while designed for people, has reconnected wildlife corridors. This is in addition to a separate tunnel that allows animals to cross safely between the formally divided park land.  The reconstruction also added 45 acres of native Gulf Coast prairie that will increase biodiversity in the park.

“This project is not just about creating a passage or a bridge. This project is about ecology, it's about resiliency, it's about biodiversity, [and] storm water management. This project is a bridge into Houston's future,” Arnold said.

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