Discovery Green revitalizes downtown Houston

( 3 Votes )

By Natasha Tourish

In the midst of downtown urban living it’s a luxury to have a Green open space that acts as focal point for residents to come together to eat, play and relax. The social and environmental importance of such parks is often overlooked by expenditure-orientated CEO’s who fail to see the potential of rejuvenating derelict open spaces in urban areas.

A prime example of how an opportunity to re-develop a deserted downtown area was not passed by can be seen in Texas, USA, where a twelve-acre public park was constructed in the heart of downtown Houston and has not only transformed the look of the immediate area but has also facilitated the revitalization of the surrounding urban district.


Discovery Green was constructed from a site that was a 'left over' piece of land between the core of downtown Houston, the convention center and hotel, and two major sports and entertainment venues - 12 acres comprised largely of windswept surface parking, a somewhat “desolate site” according to Ms Mary Margaret Jones, the Sr. Principal in charge of Discovery Green and a representative of Hargreaves Associates- a landscape architecture and urban design firm with offices in San Francisco, New York, Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London. 

The team who transformed downtown Houston included the architecture firm Page Sutherland Page, headed by Lawrence Speck as the architect for the buildings within the park; Lauren Griffith a local landscape architect who assisted in plant selection, materials and local landscape issues; and the artists: Margo Sawyer and Douglas Hollis as well as a full range of engineers and other specialty consultants.  Hargreaves Associates led the consultant team's work from design through to construction observation for the $52m park and below-grade garage projects.

Mary Margaret credits the Mayor of Houston and philanthropic leaders who took the decision to create a park for downtown Houston and; “develop a place that would help reposition downtown and that would spur urban and social change in the area, whereas previous to this all future plans for the city called for mixed-use developments all around the site but there were no specific developments proposed for the area.” 

She said: “Since it’s opening in 2008, the park has surpassed all expectations with park visitation numbers exceeding 500,000 between April and December 2008. The park has already proved to be an extremely effective catalyst for redevelopment; adjacent residential and office towers are currently under construction, and two additional hotels will soon occupy the remaining open blocks next to the park.”

It’s evident from the unique ‘sense of place’ that the park reflects in it’s design that Mary Margaret’s involvement with Discovery Green ran deeper than her role as lead landscape designer for Hargreaves; she explained that she grew up just outside of Houston so she was privy to facts about the local environment and culture, along with a familiarity of the local climate, which enabled her to effectively instill the essence of Houston in the design.

“It was extremely important that the park be specifically of Houston, and constructed with identity-defining (and sustainable) local materials.  In addition to using native and regionally appropriate plant materials throughout the park, Texas Pink and Red granites link the park’s plazas, fountains, and decomposed granite paths to the mountains of West Texas, while the distinctive red-orange St. Joes bricks bring a similar local color palette to the park architecture,” she explained.

She also points to the changing trends in residential living as a catalyst for creating Discovery Green: “The revitalization of America’s urban cores and swift increase in residential populations has intensified and diversified programmatic demands on urban parks.  Discovery Green embraces this trend by overlaying an extremely high density of programming in creative ways that allow the park to perform as a living fabric of activities and experiences as diverse as Houston’s population. 

The positive role major parks play in creating sustainable urban fabric has long been known, but the impressive scale and immediacy of revitalization, radiating outward from Discovery Green, shows the extent to which this new central park is shaping a new destiny for Houston, and transforming the urban experience of residents and visitors,” she said.

Discovery Green Planting Design

Lauren Griffith Associates who collaborated with Hargreaves Associates on the design of the overall park and developed the planting design for Discovery Green explained how it was her responsibility to create a complex, rich environment for downtown Houston through her ‘strategic’ plant selection in the park.

Because the park is used by both residents and visitors to the convention center who may only experience it once, particular care was taken to have a succession of blooms throughout the year, including Saucer Magnolias and Camellias in winter.

We also strategically placed trees to provide shade and funnel prevailing breezes in the hot summer temperatures. A mix of evergreen and deciduous trees provide structure for the park as well as year-round blooms and carefully balance colours for the fall season,” she said.

Ms Griffiths said that the layout and design of the park ensured that there was a place within the park to suit everyone’s needs.

The Wortham Gardens area was conceived as a quieter part of the park where visitors could stroll, sit by a tranquil fountain, play bocce ball, shuffleboard, putt on a green and enjoy rich plantings throughout the year.  Themed gardens include a rose garden, lily garden, mixed bulb garden, annuals garden, Texas natives garden, tropical garden, scent garden,  global garden with plants from around the world and Texas heritage garden with plants typically found in Houston’s classic landscapes, along with the hummingbird and butterfly gardens. A roof garden continues the pattern when viewed from the adjacent high-rises. Located over the kitchen of the restaurant nestled in the oaks, the garden provides herbs for the kitchen.”

However, as it’s a multi-purpose park designed to not just to ‘look pretty’ but be of practical use for diverse activities like playing sports, hosting small concerts, having lunch and quiet reading, the landscape design team had difficulties in finding turf that would withstand the intense foot traffic that the great lawn and amphitheater slope received but Ms Griffiths said that: “Integrating stabilizing fibers into the soil mix created a more erosion resistant lawn.”

She added: “The lawn and amphitheater are constructed over an underground parking garage, so the soil had to be fairly porous and lightweight. Careful coordination with structural engineers allowed us to locate trees between upturned beams for greater planting depth.

And it is always a challenge to provide a rich, diverse plant palette that is easily maintained in a public place. We used hardy plants, including old and adapted roses that require no spraying. Discovery Green uses all organic materials in its maintenance program along with a state of the art irrigation system that utilizes a combination of drip and spray heads for water efficiency and ease of maintenance,” she added.

Design concepts of Discovery Green

Lead landscape architect, Mary Margaret explained that the park was organized around the structure of two dynamically juxtaposed cross axes, inherent within the existing site.  The Crawford Promenade, a previous street vacated to consolidate park land, serves as the park’s central activity spine and armature of all major park spaces. 
This linear plaza, shaded by large Mexican Sycamore trees and defined by iconic paving and lighting, supports farmers markets, art fairs and parades, while linking the central activity of the park to major sporting venues to the north and south.

The perpendicular Oak Allee celebrates a corridor of 100 year-old heritage oaks, re-creating a historic east-west connection across the site, and linking the Convention Center with downtown retail and office towers.  The Oak Allee’s warm limestone path and seating nooks, set within a rich garden environment beneath the majestic overhanging canopies of the historic oaks, are a dramatic counterpoint to the highly-activated Crawford Promenade.  At a finer grain, the simple linear east-west organization of tree bands, program bands, and architecture channels cooling summer breezes across the park and accentuates dramatic views of downtown high-rises. 


South of the Oak Allee, the unique Urban Garden is a finely-textured and programmed mosaic comprised of themed botanic gardens, small scale recreation, performance spaces, interactive public art, and a small garden fountain. North of the Oak Allee, the Great Lawn occupies the heart of the park and provides multi-use space for active recreation and temporary events, as diverse as ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ and a recent ‘Lyle Lovett’ concert.  Further north, Kinder Lake is punctuated by water gardens set between hardwood piers extending into the lake, and lush riparian plantings that transition into informal drifts of native trees and tall gulf coast grasses.  Stone seating terraces and the hardwood piers draw visitors to the waters edge, encouraging them to cool their feet in the lake.  The lake wraps around the slightly raised central performance stage allowing the audience on the landform amphitheater to enjoy expansive views over the water, Crawford Promenade, Interactive Fountain and Great Lawn, with the Houston skyline as a dramatic backdrop.

The quadrant of the park closest to residential development is designed as a family-oriented area with consolidated programming for visitors of all ages, the centerpieces of which are the large Interactive Fountain and the “Central Flyway” Play Area.  The Interactive Fountain is a dynamic ‘web of water’ created by hundreds of small interwoven jets that randomly pulse on and off to the delight of children who dodge and jump through this fluid maze.  This low web is periodically displaced by large cascading jets creating a civic-scale display and visual terminus to one of downtown’s major thoroughfares.  Dog runs, picnic tables, ample shaded seating, a small puppet theater, and the Lake House Café complete the family area, creating a composite environment that encourages families to often spend the day in the park.

The park's simple design structure makes the 12-acre site seem much larger, by creating a sequence of overlapping outdoor spaces while still preserving a sense of openness and cohesion as a single place, memorable and specific to its context.  Many first-time visitors to the park remark upon the extraordinary diversity of activities and spaces, while repeat visitors discover that their experiences are a fundamental component of the parks’ character.  The park empowers visitors to make their own play, their own place, and their own program, with ample room for imagination and unscripted uses.” She explained.

Sustainability and Water Conservation

“The Grove Restaurant, the Lake house Café, and the Park Building are all LEED Silver certified.  The park architecture is characterized by expansive glass faces on the north exposure, capturing natural lighting and creating contiguous indoor/outdoor relationships, while large shaded outdoor verandas on southern exposures reduce solar heat gain and encourage outdoor seating and gathering by providing shelter from Houston’s characteristic hot sun and downpours.  The veranda shade structures are composed of large banks of photovoltaic panels and solar water heating elements which significantly offset the park’s energy consumption.  Even the below-grade garage is tied to the park-wide sustainability strategies, with the permanent dewatering system (and harvested roof water) providing refill for the lake, reducing both water consumption and storm water discharge,” Mary Margaret said.

She added: “In the realization of Discovery Green both the client and us recognized the importance of economic sustainability by successfully integrating a healthy balance of revenue-generating uses that dramatically reduce its reliance upon public funding.  The $52M public park was primarily funded by private donations and is operated by a private non-profit conservancy.  Revenues generated by the parks two restaurants, occasional paid performances, fund-raising events, and rental of multiple performance/gathering spaces for private parties, account for the majority of its annual operating budget.  Integration of the below-grade garage into the park allowed the City to donate land for the creation of the park while facilitating the City’s annual $750K commitment towards park O&M costs.  In an era when public agencies are straining to operate and maintain signature urban parks, Discovery Green achieves a measure of economic sustainability by seamlessly incorporating revenue-generating amenities while improving the character of the park - without compromising essential public-ness, civic-ness, and experiential qualities.”

Mary Margaret said that the importance of creating a sustainable environment could not be underestimated which is why they used drip irrigation where possible in the park and in addition they used LED lighting throughout the park and shade structures incorporated solar water heaters for water use within the cafe' and restrooms.  And finally, unrecognized by many park visitors, a 4-acre, 620-stall parking garage was seamlessly integrated into a layered structure that supports the Great Lawn, amphitheater landform, stage, lake, and café building. 

“The park design creatively resolved a multitude of technical and design challenges by encasing the large parking structure entrance and parking ramp within the slope and volume of the landform amphitheater, transforming what could have been a major visual nuisance into an attractive and functional park amenity.  Garage stairwells and ventilation shafts, typically anomalous objects within a park environment, were designed as evocative public art elements,” She said.

However, there were several major challenges to the design of the park - one was to accommodate the many desired uses for the park (as Ms Griffiths already pointed out) without creating a 'Disney-like' atmosphere.

The client very much wanted the park to be a draw and to be used as a practical facility, but they also wanted to be sure that it would be beautiful, funky for kids and of course green. In the design of the park, which involved an extensive public process, we sought to find ways to edit the program as appropriate and to find combination solutions to desired elements.  Thus, the stand alone tree house instead became the publicly accessible upper deck of the restaurant nestled in the boughs of the existing live oaks, and the bocce court, putting green and dog runs became part of the structure of the gardens, merely additional garden plots within the overall series of different gardens, and the puppet theater became part of the park building, allowing flexibility of its ultimate use.  This strategic realization of the programming for the park thus gives it an overall open quality and predominately green character.”

She continued: “Another major challenge was the schedule; the client wanted the park to be designed and built within a very tight time frame, one that demanded productivity, quick but thoughtful decisions and adaptability in the face of inevitable changes.  As the prime consultants for the project we were leading a fairly large team of other designers, engineers, specialists and artists and undertaking tasks concurrently that might often more typically be sequential.  Though challenging this did not lead to significant compromises, a fact that is testament to a motivated City and Mayor, dedicated Conservancy, generous philanthropy, excellent management, talented project team and good Contractor.

“And finally the other challenge in the designing of the park was to create a place that would answer any and all of the occasional skeptical questions about the park's possibility of success - the questions of who would go there, why, and would it become one more unused, mostly empty urban space.  The park's overwhelming success and continued high use answer these challenges.”    

She concluded: “It was always important that the park be specifically of Houston, not a park that would feel right anywhere else. The park is made of local materials and celebrates the landscape of Houston, from the existing avenue of gracious heritage oaks to the gardens filled with a rich array of the plants that will grow and thrive in the region's climate to the theme of the play area which celebrates Houston's diverse ecology.  It was also critical to address the scale of the site, a site that seemed scale-less, open and comprehensible all at once.  The park's design makes the site seem much larger, a sequence of spaces that create outdoor rooms, while still preserving a sense of openness and cohesion as one place, a place that is memorable and specific to its context, a place just right for Houston.”

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