Text description provided by the architects. This project comes from one of today’s leading figures in landscape architecture. Hargreaves Associates have designed landscapes that accompany many of buildings we have previously featured. Their design philosophy centers on connection; the connection between culture and the environment, and between the land and its people. The Discovery Green design in Houston, Texas exemplifies this philosophy.
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 twelve-acre park has transformed the perception and experience of downtown while seeding the revitalization of the surrounding urban district.
Hargreaves Associates led a large team of architects, engineers, and artists through a 13-month process to design and document the $52M park and below-grade garage projects. Significant unique challenges included the compressed schedule, accommodation of dense programmatic intersections, and multi-faceted technical and design coordination of the garage with the surface park.
Program and Design
The park is 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. The generous wood decks and “treehouse” terrace of The Grove blend restaurant and garden activities. 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.
Unrecognized by many park visitors, a 4-acre, 620-stall parking garage is 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.
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.
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. The Grove Restaurant, the Lakehouse Café, and the Park Building are all LEED Silver certified. 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 stormwater discharge.
Discovery Green successfully integrates 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 park’s 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.
When civic leaders and local philanthropists joined ranks in a public private partnership to create a new central park for downtown Houston the goals were twofold: create a world-class park that would “seed” the redevelopment of the eastern downtown area previously characterized by a vast sea of surface parking; and provide a green oasis within the urban environment as an open space legacy for generations of Houstonians. The park has surpassed expectations on both counts. Park visitation exceeded 500,000 between April and December 2008, and the park has already proven 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. 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.