cars passing through tunnel
New high performance concrete tunnels now cut through Houston's Memorial Park.Photo: Courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz

Future Highways Must Look Like This

Houston’s Memorial Park has just finished a stunning new land bridge, opening a world of possibilities in urban design

Houston’s Memorial Park just celebrated the opening of a massive infrastructure project. The space, which is the largest wilderness park in Houston, has been open to the public since 1924. But in the 1940s and ’50s, as the prominence of the automobile increased and the city expanded beyond its traditional core, the park was seen as a logical place to locate a six-lane parkway, connecting the Downtown district with the emerging Uptown district to the west. Like many infrastructure projects of that era, this roadway, Memorial Drive, scythed a broad paved path through vibrant public space, bisecting the park into two distinct and disparate sections, one above the road and one below. Now, highly respected landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, working in conjunction with a public/private partnership in the city, has unveiled an audacious solution to remedy these issues, one that could be seen as a fresh model for other cities to follow. 

An aerial view of the highway shows it splitting the park’s terrain.

Photo: Nick Hubbard

 “Our idea in the comprehensive plan was to create a massive earthwork that would cross the six lanes of highway,” Thomas Woltz, owner of the firm, tells AD. “So we designed four high performance concrete tunnels that are parabolic arches—extremely strong geometries—and then brought the soil up to cover them.” The result is. like the High Line in New York, a new landmark for the city that converts blighting infrastructure into a fresh and compelling public space, the Kinder Land Bridge. “[The size,] 38 feet, is a mountain in Houston because it’s a very flat city. So there are new views from up there, and it’s really amazing,” Woltz says in reference to the new vertical limits of the built environment. “I think people will gather there to watch the sun rise and, later in the day, watch it set. In that way, you’re connecting people to each other but you’re also connecting them to the something greater, reminding them that we all share this planet.”

The land bridge and surrounding prairie will be able to sequester 14.2 metric tons of carbon per year.

Rendering: Courtesty of Nelson Byrd Woltz

The plan not only creates a new locus and connector for people, but for wildlife too. No longer will wild animals have to attempt to skirt a six-lane highway to roam through their habitat. The newly opened Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Prairie is also part of an initiative to create landscapes that can tolerate extreme weather like drought, hurricanes, and flooding, which, as the effects of climate change are felt, increasingly plague the region. 

Memorial Park is unique because of its central location and size; at 1,500 acres, Houston’s largest green asset inside the city is nearly double the size of New York’s Central Park. By promoting the park’s ecologies, it can sustainably balance conservation with recreational opportunity for the public to enjoy. 

Rendering: Courtesty of Nelson Byrd Woltz

Woltz and his team conducted thorough research to understand the environment; how it has been changed and manipulated in the millennium since the land was settled by indigenous peoples, European colonists, private owners, and urban planners; and how it can be best reshaped, replanted, and reimagined to address this history as well as current and future challenges. “Our solution is this sort of audacious 21st-century hybrid of reaching back toward a thousand-year-old ecosystems—to savanna, dry prairie, and wet prairie. Reaching back into deep history, ecological history, to find the most resilient solutions. So it becomes a high-performance landscape that is also an authentic and even ancient native Texas ecosystem,” Woltz says. “To my mind, it’s the triumph of green over gray.”

The reveal of this land bridge and its accompanying landscapes is perhaps the most visible of the park’s recent changes, but these openings cap off just the first decade of the master plan that Woltz and his team have developed with the city. “There’s so much more to come—miles of riding trails, running trails, boardwalks, and an actual memorial to the soldiers of World War I. These are all for future phases,” Woltz says.