Brays Bayou, Houston

In the summer of 2012, I had the pleasure of visiting Houston, the largest city in Texas and fifth largest in the country. Most of my time was spent on the southern side of the city, where I was hosted by families in the Fondren and Braeburn neighborhoods. I drove along Braeswood Boulevard and noticed a linear park in its wide median and a concrete-encased waterway in this park.

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The summer climate in Houston is arid and Brays Bayou appeared harmless, so why the generous median and concrete straitjacket? Because on Memorial Day in 2015, the bayou had jumped its banks, flooding more than a thousand homes within its watershed. Here is the story of a hidden waterway in Houston.

Course of Brays Bayou

The namesake of the bayou is a mystery, relating either to a little-known early white settler or a Scottish term for hillside or slope. Until the mid-20th century, even the spelling of this stream was a matter of dispute.

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Looking at the above map published in May 2015 by the Harris County Flood Control District, the stream is undergoing multiple projects designed to reduce flooding along its course. Most descriptions of this stream ascribe its beginning at George Bush Park, a 7,800-acre green space just outside the city’s border. The park was developed in the 1940s as the Barker Reservoir, designed to detain excess floodwaters of Buffalo Bayou and Brays Bayou.

Looking at Google Maps, the furthest mention of Brays Bayou from its mouth is in the gated Crestwater subdivision in the Westheimer Place neighborhood. This community has three connected lakes with fountains and docks.

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In many ways, the ponds serve a decorative purpose of providing a waterfront to homes in an otherwise humid grassland. At the same time, the ponds are also functional in detaining storm water runoff.

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The first appearance of a sign mentioning Brays Bayou is at Westheimer Place Drive, near Flem Rees Elementary School. Here, the bayou appears as a ditch lined on both banks by a generous green shoulder in a larger area covered by a maze of streets with identical cookie-cutter houses.

A mile to the east, the ditch widens into the Eldridge Stormwater Detention Basin, an artificial lake designed to hold back the bayou when it floods. Describing the impounding of water as “detention” sounds like a punishment. Fortunately the basin’s shore is being redesigned with a naturalistic appearance as an expansion the nearby Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza Park. To the east of this reservoir, the bayou again becomes a ditch flowing past subdivisions, including the unfinished Ashford Point, where an unusual gigantic Chinese temple stands by the stream.

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The photo above is courtesy of Swamplot, a Houston real estate landscape site akin to New York’s Curbed and YIMBY. The next detention reservoir for Brays Bayou is Arthur Storey Park.

In contrast to my city’s Parks Department, which has online historical signs explaining namesakes for nearly every park, Houston does not have such a program, so while MacGregor Park, Mason Park, and Herrmann Park relate to previous landowners, smaller parks such as Storey Park are a mystery to me. Perhaps a Houstonian reader could enlighten me.

Trails on the Bayou

Among urban planners, Houston is famous for resisting attempts at zoning, preferring private covenants to enforce neighborhood appearance. The old frontier mentality of the nation’s second largest state meant decades of unrestricted suburban growth with few parks or public transportation routes. As the public recognizes the need for parks, the bayous of Houston have become candidates for transformation into linear parks. It’s an old idea dating back to Arthur S. Comey’s 1912 proposal to line the city’s four bayous with parkland.

“The backbone of a park system for Houston will naturally be its bayou or creek valleys, which readily lend themselves to parks and cannot so advantageously be used for any other purpose.”

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In some places, the shoreline trial is rudimentary and awaiting an upgrade, while further downstream along Braeswood Boulevard, the trail is paved and includes benches, informational signs, and unique bridges.

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As the Houston Parks Board declared, “It’s time we lived up to the name ‘The Bayou City.'” In 2009, the Harris County Flood Control District commissioned the SWA Group to design a plan for “park-ing” the city’s streams. The Brays Bayou Greenway Framework serves as the guiding document for the expansion of parks along this stream. In downstream sections, the restored bayou will serves as a corridor for canoes, with launch sites in selected parks.

Brays Bayou merges with the larger Buffalo Bayou at sea level just east of Broadway Street. The stream widens into Galveston Bay and empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

A Green City

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Taking into account not only the bayous but also abandoned railways, boulevard medians and highway shoulders, there is plenty of undeveloped space in this sprawling city that could become parkland, as shown in the slide above provided by the Houston Parks Board. As I consider relocating from the increasingly expensive city that is my home, I think of the Bayou City and recognize that there is plenty of park planning work ahead. It is an exciting time for Houston, its parks and its hidden waterways. So despite its lack of winter snow and abundant humidity, the city is on my mind.

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