Galveston Bay Park is a 'vision' of Houston's future

Two projects with Rice roots make final cut in Houston 2020 Visions competition

galveston baypark

An ambitious plan to shield Houston from a devastating hurricane by creating Galveston Bay Park, a 10,000-acre public park on a chain of man-made islands, earned top honors in the international design competition Houston 2020 Visions.

Artist's impression of Galveston Bay Park.
Rogers Partners design for Galveston Bay Park earned top honors in Houston 2020 Visions, an international design competition launched in the wake of Hurricane Harvey to gather visionary plans for a resilient and prosperous Houston of tomorrow. (Image courtesy of Rogers Partners)

The park plan, which was conceived by Rice Architecture alumni Rob Rogers '81 and Tyler Swanson '04, expanded on an idea proposed in 2015 by Rice University's Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center.

Launched in 2018 by the city of Houston and the Houston chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Houston 2020 Visions was a response to Hurricane Harvey and a worldwide call for creative and sustainable ideas putting resiliency front and center in Houston's future planning. The juried contest drew more than 50 submissions.

Galveston Bay Park and the Ion, another project with Rice roots, were among 24 submissions selected for the contest's exhibition, which AIA Houston will launch online Aug. 31. The physical exhibition debuts this fall at Architecture Center Houston, which is slated to reopen in downtown's Market Square district following renovations in the aftermath of Harvey's flooding.

The Ion, the 270,000-square-foot hub of a 16-acre innovation and technology district at South Main Street and U.S. Highway 59, is slated to open in early 2021. The Ion is being created from the transformation of a former Houston landmark, the art deco Sears building. It will be highlighted in the exhibition's "Future of Energy/Economy" category.

"Artist's impression of the multiple features planned for Galveston Bay Park."
Galveston Bay Park would include trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding and designated areas for concerts and large events, camping, fishing, boating, birdwatching and other activities. (Image courtesy of Rogers Partners)

Galveston Bay Park by Rogers and Swanson, each with New York- and Houston-based architecture firm Rogers Partners, is one of just three submissions to earn the contest's top honor, "vision."

Tyler Swanson
Tyler Swanson
Rob Rogers
Rob Rogers

When Rogers talks about the park, he often tells the story of an older idea, one that sounded far-fetched when it was proposed more than 100 years ago: build a port 50 miles from the coast by carving a sea-sized shipping lane through miles of shallow muck.

"The ship channel allowed Houston to become the city it is today," Rogers said. "It was big and ambitious, and it was also pragmatic and built largely with local money. It created a 100-year opportunity for the whole region to thrive and survive. We believe it's time to do that again."

Rogers' plan caught the eye of the contest jurors because it ticked virtually every box imaginable in terms of potential benefits:

An artist's illustration of the multiple features of an island in Galveston Bay Park.
An artist's illustration of the multiple features of an island in Galveston Bay Park. (Image courtesy of Rogers Partners)
  • Protects one-quarter of the United States' petrochemical activity and almost 1 million residents of west Galveston Bay from 25-foot storm surge flooding, a realistic hurricane scenario modeled many times by SSPEED researchers.
  • Spurs economic development by supporting the expansion and widening of the Houston Ship Channel and driving tourism.
  • Provides more equitable public access to Galveston Bay; its shores today feature fewer than 500 acres of public access.
  • Improves water quality and produces new habitat for migrating birds, amphibians, shellfish and small fish.
  • Does not require federal funding.

“We’re creating something in the spirit of a national park,” Rogers said. “But this being Texas, we don’t really need the nation to do it.”

SSPEED Center Co-director Jim Blackburn said a variety of funding options for the project are being considered. While he, Rogers, Swanson and others are still refining plans for the park, the next big step is confirming a local government entity as sponsor for the required environmental study by the Army Corps of Engineers. With the necessary permits in hand, Blackburn and Rogers said the project’s hurricane protection features could be finished in as little as five years.

“That is a radically short-term proposition compared to federal action,” Rogers said.

He said the plan is also well-suited for spurring badly needed economic recovery in the time of COVID-19. “This is the kind of major investment that serves multifunctional regional and national purposes,” Rogers said. “It is exactly the kind of project that makes for economic recovery.”

Artist's rendering of a nighttime celebration at Galveston Bay Park.
Artist’s rendering of a nighttime celebration at Galveston Bay Park. (Image courtesy of Rogers Partners)

Rogers credited SSPEED Director Phil Bedient with assembling the expertise needed to create the plan, including engineering from SSPEED’s Larry Dunbar and Houston’s Walter P. Moore Engineering.

Jim Blackburn
Jim Blackburn

“This is an example of what Rice can do for Houston,” Rogers said. “It can put together the engineers, the lawyers, the scientists, the architects, the urban designers, the economists, the experts in landscape, habitat and environment, all in one team, to come up with a big idea that actually preserves Houston and enables it to grow for the next hundred years.”

Blackburn said Rogers and Swanson’s vision for Galveston Bay Park goes far beyond anything SSPEED researchers imagined when they proposed the storm protection structure.

“We put some lines on a map,” Blackburn said. “Rob and Tyler created something that will become a world-class landmark, like the Sydney Opera House. Everybody knows the Sydney Opera House, and everybody in the world will know Houston by this structure.”