Urban Landscape Genius: Advice for Downtown Houston

Remembering When Acclaimed Landscape Architect James D. Burnett Spoke on (1) Downtown Houston, (2) Tearing Down the Pierce Elevated and (3) Building a Deck Park over TxDOT’s Proposed New Freeway Near Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center.

HOUSTON – (Realty News Report, Ralph Bivins Editor) – James D. Burnett, founder of the landscape architecture practice called the Office of James Burnett, spoke with Realty News Report for an in-depth  interview published in the summer of 2016.

Burnett, a winner of the American Society of Landscape Architects Design Medal for his career-long body of work, spoke at-length about transformative ideas for the future of downtown Houston.

As the debate continues about the major overhaul of Houston’s downtown freeways and its impact on the city’s need for additional green space, we take a look back to Burnett’s comments from five years ago:

Realty News Report: Your firm designed Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park, which creates green space seemingly “out of thin air” and connects a neighborhood cut off by an eight-lane freeway with the Dallas Arts District and downtown. What was your inspiration for the park?

James D. Burnett: There wasn’t a physical space that inspired Klyde Warren Park, but rather an idea. The goal was to create a park for all people. It wouldn’t be ego-driven, or a single sculptural moment. Rather we aimed to create a series of outdoor rooms that were custom-

Houston landscape architect James Burnett designed the transformative Klyde Warren Park, which is on top of a buried freeway in downtown Dallas. Burnett said in a 2016 interview the same thing could happen in downtown Houston near the George R. Brown Convention Center.

designed for various activities. It was more about making an active community space where all events would be free and the program would offer something for everyone– children’s areas, spaces to play games, water features to splash in, Texas native botanical interest gardens and even a dog park. It would also be a place where informal things could happen – no matter the scale – like birthday parties, outdoor meetings with colleagues, and impromptu gatherings for family and friends, along with festivals and large performances for hundreds. One of the biggest and most important driving factors was to create a space for the community, where people can come together and spend their precious free time in a place that they love and admire. Klyde Warren Park has become Downtown Dallas’ back yard. People visit to people watch, let their kids play, walk the dog, exercise and recreate. From a design perspective we didn’t want to look backwards. Because Dallas is such a progressive city, we would look forward. We aspired to create the most intelligent landscape strategy with native plantings, great lighting and water features along with interesting park features, focusing on the detailing and the richness of the architectural elements. Klyde Warren Park isn’t just a green space. It’s a welcoming and comfortable place where people can go not only to enjoy the activities, but also to reconnect with nature in an urban environment.

Realty News Report: Can it be replicated in other cities?

James D. Burnett: Every city has its own personality and every city deserves its own expression. The concept of having five acres of open space (in Dallas) that heals the divide and bridges neighborhoods is a great concept and not only can be replicated, but should be. Reproducing the planning strategy of covering the freeway and knitting neighborhoods together absolutely can be replicated. Would this particular park work somewhere else? Not exactly. Chicago, Phoenix, Atlanta would all have very different versions that speak to their individual identities and aspirations.

Realty News Report: Future funding and maintenance for Klyde Warren Park was integrated into the park operations plan. With public funds dwindling, how important is it today to create a solid strategy for fundraising for such projects?

James D. Burnett: It’s paramount. It’s the lifeblood of any type of cultural, arts, civic space or institution. You have to have the back-end figured out. You simply can’t charge into these things blindly with the idea of going to make a grandiose park where the last dollar is spent the day before the park opens. There have to be contingencies, endowments, and community support – and not necessarily tax dollar support –  but rather the backing of people who love and believe in what you’re creating. People love to support parks, but they need to have ownership and that comes in many forms.

Realty News Report: In Houston, there is talk about tearing down the Pierce Elevated freeway in downtown.  What are your thoughts about making the Pierce a park if the Elevated is demolished?

James D. Burnett: I love the idea of it being torn down and turned into public open space. A linear park could dramatically change the look and feel of this area of downtown. It would be a great way of reclaiming a lost part of the City and giving the neighbors a common green.

Realty News Report: A proposal by TxDOT is exploring putting the freeways near the George R. Brown Convention Center  underground, enabling the downtown area to flow to the east by possibly creating a park similar to Klyde Warren Park. Is that a workable idea?

James D. Burnett: Absolutely. There are approximately 50 new deck parks  being planned in the U.S. today. These parks are reconnecting neighborhoods and districts, and the majority of these are in downtown areas similar to East Houston. These green bridges can make a huge impact as proven in Dallas. It would be a game changer for Houston.

Realty News Report: What are some of the other issues with downtown Houston landscape architecture?

James D. Burnett: I think it’s important to continue to make pedestrian-friendly streets, narrowing street widths and incorporating wide sidewalksstreet trees, on-street parking and pocket parks. We need places where workers and residents can get outside and take a break and get connected to nature. It’s not just about having one or two great urban open spaces downtown, but having many. That’s important. Great cities have a strong commitment to public open space and it can be transformative. While the city has made great strides to develop open space, there are some huge opportunities that could dramatically change the feel of downtown.

Originally published on July 12, 2016 by Realty News Report, a Texas-based publication edited by Ralph Bivins.

Aug. 2, 2021 Realty News Report Copyright 2021

Photo credit: Ralph Bivins of Realty News Report Copyright 2021

For more about Texas real estate, check out the book Houston 2020: America’s Boom Town – An Extreme Close Up  by Ralph Bivins. Available on Amazon  http://tiny.cc/4a2g6y  

Houston 2020 Ebook version  https://tinyurl.com/4xm7z8b5     

File: Advice for Downtown Houston. James Burnett.


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