The Biggest Earth Day Gift You Missed, and the Billionaire Behind It

One of the most intriguing trends we've been watching lately is how excited rich people are about city parks.

There's a lot to unpack in this trend: a growing focus on urban renewal, rising civic activism among a new cohort of billionaires, an increasing awareness that government funds are limited, and the power of ecological values among today's upper class. To be sure, also, there are some troubling aspects to growing parks philanthropy, as we've discussed. 

Related - The New Golden Age of Urban Parks Philanthropy (And Its Controversies)

Whatever the case, the big gifts for parks keep coming, and in cities around the country. 

The latest news is out of Houston, where a new $10 million parks pledge was made by the Hildebrand Foundation. Appropriately, the foundation went public with this massive grant on Earth Day. The money is going towards creating a system of connected, linear parks and trails along Houston’s major bayous. The public-private effort is called Bayou Greenways 2020, and it’s a program of the Houston Parks Board. It’s an ambitious project, adding 1,500 acres of new park space and 80 miles of new all-weather hike and bike trails, but the end goal is to make Houston one of the top “quality of place” cities in America.

We've written about this mighty effort before, with particular attention to Richard and Nancy Kinder, the billionaire couple who've been its biggest private supporters. 

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So how did the Hildebrand Foundation get involved in the Bayou effort?

The Hildebrand Foundation was formed in 2002 by Jeff Hildebrand (Hilcorp Energy CEO) and his wife, Mindy. She’s been directly involved with the Houston Parks Board for quite a while now. She stated in a press release:

As a member of the Houston Parks Board, I have a special appreciation for the quality of the planning that has gone into the Bayou Greenways project, and for the return on investment that the Houston Parks Board is achieving in bringing its plans to life. Jeff and I are deeply committed to this city that has been such a wonderful place for us to live and raise our children.  We absolutely must continue to add parks across the city if we are going to keep improving our quality of life to ensure that Houston becomes an even better place to live and work for a very long time to come.

Overall, the foundation's mission is to provide for the poor and needy through faith-based organizations. The Houston Parks Board isn’t a faith-based organization, obviously, but its expansion plan caught the funder’s attention anyway. Perhaps this is due to Mindy’s long-standing involvement with the organization, and perhaps due to the target population served.

Most of the existing parks in Houston are located in the affluent neighborhoods. However, this new plan will put parks into all neighborhoods of the city, allowing the poor and needy to access green space just as easily as anybody else. That stands in contrast to other parks projects we've written about, which mainly improve parks adjacent to wealthy neighborhoods.

Related - Diller Island: Private Park Funding Gone Overboard

Bayou Greenways 2020 began moving forward after Houston voters supported a city bond referendum in 2012.

At the end of 2013, the Hildebrand Foundation reported over $156 million in assets and over $28 million in total giving. Jeff’s net worth has been estimated at $5 billion, and that's mostly because he's running one of the largest privately held oil companies in America.

Most foundation giving is centered on Houston, and pretty much all giving stays in Texas. 

Related - IP's Profile of the Hildebrand Foundation's Texas Giving