Who’s Behind Houston’s Largest Parks Grant Ever and Why It Matters

Memorial Park, Houston. photo: Joseph Sohm/shutterstock

Memorial Park, Houston. photo: Joseph Sohm/shutterstock

The city of Houston has long been a quiet leader in philanthropy and, more than ever, there's some serious giving power here.

One prominent theme in Houston’s local giving scene is a strong interest among donors in outdoor recreation and urban green space. For example, the John P. McGovern Foundation recently gave a $50 million gift to the Houston Zoo, the Brown Foundation has been pouring millions into the local parks and recreation scene, and the Houston Endowment has been long been heavily involved in parks giving, too.

But the most important player of all working to green Houston is the Kinder Foundation, the philanthropic vehicle of the energy billionaire Richard Kinder and his wife Nancy. 

The Kinder Foundation has been a steady supporter of urban green space for many years. It's been the been leading private funder behind Bayou Greenways 2020, one of the most ambitious public parks project in the country. But the Kinders have also supported the Buffalo Bayou Park, the Hermann Park Conservatory, and other outdoor projects.

Most recently, they made the largest single parks grant in the city’s history. A gift of $70 million will go to fast-track upgrades to the Memorial Park Conservatory, Houston’s largest urban park with 4 million visitors per year.

The Kinders are no stranger to providing lead gifts. Their $50 million pledge for Bayou Greenways in 2013 was all-important in pushing that project forward. This latest and larger gift is also having a big effect. It has reinvigorated public and private support to renovate the park and make significant improvements. In fact, other public and private partners have now invested up to $205 million over the next ten years to take the Kinder’s money even further.

Memorial Park is nearly double the size of New York City’s Central Park, and it’s also a centrally located urban forest that draws in visitors from around the country.

Park enhancements to be made include a land bridge over Memorial Drive, a running complex, a trail/bridge system over I-10, and storm drainage and retention systems. Some of the money is also being set aside for future park maintenance.

Richard Kinder said:

Through a carefully designed public-private partnership, Memorial Park will reach its true potential. Projects completed over the next decade will connect neighborhoods to neighborhoods, attach Memorial Park to Houston's growing hike-and-bike networks, and provide access to hundreds of acres of inaccessible parkland through a series of bridges and access points.

While most people probably don't think of Houston as a parks mecca, it has emerged as one of the most green-forward cities in the nation, largely due to the private philanthropy dollars at work here. The Kinders stand as leading examples of private citizens who are transforming public spaces with their giving. And, so far, the projects they've backed have largely avoided controversy—for example, of the kind that's surrounded Pier 55 in New York City, the island park backed by Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg. 

The Kinder Foundation does not accept unsolicited requests for funding, but it does focus almost all of its efforts on the city of Houston. In addition to urban green space, the Kinders support local education and quality of life, a category that extends to health, housing, food bank, and art grants.