The Houston-based Brown Foundation is best known for being a local funder of primary and secondary public education, visual and performing arts, and services for children and families. However, it just made a splash on the parks and rec scene by committing $3 million to help create a 150-mile network of connected parks and trails in Houston.
Brown’s new money is going to the Houston Parks Board in support of Bayou Greenways 2020, which is a giant public-private endeavor. Park and greenspaces in the specific parts of the country, such as Texas and Oklahoma, have been getting an increasing amount of attention from funders lately. Perhaps all those National Park Service centennial celebration ads are spurring some local inspiration. Or maybe it's just the fact that parks often provide a non-controversial way to support the environment without straying too far from home.
Of course, as we've noted, such funding is not always without controversy. Some see this funding as granting the wealthy and foundations too a big of a role in shaping public spaces. Yet while "Diller Island" in New York City is among the private parks projects that have stirred debate, we haven't seen much backlash to the ambitious Bayou Greenways—perhaps because it's been carefully designed with equity concerns in mind, seeking to connect nearly all of Houston's neighborhoods to accessible greenspace.
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This isn’t the first time that the Brown Foundation has shown its support for the Houston park project. In fact, it’s contributed over $5.6 million to Bayou Greenways 2020 so far. Brown might not be the most prominent parks funder in Houston, but this big gift show its definitely in the game.
You might recall from our January 2014 article, "Who’s Paying for Houston’s Bayou Greenways?" that the Kinder Foundation has been a driving force for this project since the beginning. But as we pointed out in our foundation profile, “The Kinders are the Houston parks funders to watch, but that might be about as close as you get. The couple very deliberately limit their accessibility, for now opting to seek out a small number of very large projects.”
On the other hand, the Brown Foundation is far more accessible and transparent, even to the point of accepting unsolicited grant applications with no deadlines. (Hooray for them!) Both foundations give big in Houston, but Brown gives broader and encourages inquiries from grantseekers.
Bayou Greenways isn’t just significant in the city of Houston but well beyond the state borders, too. In fact, it’s been one of the most ambitious park projects in the entire U.S. The Houston Parks Board anticipates the project will transform over 3,000 acres of underutilized bayou land into accessible greenspace. The “big picture” goal here is to elevate Houston to one of the top livable cities in the country, and with an estimated 60 percent Houstonians positioned within a mile and a half of the Bayou Greenway once it’s complete, this $220 million project will have a lot to do with that.
Houston, like much of Texas, has had a reputation for being a full of people that love their gas-guzzling, fume-emitting trucks and SUVs. But when you visit Houston today, you might be surprised to see how prevalent public transportation and bikes really are. Bayou Greenways has gotten so much momentum locally that unlikely funders, like the Brown Foundation, are pitching in to help the parks board reach its fundraising goal and elevate Houston’s city status, which will have all sorts of economic benefits if everything pans out as expected.