Houston's success story on parks

Government, business and the public have teamed up here to expand Houston's park system. In the process they have developed what many recreation experts consider a model with application for other US cities, particularly the fast-growing urban centers of the Sunbelt.

Private donations -- plus a government masterplan -- have been the key.

Three years ago a study of urban recreation in the United States by the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, a federal agency, rated Houston 140th in per capita park acreage. And noting that Houston was the nation's fastest growing major metropolitan area, the study warned "the gap between the needs and the resources is continually increasing."

But over the past 18 months Houston has achieved such a turnaround that Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service director Chris T. Delaporte now says the city is becoming a "Sunbelt example of excellence." This sprawling metropolis has increased its park acreage by over 20 percent since the spring of 1979, which federal recreation officials figure is probably the most rapid increase in urban park space in the nation.

The performance is all the more conspicuous given the generally deteriorating state of many urban park systems in the United States. Battered by the high inflation of recent years and increasingly restrictive federal and local budgets , many urban parks cannot maintain existing facilities, much less expand.

The success here demonstrates that the rapid growth, urban sprawl, and limited planning that are typical of many Sunbelt cities -- Houston being a prime example -- do not automatically preclude a quality park system.

Indeed, many of the nation's newer cities have tremendous potential for expanded parks, recreation experts point out. These cities are often low in density and typically have plenty of vacant land. Houston, for example, spreads over 500 square miles and about 40 percent of that land is undeveloped.

The rapidly improving park system here is the result of private donations of land from individuals and businesses worth $11 million.

The donations came after the city, county, state, and federal government agreed to develop an integrated parks and recreation master plan for the Houston metropolitan area and the surrounding Harris County.

The five-year master plan is not completed, but it has already acted as a catalyst in stimulating greater public support for a better park system. "The agreement among various levels of government to work toward a common objective gave contributors confidence their donations would really achieve something," said Meg Maguire, deputy director of the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, in a phone interview.

Public support for parks in Houston has increased as well. Last year both Harris County and the City of Houston passed large bond issues totaling $55 million dedicated to parks and recreation.

"Houston has grown without a real 'park ethic.' The policy in the past has been growth for growth's sake, without much attention to the quality of life," asserted Richard S. Rios, Houston program manager for the Heritage service.

Now, however, Mr. Rios says a real constigency for better park is emerging.

The Park People, a citizens' group, was formed in 1978 to lobby for better parks in the Houston area. "We publicize Houston's low per capita park acreage and public awareness of the need for more parks has really grown," said Don Perkins, president of the organization.

On the drawing board for Houston is the addition of some 11,000 acres of new recreation land, now controlled by the Army corps of Engineers. The city plans to lease that land, which would more than double Houston's total park acreage of about 7,400 acres.

However, the challenge for Houston remains to disperse new recreation areas throughout the city so that they are readily accessible to residents. With gasoline prices increasing, most cities are keenly aware that small neighborhood parks are often more desirable than large parks located great distances from where people live.

While private donations are rapidly boosting Houston's overall amount of park space, the comprehensive plan must address how to develop parks where they are most needed, according to Mr. Perkins.

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