Landscape Architect Kevin Shanley Wants to Reconnect Cities with Their Waterways

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By Esha Chhabra / Published by Dwell
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More than a half-century ago, Houston's flood-prone Buffalo Bayou was unceremoniously turned into a straight sluice to carry excess water to the Gulf of Mexico. In 2012, the city embarked on a $58 million plan to restore the river’s natural bends and build new wetlands and parks, transforming this onetime eyesore into an urban amenity. Much of the credit for its success goes to Kevin Shanley, a landscape architect and principal at SWA Group, based in the firm’s Houston office. We asked Shanley, who specializes in urban river projects, about the rebirth of the Buffalo Bayou and the benefits of restoring natural habitats to urban waterways.

You were intimately familiar with the Buffalo Bayou because it’s in Houston, where your practice is based. How did you approach this project?

Houston’s Buffalo Bayou was once so polluted that an annual canoe race was nicknamed the “Reeking Regatta.”

Everyone was looking for solutions at the time. I was given a couple of weeks to think about it. I came back with a solution that was only possible because of some fortuitous consequences of real estate acquisition. Harris County ended up buying full tracts of land along the river. I said, "If we’ve already acquired this land, let’s give the river more room." We’ve crowded it, confined it, compressed it; we have stressed it with the hydrology of an urban landscape. I felt we might be able to restore the original curvature of the river. The engineer said that wouldn’t work because water doesn’t want to go around curves, but water actually moves much more efficiently in curves. It doesn’t want to go in a straight line. 

These days, it flows through a tree-lined landscape of trails and native plants. Kevin Shanley, a principal at SWA Group, says the project has restored severed connections binding the river to the city and its residents.

What have you learned from the Buffalo Bayou project that may be applicable to other urban waterways?

The Buffalo Bayou could serve as a model for other cities looking to revive neglected waterways, such as Los Angeles.

I stress that you cannot disconnect the river from its watershed. Consider a leaf: The leaf and the veins are one thing. A river and its watershed are one thing. People need to learn that what they do on the roof, on their front yard, or in the sink at home will affect the watershed. It might be a mile away or five miles away, but they are connected to it. From that understanding comes practical solutions. The best solutions are not heavy-handed engineering solutions; they are changes in behavior, changes in the watershed. Particularly in growing cities, we Americans don’t preserve much of our urban landscape. Don’t force things down people’s throats, though. Let them discover it.

"Many cities turned their backs on rivers and water-edge properties but are now discovering through restoration projects that the waterways can tie together distant parts of the community, provide important gathering and mixing places for different groups, and reinvigorate a strong sense of civic pride."―Kevin Shanley, landscape architect.

What are the benefits of a project like this?

Many cities turned their backs on rivers and water-edge properties but are now discovering through restoration projects that the waterways can tie together distant parts of the community, provide important gathering and mixing places for different groups, and reinvigorate a strong sense of civic pride. There’s an intangible benefit as well: exposing urban populations to the wonder of a natural future, something that was there thousands of years before us and will be there after we’re gone. Water is so important; you and I are made of water. All of life around us relies on water. It’s important to have a wondrous sense of connection to it.