A vast expanse of surface parking lots and cars blanketed the east side of downtown Houston until Discovery Green, a 12-acre oasis, replaced them in 2008. Now more than a million people each year come downtown to enjoy the urban park’s features and programs that have been tailor-made just for them. A series of public meetings and focus groups conducted as part of the park’s planning process determined what the city’s diverse population desired in an outdoor recreation destination. Even the park’s name, Discovery Green, was selected from more than 6,200 entries submitted during a citywide contest. “Using the word park may be a misnomer,” explains Susanne Theis, programming director for Discovery Green Conservancy (DGC). “If you think of acres and acres of bucolic pastoral beauty, that’s not what this park is. This is a planned urban public space that’s meant to bring people together. That’s why we actively manage and program the park.”
Discovery Green is managed on-site by a professional nonprofit organization. The DGC staff supervises all aspects of the park’s operations and organizes the publicly engaging events that so many people come to experience and enjoy. Barry Mandel, the conservancy’s president, says, “There is space in the park for programs and there are areas that are completely unprogrammed, where kids can run free, families can have a picnic, or friends can throw a ball. That’s how the park was designed, and it’s working better than expected.” Attendance has doubled expectations.
Downtown’s transformation by Discovery Green was initiated by former Mayor Bill White and was funded through the generosity of Houston’s citizens and its philanthropic foundations, including Houston Endowment, which made a $10 million contribution toward the $122 million park. Commercial development surrounding the park reflects this transformation. “A residential high-rise across from the park—the first new downtown residential construction in a half-century—is fully leased,” describes Mr. Mandel. “Hess Tower, a new office tower, is fully leased, and Embassy Suites Hotel opened in 2011.”
Even more impressive are the million or so people who come downtown each year to get outdoors. For them, Discovery Green is a multilayered magnet. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wetland plants and sun-loving annuals grow in gardens, by the one-acre lake and along huge lawns, and long walkways are lined with shaded benches. Colorful flowers attract birds and butterflies, fill the park with fragrant scents and provide the perfect backdrop for people to enjoy playgrounds, dog runs, jogging trails, bocce or shuffleboard courts and putting greens. An amphitheater at the bottom of a sloped hill invites participation, and a water fountain—a significant piece of public art—welcomes everyone to the park and encourages them to jump in, to squeal, to laugh and to get wet. At Discovery Green, one will never hear, “Stay out of the fountain,” unless it is being cleaned.
DGC maintains the park’s landscaping and its infrastructure. It supplies the play equipment that kids and adults use, from bocce balls to remote-controlled boats that they can sail across the lake. DGC also organizes and helps present the hundreds of programs and events each year that multiply the park’s appeal. Like everything else in the park, the programming is multilayered. For example, outdoor exercise classes attract hundreds of adults each week. Toddler Tuesdays is a popular Tuesday morning event, which allows parents to spend quality time with their little ones at the park. Ms. Theis says, “We are at our best when we work with strong partners who provide important services.”
Park patrons can shop at the Discovery Green Flea, a monthly market for objects recycled, refreshed and renewed. They can go to the Houston Public Library’s Express Library to use a computer, do a little work or sign up their child for a free weekly writing class conducted by Writers In The Schools. People pour into the park to see plays, hear music and watch dance programs, all performed by the city’s arts organizations. “At Discovery Green, Houston’s great art organizations have a stage where they can engage people with their work and build their audiences in a powerful way,” says Ms. Theis.
Local health providers also participate. “This past Halloween we partnered with St. Joseph Medical Center and gave away flu shots during ‘Scream on the Green,’” says Ms. Theis. The popular annual Halloween event also includes a costume contest, movies, music and prizes.
Even “Ice at Discovery Green,” the park’s holiday season ice rink, offers more than a place to skate. In keeping with Discovery Green’s intent to preserve the environment and its LEED Gold certification, the frozen water is recycled from the park’s lake, all ice-tending equipment is powered by renewable energy and the rink’s border is made from recycled plastic. There are performances by top ice skaters, demonstrations by ice sculptors and assorted events and art exhibitions throughout the park that wow and please visitors. “Our efforts to reach out through programming, by offering what people want and need when they come here, helps them connect with the park,” says Ms. Theis.
Hundreds of corporations and nonprofit organizations partner with DGC to present almost nonstop programming, most of which is free and open to the public. Blocks of land once covered in cement and cars have become more than a park. Discovery Green is an outdoor gymnasium, art gallery, performance hall and community center wrapped in nature. People come here to play, to learn, to exercise and to celebrate milestones like birthdays, anniversaries and marriage proposals. Ms. Theis recalls, “This used to be a parking lot. Now Discovery Green is a destination.” Mr. Mandel adds, “And it is a neighborhood, too.”