Residents in a suburban area north of Houston can jog, hike, fish or observe nature in an award-winning park system primarily designed by landscape architecture students at Texas A&M. The effort is a prime example of the myriad community outreach projects the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning has undertaken under the auspices of Texas A&M's Education First program, which encourages university contributions benefiting the citizens of Texas.
During a three-year period, students led by Jon Rodiek, professor of landscape architecture, designed a system of recreation spaces for the Timber Lane Utility Municipal District.
“We combined these designs to create a master parks plan for the district,” said Bud Gessel, the district’s assistant secretary. “We have 179 acres of parkland and 8.25 miles of trails, 90 percent of which were designed by Rodiek’s students,” he said.
With the plans, the district was able to secure $4.4 million in state and federal funding for the series of parks and trails located in a 100-year floodplain along the northern bank of Cypress Creek, adjacent to the Timber Lane subdivision in North Harris County about 25 miles north of downtown Houston.
“This was a fantastic project for the students and the utility district,” said Gessel.
The project, said Forster Ndubisi, head of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, is one example of the department’s fulfillment of Education First, a major university initiative that includes elevating the impact of scholarship to effectively advance Texas, the nation and the world in meeting societal challenges and opportunities.
“More than 90% of our landscape architecture studios and planning and land development capstone courses engage in service learning projects,” said Ndubisi. “One such project, a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-used downtown core concept for College Station, was recognized by the Texas chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. A downtown revitalization project undertaken for the city of Sealy, Texas by graduate urban planning students received a 2011 Student Project Award from the Texas chapter of the American Planning Association.”
Education First also emphasizes the provision of solutions for modern challenges, such as health and economic development, through public service and innovation. The initiative is part of Texas A&M’s Vision 2020: Creating a Culture of Excellence, a road map pointing the university’s way to recognition as one of the U.S.’ 10 best public education institutions.
“Projects like these in our department focus on the inseparable and interdependent mix of the Texas A&M’s teaching, research and service/engagement missions,” said Ndubisi. “It’s using a ‘real-life’ project that benefits a community while forming the basis for learning and research.”
The park master plan, contained primarily on public land within the Cypress Creek floodplain, includes four parks.
Herman Little Park, one of the student-designed parks, won a 2012 Parks and Natural Areas Award from the Houston-Galveston Area Council.
It includes a wetland observation deck, a 5-acre fishing pond, a skateboard park, a jogging and hiking path, a pavilion and parking or 20 cars.
Rodiek’s students overcame special design challenges presented by the site.
“We had to respect where the flood line was,” said Rodiek, whose students created designs with flood lines provided by Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “The students’ designs also respect the native forest,” he said. “There’s wildlife all over the place: hawks, all kinds of songbirds, small mammals and deer. The designs emphasized keeping wildlife in habitat areas while routing people away those areas and respecting the native plants.”
“We tried to make our parks user-friendly, minimizing their exposure to walking parallel to the stream by identifying key access points to create perpendicular paths from the neighborhood to the park.“ said Rodiek.
In 2009, the park system’s hike and bike trail was recognized by H-GAC with its Best Parks and Natural Areas Project under $500,000 award.
Students began designing parks for the system in 2005, when students in landscape architecture professor Jon Rodiek’s graduate studio developed plans 21-acre Sandpiper Park and nine-acre Highland Glen Park, as well as the 4.5-mile Cypress Creek Hike and Bike Trail that connects the two. The plan was then presented to the Timber Lane Muncipal Utility District.
This procedure was repeated in fall 2006 semester when Rodiek’s students designed another park proposal on 90 acres of land that the Union Pacific Railroad wanted to sell to the utility district. in the spring of 2007, undergraduate landscape architecture students worked on a 36-acre design for the North Hills Park and Highland Glen portion of the master plan.
Over the years, the utility district funded students’ efforts, which included trips to the area, a site inventory, soil testing, water quality analysis, plant identification and soil examination.
“We did all that in studio just like a real office,” said Rodiek. “We rented vans and drove down there and back countless times.”