It’s Saturday morning at Discovery Green, and three dozen of us are moving in unison, trying to follow tai chi instructor Li Fu’s cues to “pull energy” up from the well-watered lawn. The hum of downtown construction does not pierce our focused bubble, one that includes young couples with children, Army veterans, and a woman from Katy who comes every weekend for both the free tai chi and the yoga class before it. With the skyscrapers of the world’s powerful energy companies hovering above, this diverse group is gamely following Li Fu’s cues to move a very different kind of energy, what Chinese martial arts practitioners call chi. And judging by the amused smiles of passersby, it looks as fun as it feels.

Houston, we have a perception problem. The old clichés—that this is a city defined by oil and  freewheelin’ no zoning, where pavement and highway cloverleafs are the dominant landscape features—still hover like humidity over the bayou. Yet spend a weekend within downtown Houston’s parks, and you’ll see what really lights up this city. Within a one-mile radius, you can lounge to live music at the Skylawn, the largest rooftop park in Texas; attend a sound meditation in a decommissioned cistern at Buffalo Bayou Park; or channel your chi with a group of friendly strangers in Discovery Green.  And in a place that’s proud to call itself the most diverse city in the country, these parks are where Houston’s many different people come together.

“Decades ago, a local elected official was rumored to have said, ‘Houstonians don’t need parks; they have their backyards,’ ” says Kristopher Larson, president and CEO of the downtown improvement agency Central Houston. “It was one of those pivotal moments in city building that inspires citizens to respond to what is said about them, and Houston philanthropists began to focus on parks as a strategy to improve Houston’s quality of life. Cities across the nation were demonstrating the impact that parks can have in transforming a place, and local leaders recognized that Houston had an opportunity to really make a statement.”

A statement was made. Funded by an abundance of philanthropists working with nonprofits and park conservancies, Houston’s downtown color palette has shifted from gray to green. In 1992, the only green spaces there were a smattering of underused squares around city hall; the eastern half of downtown was essentially surface parking. Since then, parks throughout downtown have nearly doubled, increasing by 98.5 percent. Over the course of a weekend, using the popular C. Baldwin Hotel on the western edge of downtown as home base, I walked to three distinct downtown parks and witnessed just how much innovative, park-forward Houston has risen above outdated stereotypes of what this city’s all about.

Friday Night, Park One: The Skylawn

It’s Friday night, and the weekend starts at the Skylawn, the giant rooftop park about a fifteen-minute walk from the C. Baldwin; at five acres, it’s more than twice the size of New York City’s biggest rooftop park, on Pier 57.  When the Barbara Jordan Post Office closed its doors in 2015, plans were made to raze its Cold War–era concrete building. But instead, local developer Lovett Commercial purchased it and, with the help of the Downtown Redevelopment Authority, installed the expansive park on its roof, along with a one-acre organic vegetable garden called the Blackwood Skyfarm. The ground floor was repurposed into a humming international food hall and concert venue called POST Houston. Chef Paul Qui helms several of its microrestaurants, including Soy Pinoy (Filipino), Golfstrømmen (Norwegian), and East Side King (Asian fusion). On a Friday night, diners are out in party attire, the salsa music is loud, and almost every stool is full at Return to Sender, a bar where the potent on-tap watermelon tequila cocktail packs a party in a cup. 

I am not alone in carrying my East Side King sushi upstairs to the Skylawn to dine in the company of skyscrapers. With an outdoor bar opening at six, the Skylawn on a Friday night is flush with picnicking families, couples playing lawn games such as Jenga and cornhole,  and a notable number of Beyoncé look-alikes posing for photographers. One decked-out model strikes a pose by what looks to be rows of carrots in the Skyfarm garden; highways frame her head. It’s an unusual but exhilarating contrast: to watch cars zipping past on Interstate 45 and Interstate 10 while surrounded by a rooftop bed of organic leafy greens.

“There’s no other large downtown rooftop farm quite like this,” says Jeff Kaplan, a community developer on the Blackwood board who helped launch the Skyfarm project. “The hope is that farms like this, [when] integrat[ed] into the city, can be a vital way that we connect with food and how it’s grown, particularly for those in the urban core.”

Sitting in the shade of a Mexican sycamore, one of 95 trees that landscape-design firm Hoerr Schaudt lifted by crane onto the roof, I devour a whole slice of the banana pudding cake from Lucy Pearl’s, a bakery downstairs—a necessary indulgence after the cocktail. A couple that had been sitting on the lawn playing Connect Four is now resting in the shade nearby. I ask them why they chose to spend their Friday night on this roof on the edge of downtown. “It’s diverse and chill,” says Von Beaudoin, a man in his late twenties with braids and a broad smile. “We can drink and hang out. This is my city, and here you feel like you are a part of it.”

A splash pad at Discovery Green.
A splash pad at Discovery Green. Photograph by Clayton Maxwell
The Buffalo Bayou cistern.
The Buffalo Bayou cistern. Photograph by Clayton Maxwell

Saturday, Park Two: Discovery Green

On a Saturday morning, there are so few cars downtown that Dallas Street, the thoroughfare that spans ten blocks from the C. Baldwin Hotel to Discovery Green, feels like a pedestrian promenade. It’s only 9:30 a.m., and Discovery Green is hopping. A passel of kids, some speaking in languages I can’t place, are running up a hill of turf carrying pieces of torn cardboard,  plopping their bottoms upon them, and sliding down, some asking for pushes by watchful parents. Did the park designers know that their hill would become the best sledding spot in Houston, no snow required?

The idea of Discovery Green took root back in 2004, when downtown was home to far more parking lots than people. Private donors collaborated with the City of Houston to buy land in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center, formed a nonprofit, and brought in the nation’s top park consultants and designers. Four years and about $125 million later, Discovery Green opened to the public. The need for a public square like this was so great, the twelve-acre park was visited by over one million people in its first year, twice as many as park planners originally projected.

“There was a lot of doubt back in the day,” says Guy Hagstette, Discovery Green’s founding director and the current senior vice president of parks and civic projects for the Kinder Foundation. “Number one, we didn’t know if people would come to a park in downtown Houston, and number two, we weren’t sure there could be anything attractive east of Main Street, because at the time, east of Main was kind of a no-man’s-land. But the first day we were open, after we’d had our big celebration—and this is the most wonderful part of it, quite honestly—we were sitting in our office debriefing, and we saw mothers with their kids entering the park on their own, no event, just going to play. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is gonna work.’ ”

Not only did it work, the park boosted the rest of downtown, too. Today, in an area where almost no one dared lived in the early 2000s, there are now over 10,000 residents, and for many of them, Discovery Green is their playground—one with almost daily free fitness classes, a small lake, two restaurants, first-rate public art, and a whole lot of neighbors all out to have a good time. Bocce courts, a putting green, a short jogging trail, gardens, and grass lawns for lounging offer a menu of recreational possibilities. Even canine visitors have options: there are two dog runs, one for little pooches and another for the big dogs.

While the variety of programming here is head-spinning—top-billed concerts, movie nights, festivals, live art installations—this is also the kind of park where you can just show up and see what unfolds. That’s how I find myself standing in the grass with Master Li Fu of the Four Dragons Institute along with students of all ages and ethnicities, ready for my first-ever tai chi class. As we wait to begin, I ask the woman nearest me why she came to the class. “It’s liberating. I feel free here,” she says—so much so that she’s willing to drive in from her home near George Bush Intercontinental Airport for the no-cost classes. On the other side of me is an older man with beads of sweat on his brow, whose serious focus suggests he’s done this before. Because I am a novice, I try to mimic his moves. After class, he tells me that he, too, is a first-timer, but he’s coming back next week because his injured knees feel better already.

Buoyed with post–tai chi energy, I head to Phoenicia Specialty Foods, downtown’s global grocery store on the edge of the park, to buy provisions for a picnic lunch. This two-story food fantasia is a place to get lost in, with a deli and bakery, bright displays of candies and tea biscuits, dozens of different Persian halvas, and six kinds of house-made hummus. I recognize many of my tai chi classmates also in line at the deli, apparently on the same itinerary as I.

I return to the park with my za’atar bread and garlic hummus. The people-watching is superb, on par with that of New York’s Central Park in its diversity of characters and diversions. By the Discovery Green stage, a squad of high school girls practices dance moves, flinging their hands aloft, to prepare for a concert that afternoon. A child too young to walk sits mesmerized by a little geyser on the splash pad. Kinder Lake is dotted with kayakers; I try to imagine how this body of water will morph into an ice rink come winter. All of this percolating around my little picnic in the park is a reminder of how much I miss if I only stay in my own backyard.

Sunday, Park Three: Buffalo Bayou

The C. Baldwin hotel has many virtues: It is named for Charlotte Baldwin Allen, the woman whose inheritance financed the founding of Houston back in 1836 for her husband, Augustus Chapman Allen. Its prime downtown location means guests can enjoy a very walkable weekend. The staff is personable: a concierge informed me I had a leaf in my hair, presumably a stowaway from Discovery Green. And then there are the bicycles. A fleet of vintage cruisers lines the front entry, an invitation for guests to take one out on a spin, and the network of bike lanes downtown makes it easy to do so.

After a less-than-ten-minute ride, I am in Buffalo Bayou Park, a stretch of over ten miles of leafy walking and biking trails that laces together a ribbon of microparks, each with its own personality. I peddle past an alcove of enormous oak trees whose twisty branches frame a sculpture in block letters that says “REFLECT” and a green field where families snap photos by a police memorial. I stop to admire sculptures of shiny men meditating on folded knees by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. When I arrive at the Eleanor Tinsley section of the park, with its stunning view of downtown backed by a bluebird sky, a sportscaster in a tailored suit is filming a broadcast about the Texans football game happening later that day while a woman with long braids sits painting under a pavilion, encircled by art supplies. I ask a maintenance employee paused in his golf cart what his favorite area of the park is, and he says simply, “All of them.” 

“Buffalo Bayou is one of those inspirational successes that help to really turbocharge this understanding of what parks can be,” says Larson of Central Houston. Like Discovery Green, Buffalo Bayou is not maintained by the City of Houston; the Buffalo Bayou Partnership nonprofit oversees its upkeep and extensive programming, which includes wellness walks, nature tours, pontoon-boat rides, yoga, concerts, and more. The park’s value to Houstonians is evident in the number of volunteers who pitch in: when Hurricane Harvey devastated the city in August 2017, over three thousand volunteers showed up in the ensuing months to replant trees and help remove 80 million pounds of sediment that the hurricane had dumped on the park.

Unlike the uber-urban Discovery Green and Skylawn, this park rubs up close to raw nature. An amble along its foliage-abundant footpaths feels like a hike in the woods, even though the busy Allen Parkway is yards away. Nancy Greig, the park’s nature tour guide and director emeritus of the Cockrell Butterfly Center, has spotted snowy egrets, swamp rabbits, falcons, otters, and the odd great blue heron and alligator. “One time I was running past the Waugh Drive bat bridge,” she says, “and I counted sixteen black-crowned night herons, waiting for the bats to fly out. That was something.”

Down close to the water of the milky, brown bayou, the humid Houston air feels five degrees cooler. But on a Sunday morning, the very coolest place to be is within the underground pillars of the Buffalo Bayou cistern. Along with about twenty other curious souls, I’d signed up for the 10 a.m. Healing Meditation session, in which a facilitator named Saumil plays crystal bowls while attendees sit silently by the water’s edge and feel the vibrations within the concrete walls. Built in 1926 as a water source for the city, the cistern feels more like a temple than a public works building: 221 concrete columns rise from a shallow pool of water that casts reflections, doubling the pillars’ height. It is an otherworldly space. Before he makes his crystal bowls sing, Saumil asks us to howl. We do, some with gusto—it takes seventeen seconds for our howls to reach from one side of the cistern to the other. As we stand still in our own collective echo, the satisfaction resonates, too. No backyard could match this. It’s a microexpression of the ethos of these downtown parks, the way they generously provide communal space for fun and surprises to unfold. We just have to show up and play along.