On Saturday, February 11, 2023, Memorial Park Conservancy celebrated the official opening of the Kinder Land Bridge and theCyvia and Melvyn Wolff Prairie at The Biggest Picnic in Texas. The nearly 100-acre destination reconnects the north and south halves of the park with safe passage for humans and animals over Memorial Drive and reestablishes native coastal prairie to enable a more resilient ecology and diverse habitat. After four years of planning and execution, this marked the first time Houstonians could explore the prairie and ascend to the top of the Kinder Land Bridge to take in the views. An estimated 15,000 Houstonians joined in this history-making moment.
Sarah Newbery, Director of Parks and Greenspace for Kinder Foundation, has been an integral member of the team implementing the “Ten-Year Plan,” which enables Memorial Park Conservancy to accelerate design and construction of significant components of the Memorial Park Master Plan. In recognition of this milestone moment, we asked Sarah a few questions to reflect on the team’s recent achievement.
How did it feel to welcome park users to the Land Bridge and Prairie for the first time?
Surreal. It was hard to believe that after all the time spent on planning and construction, the moment had actually arrived. Thinking back, the Land Bridge and Prairie was one of the first ideas when Nelson Byrd Woltz started sketching the vision for the park during the master planning process, and it was so audacious you could hardly believe it would be possible. To see people’s reactions on opening day and to hear their wonder and excitement over the size and scale of it all was incredible.
What was your favorite part of opening weekend?
It’s hard to pick, but I think my favorite part was seeing all the kids so excited to explore this new space. Memorial Park Conservancy was so thoughtful in planning the event, and they put together this Great Prairie Adventure booklet which took families around the site to different stations with activities and learning experiences. It was fun to see the kids earnestly and eagerly completing the adventure. Knowing they will grow up with the memory of being at opening day and thinking about how they will visit it and watch it grow too is very special.
My second favorite part was being there with my family and bumping into different project partners – all the people who helped make it happen. We were all so giddy and excited to experience the opening together.
Is there a lesser-known project component you recommend park users check out at their next visit?
On the south side of the prairie along the trail near the woods, there are small structures, or blinds, almost hidden from view. I love them because not only do they provide a beautiful view of the full prairie, but they also make you feel completely immersed in nature. When you sit on the benches and look out, you can’t help but feel contemplative and inspired to have a quiet moment of reflection.
I also love walking to the top of either of the land bridge mounds at sunset. Seeing the view and experiencing the change in the colors of the sky is magical. You actually feel closer to the sky. I really can’t think of another spot in Houston where you can have an experience like this.
What can Houstonians expect to see over time at the Land Bridge and Prairie? How will the land change seasonally or evolve over the years?
There are going to be some subtle changes in the near term and more dramatic transformations in the long term. The first year will be special as you get to experience the space during its initial changes. Even in just the first few months since opening, native forbs and wildflowers have come up and some are several feet tall. As the prairie grass continues to grow in, you will feel less exposed looking over the site and more as if you are embedded within the prairie. More subtly, there is a whole mix of prairie plants that will vary year to year, depending on the temperatures, rainfall, and other factors. It’s always going to be a tapestry of colors and textures, but the mix of what you will see will constantly change across seasons.
A more dramatic change, which is hard to even imagine, is in 10 to 20 years when the newly planted trees have grown in. As the trees mature, they will enclose and shape the space differently than what you see right now. This will completely change the experience, especially on top of the land bridge.
What was your favorite part about working on this project?
Being a part of a shared vision and an incredible team. All the projects I’ve worked on with Memorial Park are exciting, but what makes this achievement special is how, despite the challenges, a group of people worked together towards one common goal. So many people came together to contribute in so many ways to make this bold vision a reality. I really give credit to the contractors and consultants for how they always remained solutions-oriented when issues came up. We all felt special and lucky to be working together on this project.
How does this project tie into the overall vision for Memorial Park?
I really see this project as a symbol for the entire Master Plan. The guiding principles developed by Nelson Byrd Woltz were focused on reconnecting, restoring, and enhancing the Park and the Land Bridge and Prairie does all these things. In being so visible, with 55,000 or more vehicles passing through it each day, it’s a kind of living symbol for what the Master Plan is all about. I hope that together with Eastern Glades, this project will reinforce people’s trust in the master plan vision and the benefits of the projects yet to come.
How does this project fit into Kinder Foundation’s mission?
Honestly, it would be hard to find a better fit for the foundation’s mission. Already, the Land Bridge and Prairie project is transformational. Not only does it enhance the experience of everyone driving down Memorial Drive or walking the trails, but it also has the ability to inspire change more broadly. I think it really puts to the forefront how, if we are thoughtful, we can rethink a city’s infrastructure holistically. Human systems and natural systems can coexist to benefit both people and nature.
In addition, it’s a wonderful example of what can be accomplished when public and private sectors come together. The Kinders truly believe in “thinking big”, and their support for the Ten-Year Plan was the catalyst in making this bold vision a reality.
Read more about Kinder Foundation’s support of Memorial Park here.