From the Beach to the Bay

Galveston Island State Park is shrinking: Scientists predict that the landmass will decrease 22 percent over the next 50 years due to rising sea levels and beach erosion, transforming much of what is dry land into open water or marsh. The park is the only contiguous beach-to-bay stretch of land on the island. It is 2,000 acres and welcomes over 350,000 visitors annually, despite the fact that Hurricane Ike destroyed the majority of the park facilities in 2008. With a Texas Parks & Wildlife Department-approved master plan in hand, Studio Outside Landscape Architects, in collaboration with Overland Partners, is gearing up to rehabilitate the landscape, establish new infrastructure, and build new park facilities with a flexible approach that will accommodate the predicted ecological shifts for years to come. 

“We wanted to give a voice to the land,” says Andrew Duggan of Studio Outside. “The environment drove the plan both horizontally and vertically.” The park, which enjoys 1.5 miles of uninterrupted beach, was once defined by tall grass prairie within a larger coastal prairie and marsh-ecological region. Years of cattle grazing on the property during its days as the Lazy Z Ranch in the mid-20th century, however, altered the landscape and only remnants of the prairie remain. After the family arranged for the state to the take over the property in 1975, a two-lane highway was built to better connect the western tip of the island with downtown Galveston, effectively separating the beach and the bay areas of the park. At that time, new park facilities were constructed, many of them situated in environmentally sensitive zones. 

Tropical storms and hurricanes then did their part to ensure the erosion of the beach and the elimination of the sand dunes to such a degree that a Dunes Renewal Project was implemented in 1998. The site, which has a grade change of only five feet from the shore to the 

historic height of the dunes, encompasses a variety of habitats and intertwined systems, which are becoming increasingly rare on the island. Continued residential development of the western end of the island has surrounded the park, and resultant pressures on the ecological stability are both immediate and long term.

Following a robust research and planning phase, Studio Outside and Overland identified ecologically sensitive zones and built a program around the projections for island subsidence, sea level rise, hurricanes, and even negative sand migration effects of the Houston Ship Channel. Park facilities will be anchored by the proposed Discovery Center, which will be placed on the bay side where long views of the entire property will help visitors understand the diversity of the site. Paths, boardwalks, and elevated campsites will allow for flexibility as the site changes, and will even provide teaching tools documenting the evolution of the landscape. Nodes of activity will be concentrated on the beach, leaving large areas of the bay side and the eastern end of the park to be rehabilitated as a natural zones. 

The philosophy of anticipating change, creating flexible areas with expendable materials, and building for resiliency is new. Studio Outside is quick to note that the former Brutalist park facilities were grounded in an ideology that they could and would withstand the elements — even in the most powerful hurricane-force winds and waters. “It is outmoded to think we can win the battle with our changing environment,” notes Duggan. “The site is not static. It will never stay the same, and the whole purpose is to plan for change.”

Catherine Gavin is editor of Texas Architect.

Originally published in the March/April 2015 issue of Texas Architect.