After Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston Island State Park, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department saw the opportunity for a new master plan that would increase understanding and enjoyment of this rich and ecologically diverse stretch of the Texas Coast. They also knew that they needed a new approach to recreation and preservation in a highly volatile environment. The resulting master plan provides recreational and educational opportunities for park visitors while raising the standard for environmental master planning in the state.
Galveston’s history has been shaped by the devastating hurricanes that have tested the resilience of its people and built environment. When Hurricane Ike made landfall on September 13, 2008, it devastated the Texas coast. Galveston was among the hardest hit areas, declared uninhabitable in the aftermath of the storm. The seventeen-foot storm surge preceding the hurricane topped the Galveston Seawall and essentially obliterated all natural and manmade infrastructure in Galveston Island State Park.
Located on one of the barrier islands between Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, the park’s 2,000 acres contain twelve distinct ecosystems, rich in wildlife and flora. Previously popular among birders, surfers, and beachcombers, the clients knew that increased appreciation for the less inviting ecosystems like marshlands and riparian areas would mean increased use and appreciation for the park. Working with Studio Outside and MESA design group, Overland was able to take advantage of the park’s clean slate and devise a plan to encourage exploration across the island.
Hurricane Ike, as well as Galveston’s long history of hurricane devastation was fresh on the minds of the design team, as they considered a 50-year plan for the park. Phased in such a way that the clients could develop the park in stages dependent on funding, the plan took into account the ever-changing conditions of the barrier island environment. Shorelines, dunes, and marshes continually move across time, and it could be assumed that whatever structures, trails, and infrastructure they put in place would eventually be subjected to another devastating storm. Keeping this in mind, the team carefully considered which elements needed to be sited and conditioned for maximum protection, while siting more resilient or renewable elements in the volatile regions subject to flooding.
Rather than trying to make every design element a man vs. nature venture, proven by history to be a fool’s errand, the design team opted to design for longevity. “We divided the site vertically into three sections,” said Principal in Charge Jim Shelton. “The lowest level contained things that could be flooded, like pathways and some overlooks; a midlevel raised your view and contained walkways and connecting pieces; and the occupied buildings were above the twenty-foot level. All of those pieces came together at the Discovery Center.
They placed the Discovery Center, the optimal launching point for exploration of the park, on the bay side of the island, encouraging visitors to consider the ecological richness of the less glamorous side of the park. From this high point, visitors can get the lay of the land to plan hikes, kayak adventures, and birding expeditions. The decision to place the Discovery Center and cabins on an edge between water and land was purposeful, allowing the location to be used as a tool to measure the change in their relationship as a result of sea-level rise, the subsidence of the ground, and the coastal dynamics of the barrier islands. “It’s an important issue, but I think it’s one that’s lost on many people. We wanted to call attention to it,” said Shelton. The buildings remain stationary as the landscape shifts around them and are used as a means of recording the natural cycles of the area. And while the destructive forces of Hurricane Ike ravaged Galveston Island in 2008, the fragile and dynamic ecology of the area is now being reborn.