The Quest For Net Zero

By Denton Ragland

Setting the green standard for parks across the nation, Evelyn’s Park, near Houston, Texas, is set to become one of the most sustainable parks in the United States. Five acres of historic land have been conserved and transformed into a dynamic green space where a community can connect with nature in the midst of an energetic urban landscape.

The park, which opened on Earth Day, April 22, 2017, focuses on exploration and education, offering visitors the opportunity to learn about the environment they’re enjoying. Providing their own input and ideas, community members expressed the desire for an enduring gathering place that would offer something for everyone, including features like a great lawn, play areas, walking trails, calming gardens, and food options.

In addition to meeting the needs of the community, the board of director overseeing the park also wanted it to serve as a source of inspiration. The goal: build a space that could exemplify the very best in conservation by reaching “net-zero” energy status for the park’s day-to-day operations, meaning the park would generate the same amount of energy it consumes. To accomplish this, park management knew it needed to choose business partners with purpose, selecting organizations that specialize in environmental responsibility.

Identifying Partners With Purpose
With the goal of net zero in mind, Evelyn’s Park management looked to Lake | Flato, a nationally recognized architecture firm that believes in creating environments that enrich communities. To reinforce the park’s natural elements, Lake | Flato artfully crafted facilities that merge with the landscape and include features that are functional, beautiful, and environmentally responsible. Lighting fixtures that emulate tree branches, building siding and shade elements that serve as armatures for plantings, children’s play areas incorporating original tree stumps and shade canopies from Texas Live Oaks are just some of the ways the park’s structures seamlessly integrate authentic character into the landscape.

Once the architecture had been designed, Evelyn’s Park board members knew it was time to identify a sustainability partner that could make the net-zero goal a reality. That’s where the Green Mountain Energy Sun Club came in. The nonprofit exists to help other nonprofits achieve their goals by donating solar and sustainability projects focused on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and resource conservation. Evelyn’s Park management went to the Sun Club with the idea for a large solar array, and together with Lake | Flato, it designed a system for the park’s office and event pavilion that would generate enough renewable energy for day-to-day operations.

PRB0518_Ragland_Evelyn2.jpg

Once the solar concept was established, the Sun Club expanded the vision by using its expertise to create a sustainability solution that surpassed expectations. “We told the team to think bigger than just solar power when it came to sustainability, suggesting rainwater capture and composting,” says Mark Parsons, president of the Sun Club. “It’s our job to look beyond the expected and to deliver the exceptional.” 

With a $313,500 donation from the Sun Club, the park board incorporated additional features, knowing the steps it was taking would lead Evelyn’s Park to become one of the most sustainable parks in the nation. Once all systems are installed by late 2018, the park will feature a total of 73 kilowatts of solar power, several on-site tumbler composters, and a 20,000-gallon cistern. The underground cistern will capture a significant amount of rainwater, mitigating 40 percent of the park’s overall water consumption.

Evelyn’s Park is focused on improving the quality of life for its visitors while saving the environment and protecting the future. With the donation and expertise from the Sun Club, the park was able to reach a new level of sustainability and accomplish the goals. The park management takes pride in knowing future generations will reap the benefits of conserving natural resources today.

To go a step further, board members wanted the on-site café, The Ivy & James, to also contribute to the park’s conservation efforts. By identifying a chef who focused on local, organic, and responsibly-sourced cuisine, the park could delight visitors while showcasing how easy it can be to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Waste from the café will also go to good use as on-site composters will recycle food scraps, coffee grounds, and compostable packaging for use in the park’s organic gardens.

Engaging And Educating The Community
Evelyn’s Park’s primary mission is to “explore a new way to enrich your every day.” In order to enrich and inspire the community, Evelyn’s Park places an importance on educating guests about the role nature plays and how innovative renewable technologies, like solar or rainwater catchment, can minimize the impact people have on their surroundings. With its green initiatives, the park has additional means to involve the community. By hosting painting parties to decorate rain barrels or using recyclable materials to create a community art project, the park can engage with its visitors in unique and educational ways.

“Educational signage ensures everyone is able to learn something while at the park,” says Debbie Lapin, event director for Evelyn’s Park. “Demonstrating how composting reduces the amount of trash in landfills, highlighting the science behind solar power, or showcasing the amount of water conserved are all great ways to have an impact on visitors. It’s important for people to see how easy it can be so they will get involved,” says Lapin.

Evelyn’s Park is also rooted within the local community. The five acres of land once held the beloved Teas Nursery, the beautifier behind many of Houston’s most historic neighborhoods and businesses. When the landmark nursery closed, community members seized the opportunity to ensure the green space was not at risk of becoming another strip mall or apartment complex. Named in memory of Evelyn Rubenstein, a local resident and philanthropist who had a great love for the outdoors and all that makes it beautiful, Evelyn’s Park was created in her honor. That strong sense of community keeps visitors coming back, so it’s important for parks to establish that connection.

Enhance Your Park
With a growing emphasis on nature and resource conservation in urban areas, existing and new parks nationwide are now prioritizing sustainability alongside accessibility and aesthetic appeal. From long-term, more extensive solutions, such as those featured at Evelyn’s Park, to more simple and immediate improvements, reinforcing sustainability has a positive impact on the park, the community, and the environment.

The first step to take when considering how to make your park more environmentally friendly is to identify strong partners, like the Sun Club, who focus on sustainability. The partners will tailor their recommendations to your specific needs and serve as trusted advisors as those practices are incorporated into your park. As a strong advocate for sustainability, Evelyn’s Park hopes to inspire more parks to realize the benefit of being responsible stewards of our environment.

To learn more about Lake | Flato, visit lakeflato.com. To learn more about the Green Mountain Energy Sun Club or to apply for a sustainability donation, visit gmesunclub.org.

Denton Ragland is executive director of Evelyn’s Park. To learn more about the park, visit evelynspark.org. Reach Ragland at denton.ragland@evelynspark.org.