Spend an hour with Guy Hagstette and you will get a fascinating history lesson on how far Houston has come in the 100 years since landscape architect Arthur Comey proposed the city’s first development plan – a vision that led to the construction of picturesque byways like Memorial Drive and Braeswood Boulevard. You will also learn how far we still have to go.
For more than 30 years, Hagstette has been at the forefront of efforts to make Houston more attractive and functional. He is a bit of an evangelist when it comes to preaching about the benefits of visually appealing green spaces and improved streetscapes. When others scoff and say it cannot be done, he asks, “why not?” He loves this city like he loves his family, and you can hear that love in the way he talks about Houston. His ability to envision what others cannot and his drive to make it happen are the reasons Hagstette is this month’s Scenic Citizen.
For the last decade, Hagstette, a registered architect and urban planner and vice-president of the Kinder Foundation with a focus on its park and civic projects, has been working on the revitalization of Buffalo Bayou Park. Before that, he led the development of Discovery Green in downtown Houston. He designed Sesquicentennial Park and served as director of planning and development for the Houston Downtown Management Corporation. He sees parks as being the great equalizers.
“I know that Houstonians are open, caring people and we have had so few opportunities to live that out in the way that we can now in parks,” he said in an interview with Scenic Houston. “Every point of view, every demographic can come together and enjoy one another.”
Houston’s transformation from a city known more for its billboard littered highways than its beautiful public spaces has been slow, but Hagstette believes the rest of Houston is finally realizing what he has known all along – Houston can be an attractive and affordable city in which people want to live and raise families.
“Houston has had a civic inferiority complex,” he said. “We are rightfully proud of so many things in this city – proud as a people and how we interact with each other. But when it comes to the physical place, for so long Houstonians accepted a trajectory that is pretty uninspiring. In the broadest sense, that is the biggest victory . . . that we are beginning to turn that around.”
While we may be rounding the corner, Hagstette stresses that the work is far from finished. Taking a position near and dear to Scenic Houston, he points to the need for enhancing the look and functionality of the streets we use to get to and from all those beautiful parks. That, he said, must be the next step in Houston’s transformation into the city it is meant to be.
“My hope is that Scenic Houston and the work you’ll do on our streets can now come around,” he said. “When you look at the geography, the citizens of Houston are the biggest landowners. Around one-third of the geography is owned by the citizens, and the majority of this is our streets and sidewalks. As you know, we are far behind on maximizing these spaces and the benefit to the citizens.”
Hagstette, now 65, is deservedly at a point in his life where he is burning a little less midnight oil. He is focused on helping Rich and Nancy Kinder direct their generosity effectively, but he is guiding from behind the scenes rather than rolling up his sleeves and getting down in the dirt as he did for so many years before. He is also helping to ensure forward momentum continues by mentoring those who will follow in his footsteps.
“We forget that as citizens of our city we need to do things that benefit generations into the future, but it doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of foresight, a lot of willingness. We need to keep that in mind,” he said.
You can bet Scenic Houston is keeping that in mind, and we are grateful to Hagstette for his incredible work in getting us this far.