Work has begun on a crucial part of the Land Bridge. Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz

Few things get local greenspace lovers more hyped than the upcoming improvements and beautification of our beloved Memorial Park — which is currently undergoing a major transformation. While many of the updates and facelifts are years off, one of the most innovative ventures has reached a new milestone in the much-anticipated Land Bridge and Prairie project.

Installation of the first tunnel arches has started as of December 9, according to the Memorial Park Conservancy. Marked by two separate, 35-foot tall mounds, the Land Bridge will serve as a major connector for park users and wildlife between the north and south sides of the park, Additionally, it will offer new gathering spaces with scenic views of Houston and the project's expansive prairie network.

Once the project is completed, vehicular traffic will traverse a new alignment of Memorial Drive via tunnels through the Land Bridge — two tunnels below each of the mounds (one for each direction of travel), according to a press release. The arch segments now being erected south of existing Memorial Drive are for the two tunnels through the eastern-most mound.

Next up will be erection of the west mound arches; all tunnels are slated for completion and open to traffic by fall of 2021.

These tunnels boast an innovative edge. While most are built through existing hillsides or below ground, the Land Bridge tunnels will be set at the same grade as the existing roadway, prior to installation of the earthwork for the mounds, per a release. The tunnels through the east and west mound measure 400 feet and 560 feet long respectively and are made up of some 620 separate panels, each of which weighs just under 50,000 pounds.

While excitement is looming, traffic on Memorial Drive is no doubt a concern. Sources at Memorial Park Conservancy assure that Memorial will remain open throughout the duration of Land Bridge and Prairie construction. Within the project area, traffic has been reduced from three lanes to two each way.

All lanes will reopen in fall 2021 once the new Memorial Drive alignment through tunnels is complete. The new road alignment with three lanes restored each way will be complete in September 2021, while the Land Bridge is slated for substantial completion by October 2022.

Meanwhile, trees removed from the Land Bridge and Prairie project area (a major concern for locals) will be relocated in areas of the park designated for reforestation, or repurposed as either compost or toewood for streambank stabilization, in keeping with the Master Plan provisions.

The new arches are being installed on Memorial Drive. Photo courtesy of Memorial Park Conservancy

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

The new Land Bridge will create safe passage from humans and animals. Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz

Houston park breaks ground on innovative land bridge

now building

Last week, Memorial Park made headlines when it triumphantly opened its lush and verdant Eastern Glades. The 100-acre destination transformed largely inaccessible green space into a destination offering up picnic areas, native wetlands, a savanna, a pine-hardwood forest, green spaces, and miles of accessible trails.

Now, the Memorial Park Conservancy has announced that construction has begun on Memorial Park's Land Bridge and Prairie project. The 100-acre project, slated for completion in late 2022, will create a new community space with enhanced recreation opportunities for park users with "unmatched vantage points of urban skyline views," according to a press release. Memorial Park's prairie, which adjoins the Land Bridge to the north and the south, aims to re-establish endangered native Gulf Coast prairie, savanna, and wetlands.

The Land Bridge and its corresponding prairie are part of the Memorial Park Master Plan, made possible by a $70 million gift from the Kinder Foundation, and associated the Ten-Year Plan.

Commuters, no need to worry: Memorial Drive will remain open throughout the duration of Land Bridge and Prairie construction. Traffic will be reduced from three lanes to two each way beginning September, while a new section of Memorial Drive and the tunnel arch structures for the Land Bridge are completed directly south of the operating lanes.
All lanes will reopen in fall 2021 once the new Memorial Drive alignment through tunnels is complete, according to a release.

The Land Bridge Photo courtesy of MPC

Additionally, per the conservancy, the Land Bridge will:


Provide safety and connectivity
This will benefit both humans and animals crossing Memorial Drive. The Land Bridge will establish two dynamic greenspace connections over Memorial Drive that reunite the north and south sides of the Park while expanding the existing trail network and providing increased connectivity within the Park. While the Land Bridge will provide connectivity for Park visitors and wildlife over Memorial Drive, a stream corridor constructed through the Prairie and a culvert will provide connectivity under Memorial Drive. Together these elements will provide much-needed wildlife connectivity within Houston's largest urban wilderness park and to the natural Buffalo Bayou corridor.

Restore nearly 45 acres of native coastal prairie
This will establish a more resilient ecology during natural disruptions and improve animal habitats. Native coastal prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America, with less than 1 percent of its historic range remaining today. These forthcoming ecosystems will be home to numerous species of flora and fauna.

Create a new destination for visitors
New opportunities include nature education, leisure walking, interval running and cycling, stargazing, relaxing, and more.

Improve stormwater management
The project will detain stormwater that flows through Memorial Park to Buffalo Bayou during heavy rain events, lessening the impact of peak storms. A stream channel constructed through the site, along with the network of native prairie and savanna, will support greater regional biodiversity and act as a green sponge, helping to absorb and clean stormwater. The constructed wetlands will help to purify water and reduce roadway pollutants that would otherwise be released into the watershed.

"From aiding with critical stormwater management to granting people and wildlife safer crossing over Memorial Drive to providing a dynamic outdoor destination for all visitors, the Land Bridge and Prairie will be an asset not just for Memorial Park but for all Houstonians," said Mayor Sylvester Turner in a statement. "It's about unifying both sides of the Park and giving people a new landmark that they can be proud of and use to enjoy nature."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Memorial Park Conservancy's renovations include some projects that are rare or never been done before. Photo courtesy of MPC

3 ways the Memorial Park Conservancy renovations are innovative

Park of the future

Memorial Park is undergoing a huge transformation that is mixing a little bit of old with the new.

The Memorial Park Master Plan includes adding breathtaking new projects — like water features, a new athletic complex, and more — as well as conservation efforts that restore parts of the land that were native coastal prairie. The project is a collaborative effort between Memorial Park Conservancy, Uptown Houston TIRZ, and Houston Parks and Recreation Department to redevelop the 1,500-acre park.

The Master Plan is set to deliver a series of projects ahead of 2028, and there are a few initiatives that are innovative and different from other urban parks' transformations, notes MPC's president and CEO Shellye Arnold.

The Land Bridge

Photo courtesy of MPC

A big part of Memorial Park's transformation is restoring the park to native species and ecosystems.

"We're taking ball fields, parking lots, and roads and converting them back to what was here — native wetland coastal prairie," Arnold says. "This serves important stormwater purposes."

In order to connect two native coastal prairie lands on either side of Memorial Drive, MPC is building a unique 30-foot-high land bridge the size of three-and-a-half football fields. The space will be large enough that you don't even realize you're standing over a busy street, Arnold says.

The prairies will serve an important purpose for rainwater collection — a growing need within the city of Houston.

"We're channeling [rainwater] into this prairie where some of it can be absorbed, cleansed, slowed down," says Arnold. "And then what doesn't get slowed down and absorbed can flow through the prairie [on the other side], which is even bigger."

The Land Bridge also serves another purpose that park goers have wanted, Arnold says: Connectivity.

"[They] want access across the Memorial Drive — [they] want to safe access, and so this is the response. It's a pretty bold and visionary response," Arnold says.

BioCycling

Photo courtesy of MPC

In 2011, a major drought decimated the park and areas saw losses of 50 to even 90 percent of the canopy of trees. MPC and its team saved what could be saved, and the rest is serving a new purpose to the park.

"We took the trees that we lost on the drought that people felt such a tremendous loss for and ground them all up, and they are in a biocycle in a two-acre area in the back of the park," Arnold says.

The soil created — some of which includes manure from the animals at the Houston Zoo — has already been used on some plants in the park, and Arnold says those plants are thriving.

"It's cool that those those trees are giving life to the park," Arnold says.

Invasive species of trees that are plucked from out of the park are also being ground up and used in the same way.

"There isn't anything this big like this in an urban park setting like this kind of recycling effort," she says.

The biocycling process is scalable too.

"We could open this up to other organizations," Arnold says. "It's so much better ecologically to take trees and grind them up and use it inside the space rather than haul them out to landfill way outside of town and dump them."

The benefit to the program is that MPC can retain some of the soil it produces for these other organizations and use it on site.

Biodiversity initiatives and research

Photo courtesy of MPC

When putting the plans in place, MPC and its partners called on 25 of the best ecologists, as well as 50 more park and other types of consultants specializing in everything from insects and wildlife to prairies and trees.

Just as the Land Bridge is creating new prairie space, other initiatives throughout the park will be focused on eliminating invasive species and bringing back the natural ecosystem of the park.

The Easter Glades project, which is set to deliver next year, will have a habitat for fish, and will not allow any fishing or boating. Carolyn White, conservation director at MPC, is working with the Texas Wildlife Association to bring in the right species of fish.

Arnold says that MPC works with other organizations in an innovative way to bring native plants into MPC, since the park has the space for these organizations to use to cultivate and propagate plants.

"They bring their native plants and they grow them with their volunteers, and they leave us a little bit here," Arnold says. "We could never buy enough native plants to go inside this park."

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Texas has the 5th highest health care costs in the nation, Forbes says

dollar signs

A new Forbes Advisor study shedding light on Americans' top financial worries has revealed Texas has the fifth highest health care costs in the nation.

Forbes Advisor's annual report compared all 50 states and Washington, D.C. across nine different metrics to determine which states have the most and least expensive health care costs in 2024.

Factors include the average annual deductibles and premiums for employees using single and family coverage through employer-provided health insurances and the percentage of adults who chose not to see a health care provider due to costs within the last year, among others. Each state was ranked based on its score out of a total 100 possible points.

Texas was No. 5 with a score of 91.38 points. North Carolina was No. 1, followed in order by South Dakota, Nebraska, and Florida.

According to Forbes, out-of-state families considering a move to the Lone Star State should be aware of the state's troubling statistics when it comes to family health care. More specifically, nearly 15 percent of Texas children had families who struggled to pay for their medical bills in the past 12 months, the highest percentage in the nation.

Furthermore, Texans have the highest likelihood in the U.S. to skip seeing a doctor because of cost. The report showed 16 percent of Texas adults chose not to see a doctor in the past 12 months due to the cost of health care.

"Unexpected medical bills and the cost of health care services are the top two financial worries for Americans this year, according to a recent KFF health tracking poll," the report said. "These financial fears have real-world consequences. The high cost of healthcare is leading some Americans to make tough choices—often at the expense of their health."

In the category for the percentage of adults who reported 14 or more "mentally unhealthy" days out of a month, who could not seek health care services due to cost, Texas ranked No. 3 in the U.S. with 31.5 percent of adults experiencing these issues.

The report also highlighted the crystal clear inequality in the distribution of health care costs across the U.S.

"In some states, residents face much steeper health care expenses, including higher premiums and deductibles, which make them more likely to delay medical care due to costs," the report said.

For example, Texas' average annual premiums for both plus-one health insurance coverage ($4,626, according to the study) and family coverage ($7,051.33) through employer-provided policies was the No. 4-highest in the nation.

Elsewhere in the U.S.

The state with the most expensive health care costs is North Carolina, with a score of 100 points. 27 percent of adults in North Carolina reported struggling with their mental health who could not seek a doctor due to cost, and 11.3 percent of all adults in the state chose not to see a doctor within the last 12 months because of costs.

Hawaii (No. 50) is the state with the least expensive health care costs, according to Forbes. Hawaii had the lowest percentages of adults struggling with mental health (11.6 percent) and adults who chose not to see a doctor within the last year (5.7 percent). The average annual premium for employees in Hawaii using a family coverage plan through employer-provided health insurance is $5,373.67, and the average annual deductible for the same family coverage plan is $3,115.

The top 10 states with the most expensive health care are:

  • No. 1 – North Carolina
  • No. 2 – South Dakota
  • No. 3 – Nebraska
  • No. 4 – Florida
  • No. 5 – Texas
  • No. 6 – South Carolina
  • No. 7 – Arizona
  • No. 8 – Georgia
  • No. 9 – New Hampshire
  • No. 10 – Louisiana

The full report and its methodology can be found on forbes.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston startup recognized for inclusivity on journey to commercialize next-gen therapeutics

future of medicine

A new Houston biotech company won a special award at the 16th Annual SXSW Pitch Award Ceremony earlier this month.

Phiogen, one of 45 companies that competed in nine categories, was the winner for best inclusivity, much to the surprise of the company’s CEO, Amanda Burkhardt.

Burkhardt tells InnovationMap that while she wanted to represent the heavily female patient population that Phiogen seeks to treat, really she just hires the most skilled scientists.

“The best talent was the folks that we have and it ends up being we have three green card holders on our team. As far as ethnicities, we have on our team we have Indian, African-American, Korean, Chinese Pakistani, Moroccan and Hispanic people and that just kind of just makes up the people who helped us on a day-to-day basis,” she explains.

Phiogen was selected out of 670 companies to be in the health and nutrition category at SXSW.

“We did really well, but there was another company that also did really well. And so we were not selected for the pitch competition, which we were a little bummed about because I killed the pitch,” Burkhardt recalls.

But Phiogen is worthy of note, pitch competition or not. The new company spun off from research at Dr. Anthony Maresso’s TAILOR Labs, a personalized phage therapy center at Baylor College of Medicine, last June.

“Our whole goal is to create the next generation of anti-infectives,” says Burkhardt.

That means that the company is making alternatives to antibiotics, but as Burkhardt says, “We’re hoping to be better than antibiotics.”

How does it work? Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria.

“You can imagine them as the predators in the bacteria world, but they don't infect humans. They don't affect animals. They only infect bacteria,” Burkhardt explains.

Phiogen utilizes carefully honed bacteriophages to attack bacteria that include the baddies behind urinary tract infection (UTI), bacteremia (bacteria in the blood), and skin wounds.

The team’s primary focus is on treatment-resistant UTI. One example was a male patient who received Phiogen’s treatment thanks to an emergency-use authorization from the FDA. The gentleman had been suffering from an infection for 20 years. He was treated with Phiogen’s bacteriophage therapy for two weeks and completely cleared his infection with no recurrence.

Amanda Burkhardt is the CEO of Phiogen. Photo via LinkedIn

But Phiogen has its sights set well beyond the first maladies it’s treated. An oft-quoted 2016 report projected that by 2050, 10 million people a year will be dying from drug-resistant infections.

“A lot of scientists call it the silent pandemic because it's happening now, we're living in it, but there's just not as much being said about it because it normally happens to people who are already in the hospital for something else, or it's a comorbidity, but that's not always the case, especially when we're talking about urinary tract infections,” says Burkhardt.

Bacteriophages are important because they can be quickly trained to fight against resistant strains, whereas it takes years and millions of dollars to develop new antibiotics. There are 13 clinical trials that are currently taking place for bacteriophage therapy. Burkhardt estimates that the treatment method will likely gain FDA approval in the next five years.

“The FDA actually has been super flexible on progressing forward. Because they are naturally occurring, there's not really a safety risk with these products,” she says.

And Burkhardt, whose background is in life-science commercialization, says there’s no better place to build Phiogen than in Houston.

“You have Boston, you have the Bay [Area], and you have the Gulf Coast,” she says. “And Houston is cheaper, the people are friendlier, and it’s not a bad place to be in the winter.”

She also mentions the impressive shadow that Helix Park will cast over the ecosystem. Phiogen will move later this year to the new campus — one of the labs selected to join Baylor College of Medicine.

And as for that prize, chances are, it won’t be Phiogen’s last.

Houston student selected for prestigious health care research program

bright future

A Houston-area undergraduate student has been tapped for a prestigious national program that pairs early-career investigators with health research professionals.

Mielad Ziaee was selected for the National Institutes of Health’s 2023-2024 All of Us Research Scholar Program, which connects young innovators with experts "working to advance the field of precision medicine," according to a statement from UH. Ziaee – a 20-year-old majoring in psychology and minoring in biology, medicine and society who plans to graduate in 2025 — plans to research how genomics, or the studying of a person's DNA, can be used to impact health.

“I’ll be one of the ones that define what this field of personalized, precision medicine will look like in the future,” Ziaee said in a statement. “It’s exciting and it’s a big responsibility that will involve engaging diverse populations and stakeholders from different systems – from researchers to health care providers to policymakers.”

Ziaee aims to become a physician who can use an understanding of social health conditions to guide his clinical practice. At a young age, he was inspired to go into the field by his family's own experience.

According to UH, Ziaee is the oldest child of Iranian American immigrants. He saw firsthand the challenges of how language and cultural barriers can impact patients' access to and level of care.

“I think a lot of people define health as purely biological, but a lot of other factors influence our well-being, such as mental health, financial health, and even access to good food, medical care and the internet,” he said in a statement. “I am interested in seeing the relationship among all these things and how they impact our health. So far, a lot of health policies and systems have not really looked beyond biology.”

"I want everyone to have an equal chance to access health care and take charge of their well-being. We need to have the systems in place that let people do that,” he added.

Ziaee is already on his way to helping Houston-based and national health systems and organizations make headway in this area.

He was named as a student regent on the UH System Board of Regents last year, sits on the board of the Houston chapter of the American Red Cross, and is an Albert Schweitzer Fellow.

Last year he was a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention John R. Lewis scholar, for which he presented his research project about predicting food insecurity in pediatric clinical settings and recommendations to improve the assessment based off his summer research with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Prior to this, he completed a 10-week guided research experience using data visualization and predictive modeling techniques to assess food insecurity in the Third Ward.

“I just took every opportunity that came to me,” Ziaee said. “All my experiences connect with my central desire to increase health access and improve health care. I am very intentional about connecting the dots to my passion.”

Earlier this year, three UH student researchers were named among 16 other early-stage research projects at U.S. colleges and universities to receive a total of $17.4 million from the DOE's Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM). The projects were each awarded between about $750,000 to up to $1.5 million.