Parks and Restoration

Students help the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center with its master planning process.

Photo by Allyn West
Photo by Allyn West

It’s a little wild place in the city. The 155-acre Houston Arboretum & Nature Center beckons visitors to a natural sanctuary in the middle of Houston. One of the first nature centers to open in Texas, the park boasts 5 miles of trails in a range of ecological habitats and year-round educational programs for the public.

But in the past decade, the arboretum has endured both damaging hurricanes and drought, collectively resulting in the loss of half of its tree canopy and the encroachment of invasive species. Today, master planning efforts and a capital campaign are underway. It’s these challenges and opportunities that make the nonprofit an attractive partner for Rice students participating on a Houston Action Research Team (HART) sponsored by the Center for Civic Leadership.

Last spring, a team of four seniors — Tian-Tian He, Dawson Klein, Ramee Saleh and Sarah Torresen — were able to support the arboretum’s plans by collecting and analyzing visitor data. During weekday and Saturday morning strolls, they surveyed almost 200 visitors, gathering everything from demographic data to information on which trails and programs were most popular.

The HART members presented their survey findings to the arboretum staff at the end of the semester. Among the findings: Visitors skewed younger than both the students and the arboretum staff expected; dog walkers visited several times a week, but first-time visitors made up nearly half of those surveyed; out-of-towners came from a number of states across the U.S., but most of them had been brought by a Houstonian; parents with toddlers wanted more programs geared toward their children; and families wanted more free events.

“The study results give us a lot of exciting food for thought as we move forward with our master plan and expand our programming and visitor amenities,” said Christine Mansfield, the arboretum’s marketing and development manager.

— Katharine Shilcutt