(Credit: Michael Stravato)
(Credit: Michael Stravato)
(Credit: Houston parks board)
(Credit: Houston parks board)
(Credit: Houston parks board)
(Credit: Houston parks board)

Roksan Okan-Vick

Roksan Okan-Vick

18 Minute Read

Q | Tell me a bit about your childhood and where you spent your formative years.
A | I am one of those diversity people that is talked about so much in Houston. I was not born here, but some say I got here as fast as I could. Though that really wasn’t deliberate, it was totally coincidental. I grew up in Istanbul, Turkey. And actually went to a school of architecture there, at a very prestigious university. But very quickly, thanks to my family’s encouragement— which I needed because in the late 70s, life was a little different, particularly in a country like Turkey—I applied to universities in the U.S., not knowing what the country was like, where I was going. I liked a lot of different universities, and Rice University was the one that gave me the largest scholarship and stipend, so I ended up here.

I wanted to do my masters here, so I ended up coming and really falling in love with Houston. When you are young, the world is just lovely and there is nothing you cannot do. So I ended up making Houston my home for a variety of reasons, and finished the school of architecture and stayed here. But having the formative years of my life in a city like Istanbul had an impact on how I viewed the urban context.

The rich, dense, historically significant urban fabric of Istanbul taught me that the urban context means a lot in a city. Even though I was trained as an architect and I practiced many years as a traditional architect, I always understood that you cannot just build a building without understanding everything else that is going on around it. So I think wanting to understand the bigger picture certainly had an impact. And there were other things. Growing up in a family that is somewhat different culturally, all of those mold you in terms of the kind of person you are. So hardworking, loyal, committed, all of those qualities come from family, whether you are here in Houston or somewhere else.

But coming here and gaining an understanding of the urban context Houston offered, was very interesting. People generally don’t remark that Houston is a beautiful city, but I see Houston as very beautiful. Every city has its own beauty, and finding that, working that and making that an asset to the city is very important. So ultimately when a career opportunity provided an avenue back to a place where I could have an impact on that context, I jumped at it. Even though I still love traditional architecture—I follow trends and all of the wonderful happenings in architecture—my heart is now firmly directed toward shaping our city. You can impact so much more when you are dealing at the city scale. I consider myself lucky enough to be up to my elbows doing that right now.

Q | Did the culture of Istanbul, where East meets West, shape your architectural perspectives?
A | Most certainly. Interestingly enough, the Turkey of 1978, when I left it, was actually much more oriented to the West than the Turkey of today. You might not feel it in a city like Istanbul, but certainly the path that the current administration is pursuing is quite different from the Turkey that I grew up in. I don’t want to make a judgment call. However, I am saddened by this path because it was a less divided, more informed community during the 24 years I was living there.

While the country you are born in and spend your formative years—in my case Turkey—always occupies a very special place in your heart and soul, the country you have made home for much longer—in my case the USA—holds a similar, if not deeper place. I am lucky because I have two wonderful homes and am able to still go back and forth between the two. I cherish that. It’s something that always stays with you.

Q | Many architects knew very early on in life that they were drawn to design and structure. Did you always see yourself working as an architect? 
A |
No. And I hear a lot of architects saying that they knew from childhood they were going to be architects. I had no idea. Because again, where I grew up and the schooling I had, you didn’t have choices like you have in the United States. The number of choices you have here is incredible. It is very difficult to understand what I am about to tell you, but in Turkey, you would finish your high school years, go through some rigorous exams and you would get points. So you have, say 158 points, on the entrance exams to universities. And there were only a handful of really good universities.

I knew that I wanted to do something that helped people. That was a broad goal. The higher education commission gives you this little card that indicates the programs that match your number of points and the universities where you are entitled to register. A prestigious school of architecture in Istanbul, ITU, was one of those on my card, even though I had not thought extensively about architecture as a profession. As I was standing in line to select my program, a group of friends came by and excitedly said, ‘We signed up for architecture at ITU, and we think it is much more exciting than anything else on your list.’ That made my decision. I don’t tell this story to a lot of people because it makes the choice seem so random. I want to be able to say I was always passionate about architecture. But the thing is that in a city like Istanbul, you take it for granted that architecture is rich. It has history. Maybe that had an impact on me, but it was also that I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference.

I totally fell in love with architecture. It was like a highly successful arranged marriage. It’s a fabulous profession.

The education you get in architecture is exceptional. The practice of architecture is life-altering experience. I am surprised that more leaders don’t come out of an architecture background, because of how you are taught to work, and the practice. And it’s a tough profession to excel in. And it gives you some terrific skills. Occasionally I will return to Rice University and I will talk to the students about the profession, which actually wasn’t a course at Rice when I was there. The curriculum was focused heavily on design and the creative process.

You always thought you were this magic creator coming out of Rice, and you hit the job market and you are in a firm running blueprints on a machine and you wonder, ‘where is the magic?’

So I think it is nice now that they are providing professional classes where people come and talk to you about not only the profession of architecture, but of the way I have gone, off on my own road. Yes, I am an architect, but there are other ways to practice and to bring your skills to the city you love.

Q | How did your career move from the classic architecture to what you are doing now at the Parks Board?
A | That is something that I have thought about a lot. Graduating from architecture school, you get a job, and the job is traditionally in an architecture office. And that is actually quite fascinating. You get involved in all of these projects which involve a lot of different people, a lot of different clients in a lot of interesting places—very rewarding. At one point after I had my daughter, I opened my own business. That proved to be difficult because cash flow become an issue. Some months you are good, some months are not so good. So when I was approached by the Hermann Park group, and they said they needed someone to oversee the capital projects, I thought that was very attractive. So I joined them to start building all of their capital projects and shortly after, I became their executive director. During my years at the Hermann Park Conservancy I met Laurie Olin, who is a world renowned landscape architect, urban planner, who helped us do a lot of the planning and thinking about Hermann Park. And talk about magical…he was probably the most magical person I have met in terms of his ability to think through things and then suddenly crystalize it on paper, and then make the same thing happen on the ground. So under his influence, I started moving away from traditional architecture, and started going into the parks/urban design world. I have since stayed there as well as in the private non-profit world. A non-profit world is a slightly different arena to work in, as is the municipal government where I spent a couple of years after my work at Hermann Park.

I was the director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Houston for a period of two, very educational, years. You see life from a very different angle and you understand the bureaucracy involved, and why it is there, and you understand the checks and balances and all of the political maneuverings that happen there. After those two years, I came back to the non-profit arena with the Parks Board, and I have stayed here since. The beauty of where I am is it just allows me to do things like the bayous greenway projects and the projects that very few people in this country are lucky enough to be involved in.

Q | Please tell us more about the history of the bayous greenway program. 
A |
A lot of people don’t know what a bayou is. It is a slow-moving waterway. Our bayou corridors are beautiful and collectively represent very special happenings in Houston. There is no other city of our size and our growth that has this kind of beauty in the midst of it, crisscrossing across the whole city. So, for the purpose of equitable distribution, as we started acquiring lands and building trail segments along the bayou corridors at the Parks Board, we also remembered a plan established more than 100 years ago. In 1912, Arthur Comey—a well-respected urban planner and landscape architect, was commissioned to come to our city and do a general plan, part of which was a plan for the parks system. That was quite forward thinking of our city leaders at that time. A hundred years ago, Houston was much smaller, but Comey laid out the vision of creating continuous green ways along our bayou corridors since he believed they were the most significant natural resource our city was blessed with. I read his book again recently and the vision that the gentleman put forth, remains amazingly valid today. As we grow our city exponentially, we must take advantage of these beautiful ecological corridors. So once we realized the huge opportunity of completing Comey’s plan to create an equitable distribution of green spaces, the stars suddenly lined up.

Leadership was supportive and there was a lot of sentiment in the community that these are assets that we need to value, which wasn’t necessarily appreciated thirty-five years ago when I came to Houston. But over the thirty-five or more years I have been here, I have seen a change in the way we the community embraces this city. So, with this fresh perspective, along with leadership commitment, and our board, we crafted a grand program along the greenways. Our foundation idea from Comey set a hundred years ago, makes even more sense today.

We had a bond election in late 2012. Prior to the bond election, we embarked on a significant campaign to educate the citizens, and it passed with the highest margin of all other bond referendums in the city. It surpassed all other bond elections with an approval rating of 68.2 percent—a very rewarding outcome. We now have a pretty strong mandate, and have already privately raised more than $75 million to match the $100 million of bond funds dedicated to the greenways in the city of Houston. There is no turning back. It is a long-term initiative, and once it is done, we will experience Houston very differently.

Q | How is Houston changing as a result of Bayou Greenway program?
A |
Hopefully people will drive less. Hopefully as soon as visitors land here, for whatever reason, they will be made aware of the opportunities to jump on a bike, jog or walk along the scenic bayou corridors. The difference will be you will have connected green spaces, parks, nature areas, along all of the major bayou corridors in the city. You will have virtually unlimited access. This is really critical. And they will feel inviting and safe. “Safe” is a very tricky word to use, so I use it very carefully. Because what makes places like these greenways safe is the level of use.

The more use you have, the more safe it is perceived to be. And perception is usually 80 percent of the challenge. The majority of the landscapes you will see, with few exceptions, will be native. They will be enhancing the natural habitat of those ecological corridors, so you will be able to enjoy the respite that they will provide. You will have

a continuous green corridor, which connects the diverse neighborhoods and activities we have along the bayous. They weave together disparate but wonderful pieces. Think about Brays Bayou. On the lower end of the channel, you start at the Port of Houston, which is number one in the world for tonnage. You travel thorough the historically significant east end neighborhood, with all of its industry. You go through the historically significant Gus Wortham golf course, then U of H, additional historical neighborhoods. And then you land at the Texas Medical Center. So you are now able to experience these diverse places, which you wouldn’t have a chance to otherwise experience without this green connection that feels comfortable and inviting. So being able to make those connections throughout our city is, I think, one of the terrific things about the bayou greenways, in addition to the ecological features.

Q | Can you describe the oversight responsibilities of the Parks Board?
A |
The Parks Board has been around for 38 years now. It was formed by Mayor Hofheinz, with the intent of creating an entity that looked after the interest of private donors who wanted to contribute to the city’s parks system. There was a lot of interest; in fact, a lot of our parks have come through the Parks Board, but those potential donors just didn’t feel comfortable giving their assets or their money to the city. So they formed the Parks Board, and as years went by, its influence grew, primarily because a lot of private citizens—Houstonians—decided to gift large parks to the city. Quite quickly, the Parks Board becomes the entity through which the city started forming its large green spaces.

Well over half of the city’s park land has come through the Parks Board. Either through acquisition or through donations. So it has grown over the years to become the primary private non-profit partner to the city to grow, improve and protect the park lands within the city.

Particularly in the last ten years, we have grown exponentially for a variety of reasons, both board related and staffing related. We are now the major overseer, planner, doer of the city’s parks system, in tandem with the City of Houston. A lot of private money comes through the Parks Board, and the Parks Board has right of entry to every public space in the city of Houston, which means we can go in and make improvements or buy land—all on behalf of the city. Private citizens cannot just go into a public space and make improvements.

We do all of that throughout the city, and we are particularly focused on equitable distribution of amenities and green spaces. For example, parks like Hermann Park, Memorial Park and Buffalo Bayou Park—I am naming the three jewels of our system—have their own very effective boards. So they don’t need our help. But JC Park in Northwest Houston, for example, doesn’t have such a resource. So the Parks Board helps with improvements to those parks that may not have that kind of stewardship that tend to them. And the greenways pretty much fall into that category, because, for all practical purposes, they are also the park lands for some of those neighborhoods through which they meander. As of July 1st of this year, the parks board will also be in the maintenance business on the bayou greenways. So in addition to raising private funds to help build greenways, we will also be entrusted with maintaining those corridors.

The key is to do this all efficiently. To make the dollar go much further, by leveraging every single dollar we have and making it work for us, for those who fund us.

Q | The Texas Medical Center represents one of the largest pieces of real estate in the city. How can we maximize that opportunity relative to the green space?
A | One thing that I have found very heartening is that part of the TMC vision is to create a park-like setting for the Texas Medical Center. And it seems like such a no-brainer. Brilliant ideas are usually like that, they are so simple, but you just have to get there. What’s important about that is being able to navigate in a setting that may not be the most pedestrian friendly. It compounds that feeling of frustration and fear. In terms of the urban context, the TMC has a large footprint, and getting larger by the day.

How do you take it to the next level and make it shine in a way that it hasn’t before? In a way that is much more inviting. I think it will help tremendously in transforming the image of the Texas Medical Center. There is great synergy there. I think if we can continue to work with your team on the land that happens to traverse through your campus, it can be something of joy and beauty and interest to you. That’s one part of the relationship, but what I would also like to focus on is that there is something of joy and beauty and interest in the Texas Medical Center, that needs to be one of those very special places where you pause. Just stroll around in this very special “neighborhood”. Take a break. Not only when you need to see a doctor, but as a place to enjoy in Houston in its own right.

Q | When you think about our city now and in five years from now, is it your hope that Houston is known as one of the most green and connected cities?
A |
The way we have grown has been very spread out. And Houston was not known for its mixed-use kind of living. But that is changing. And it is changing more rapidly now than ever, and there’s no going back. So, millions more people are going to come here, and the changes are being driven by the “creative class,” the “new intellectuals.” This new and younger workforce is demanding that. They could live and work anywhere, especially the best and the brightest. And we want the best and the brightest to live and work and contribute to Houston’s future. We want to attract them, we want to keep them, including the ones who are home grown. What we are finding is that the quality of life, the quality of place is pretty significant to those folks who are deciding if they should go to Austin, Los Angeles, or come to Houston. So what I believe will happen is as we transform these greenways, life is going to get richer and richer along those corridors.

So I fully expect if we are having this conversation years from now, that it will be a very different fabric in the city of Houston and a good amount of it will be attributable to the greenway development that is underway here.

Q | How do you handle the work-life balance?
A | I have been a workaholic ever since I can remember being me. When I married my husband, he knew that well. When you have children, you focus on them. And to some extent, they drive your schedule. And now that my daughter is an adult, both my husband and I love what we do and can spend even more time doing that. When people call you a workaholic, it is almost like it’s a dirty word. It’s not. What’s wrong with that? You spend so much time in your life working or practicing your profession; it’s a crying shame if you aren’t enjoying it.

And I think part of my role, as I get older, in my profession, is to help younger ones push out to the great beyond—push those limits. Working hard is not necessarily to the exclusion of a healthy family or social life. I still fully enjoy time with my family and friends. It all can work together just wonderfully.

Q | Any closing thoughts that you would like to share?
A | I would really encourage Houstonians, young and old, to get involved in the public realm. Get involved in the community. Think about giving a little back. Because I firmly believe that while making a wonderful living, you can feel really, really good about public service. The great things you can do are endless, whatever your passion is. Get involved and give a little. It is very rewarding, and it also opens you up to a whole different slice of the community. I think that’s a life-enriching experience, and it is something you can do for the rest of your life.

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