Lady Bird Johnson was a nature lover and conservationist who believed that “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”

True to her word, her championing of the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, or "Lady Bird's Bill," provided for scenically enhancing U.S. highways with wildflowers.

These include the Texas bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes, poppies and other blooms that lavish Texas Hill Country, many of which are found at the event-capable Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in southwest Austin.

The former first lady’s legacy also inspired in part PARKSPACE, a placemaking program launched in Austin this summer that artistically marries the outdoors with social distancing.

Using eco-friendly paint, principal partners AIA Austin, the Austin Foundation for Architecture and architecture firm Gensler transformed sections of four event-capable Austin parks and green spaces into grids of eight-by-eight-foot squares placed six feet apart.

Each installation is inspired by a native Texas wildflower, starting with the Texas bluebonnet in landmark Pease Park. With additional arrays in Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park, Republic Square, and Zilker Park, this “architectural landscaping intervention” is the pilot for an envisioned expansion within and beyond Austin.

Austin’s plentiful other outdoor options include Lady Bird Lake. Covering 416 acres, this recreational haven includes a hike and bike trail with 15 different loops ranging from one-plus to 10-plus miles.

With the pandemic turning events inside out, open-air venues offer a way forward for creative gathering solutions. Here are seven destinations fit for the purpose.

[Related: Outdoor Venues in Austin and the Hill Country for Fresh-Air Events]

Discovery Green, Houston

Unveiled in 2008, this 12-acre urban park located between Houston Center and the George R. Brown Convention Center introduced dynamic new outdoor programming possibilities to the convention district.

Rentals include the Anheuser-Busch Stage, which faces the 2,000-capacity Fondren Performance Space. The Grace Event Lawn is for mid-size events for 500 to 800 attendees. Shaded by towering loblolly pine trees, Maconda's Grove is for smaller programs. Other rentals include the 650-capacity Lindsey Waterside Landing event lawn.

Catalyzing some $1.25 billion in surrounding mixed-use development since inception, the park, which is currently undergoing a $12 million upgrade, is surrounded by blockbuster venues such as the Marriott Marquis Houston, Hilton Americas-Houston and Avenida Houston entertainment district.

Essex Modern City, San Antonio

This redevelopment of a former East Side industrial complex into a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood includes a dynamic stage for outdoor events in the COVID-19 context and beyond.

Essex Art Project at Essex Modern City, San Antonio Credit: Jeff Heilman
Photo: Essex Art Project at Essex Modern City, San Antonio; Credit: Jeff Heilman

Taking top “Land Transaction” honors at the San Antonio Business Journal's 2017 Best in Commercial Real Estate Awards, the eight-acre site includes the warehouses and loading docks of a former pallet manufacturing factory, which serve as the canvas for the Essex Art Project.

Featuring works by local and national muralists, the evolving project brings people together through art, music and community gatherings such as the popular Second Saturday events and last summer’s inaugural six-day Essex Music and Art Festival.

“Adjusting for the pandemic, we’ve organized socially distanced programs, including a Leukemia & Lymphoma Society fundraiser and drive-through book signing,” said Jaime Cooke, founder and  president of San Antonio-based JLen Events, which represents the lead developer and provides site and event management. “From car and fashion shows to large-scale corporate events and convention offsites, the event possibilities are limitless.”

Moody Gardens Hotel, Spa and Convention Center, Galveston

Set on 242 acres, this perennial group favorite offers 418 newly modernized luxurious rooms and 103,000 total square feet of customizable space, including a 60,000-square-foot, ballroom-quality exposition center.

Prior to reopening in May, the Moody Gardens team continued administrative functions and building operations, rebooked groups, made repairs and other activities. The return to business came with the “Pyramid Promise” of “Clean, Safe, Fun,” which includes the highest standards and protocols for cleaning and maintenance to address COVID-19 and CDC guidelines.

“Most of our attractions like the Rainforest and Aquarium Pyramids and Dinos Alive exhibit are vast, open spaces that are ideal for social distancing,” stated Moody Gardens President and CEO John Zendt in local news coverage.

Texas Sculpture Garden, Frisco

For an art break, this outdoor collection of 40 contemporary sculptural works by leading artists from around Texas is recognized as the largest collection of its kind ever assembled and made available to the public.

Open for self-guided tours, the four-acre park sits within 162-acre HALL Park. The vision of lifelong art collector Craig Hall, the master-planned office campus is home to some 180 companies and offers “HALL Meet, Connect and Gather” spaces to tenants for indoor and outdoor meetings and events.

Blanco #17 by Mac Whitney 1985, Frisco's Texas Sculpture Garden Credit: Visit Frisco
Photo: Blanco #17 by Mac Whitney 1985, Frisco's Texas Sculpture Garden; Credit: Visit Frisco

Fair Park, Dallas

Located two miles east of downtown Dallas, this 277-acre national landmark complex holds a special place in local, state and national history. Since 1886, the site has hosted the State Fair of Texas, an early development driver for Dallas. The fair’s 52-foot-tall cowboy ambassador, Big Tex, looks to welcome visitors back in 2021 after the cancellation of this year’s event.

Featuring magnificent Art Deco buildings, artworks and sculptures from the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, Fair Park is the nation’s only intact pre-1950s World’s Fair site. Along with 749,000-plus square feet of enclosed conference and exhibition space, outdoor venues include the 1936 Band Shell; Texas Discovery Gardens; and 91,000-seat Cotton Bowl, which turns 90 this year.

Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, Fort Worth

Before the roads and skyscrapers, north-central Texas was a wilderness of forests, prairies and wetlands teeming with native flora and fauna. That natural glory lives on at this remarkable 3,621-acre sanctuary within the nation’s 13th largest city. One of the largest municipally owned nature centers in the U.S., the refuge has more than 20 miles of hiking trails and offers a great outlet for educational programs and teambuilding activities such as hiking, canoeing and kayaking.

[Related: Social Distancing and F&B: 10 Catering Considerations for Outdoor Events]

Texas Live!, Arlington

Open-air venues at this 200,000-square-foot multivenue entertainment and dining district include Arlington Backyard. Ideal for concerts and festivals, the 5,000-capacity venue also hosts some 250 annual events, functions and other programming.

Texas Live!, Arlington Credit: Courtesy Arlington CVB
Photo: Texas Live!, Arlington; Credit: Courtesy Arlington CVB

Adjacent Globe Life Park, the 30-year home of MLB’s Texas Rangers, is being reconfigured for football and soccer use. The scheduled March 2020 opening of nearby Globe Life Field, the team’s new retractable roof stadium, was delayed by the pandemic.

Outdoor spaces at the anchoring 350-room Live! by Loews–Arlington, TX hotel include an event lawn and private rooftop terrace.

Irving’s Outdoor Advantage

Spanning 68 square miles, the “Corner Office of the Metroplex” is home to more than 8,500 local and multi-national businesses, including global headquarters for eight Fortune 500 companies and 80-plus hotels with some 12,000 rooms. 

Yet Irving never feels crowded. Open expanses include 125-acre Lake Carolyn, with its three-mile walkway and connecting Mandalay Canals, and nearly 2,000 acres of parkland.

Outdoor event venues abound, include these prime group spots:

  • Unique venues at The Four Seasons Resort at Las Colinas include the 1,500-capacity Event Lawn.
  • The 10,000-square-foot Festival Lawn at the Westin Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas accommodates 1,450 attendees for receptions and 648 for banquets.
  • Offering Lake Carolyn views, the Lakeside Terrace at Marriott Las Colinas hosts 200 for receptions and 150 for banquets.

Located across from the Irving Convention Center and Toyota Music Factory, the spaghetti western-themed Texican Court offers “The Good,” “The Bad” and “The Ugly” outdoor event spaces.

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