What’s holding Dallas back: impressions from Metromorphosis 4

Having recently completed another big wind power report, I found some time to go back to my first love of urban revitalization. A good chance, then, to check out Metromorphosis IV at the Cityplace conference center.

The one-day conference organized by the Greater Dallas Planning Council was this year focused on the theme of the “global city” – what is a global city, and how does Dallas position itself to become one as it emerges from the recession? In the end, though, the sessions highlighted the same concerns that would emerge from any discussion on Dallas’s future: the education system, public transit, and sense of place.

As someone who’s spent years writing about urban problems and urban renaissance, I enjoyed the chance to get acquainted with the major players trying to reshape Dallas. As an increasingly frustrated non-driver in this car-loving city, I had even more reason to perk up my ears and listen for signs of progress. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, there isn’t much to point out just yet.

I got the impression that Dallas does have a core of dedicated people – professionals in planning, development, transportation, education and media, and even a few enthusiastic amateurs – who know we need a serious break from the past. But that realization seems to have dawned only recently. If I were at a planning conference in London in 2010, and a speaker’s presentation consisted entirely of the message that “We must design our city more sustainably,” that speech would be considered laughably vague and trite. But in Dallas, it seems, such a statement is not yet a truism. A few of the speakers hardly elaborated on that message. There were a few hints of the hows (economic and political tools) and the whys (obstacles that have held us back), but not much.

That’s cause for both frustration and hope. Frustration, that such platitudes are considered novel enough in 2010. Frustration again, because if such a knowledgeable and well-connected crowd is still dealing in vagaries at this point, what hope then for the average Dallas resident to change their way of life? Frustration multiplied, that at this point we’re mostly still dealing with ambitions rather than plans.

Speaking at the conference, mayor Tom Leppert pointed to some progress on major projects: the star architect-designed theater and opera house, recently opened after decades in the dreaming. Next door, the section of interstate being transformed into an urban park. And the first bridge (another star architect creation) is being built as part of the Trinity River project.

But I think he’s missing the point. The point as I see it is not big projects, but fundamental changes of policy and process.  What Dallas really lacks is not a sheaf of pretty CGIs, depicting New Urbanist wet dreams of pleasant mixed-use space filled with smiling, diverse residents. From what I can tell, it’s lacking the planning policy framework, governmental structures and incentives to ensure that development tends towards the green, the pedestrian-friendly, the inclusive and the uplifting. In any decent-sized city nowadays you will find developers willing to craft LEED-silver islands of brick to cater for the mostly well-off and environmentally conscious. The question is not how to build green homes, however. The question is how to institute comprehensive planning, up to Dallas city limits and beyond, to send developers a clear signal: green is the NORM of how we do things now, and it encompasses everything from the grid pattern to the street lamps. Like it or go elsewhere.

Which you might think makes me naive and anti-business. But I think Dallas has the rare luxury right now to be both high-minded and business-minded.

Here’s where the hope comes in: Dallas has fared marvellously in this recession. As the Metromorphosis presentation by Robert Long of the Brookings Institution made clear, we largely escaped the boom-and-bust that has devastated other real estate markets. DFW Airport (8th in the world in passenger air traffic) makes us an extremely attractive destination for corporate re-location and conferences, and our proximity to I-35 is also a key asset. Dallas is also projected to see one of the country’s biggest population booms over the next few decades.  When real estate capital really gets going again, this is one of the places it will go first.

So are we going to direct that capital wisely? Are we going to shape it, to create a city where people enjoy living? Or will we let the money control us, further entrenching our environmental problems? The choice is ours.

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