How Dallas Can Become a Model for Smart Growth Amid Climate Change

By Julieta Chiquillo

For more than a century, Dallas city leaders have struggled to transform the Trinity River into the unifying “center of a great city” that urban planner George Kessler once envisioned.

A tumultuous history, from the deadly flood of 1908 to a contentious — and ultimately doomed — scheme to build a toll road on the river’s earthen levees, has now led officials to plan a park they say will embrace the Trinity’s flood waters while stitching Dallas’ northern and southern sectors together.

With that historical context, community leaders recently gathered at HKS’ headquarters in Dallas for a panel discussion about the city’s future and its potential for smart growth as the world wrestles with climate change. Moderated by The Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster, the panel featured Dan Noble, president and CEO of HKS; Dr. Adrian Parr, dean of the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington; Calvert Collins-Bratton, president of the Dallas Park and Recreation Board; and Brent Brown, president and CEO of the nonprofit Trinity Park Conservancy.

Here are four takeaways from their conversation.

Dallas can become more beautiful by densifying

Noble said HKS was proud to team up with the landscape architecture firm SWA to help transform a downtown Dallas parking lot next to its headquarters into an urban park. HKS designed the open-air elliptical pavilion that welcomes pedestrians to Pacific Plaza on its southwest corner. 

The park, which had been a patch of asphalt for decades, was built through a public-private partnership between the city of Dallas and the nonprofit Parks for Downtown Dallas.

Noble said seeing the park come to life helped him appreciate the momentum there is to make downtown Dallas more walkable. With the population of the Dallas-Fort Worth region approaching 10 million, designers and city leaders should be thinking about densifying the urban core in downtown Dallas, Noble said.

“Creating a more connected urban environment where people don’t need a car, or where mass transit does work, is going to (make) a much more beautiful city,” he said.

Noble also noted that designers should expand their thinking beyond the “one-off, episodic interventions of design.”  He encouraged designers to spend more time with clients exploring how projects could better connect to each other and to the rest of the city.

Cities must plan for growth from climate migration

Current population growth projections don’t account for growth that will result from climate migration, said Parr, who is UNESCO chair of water and human settlements. The UNESCO program allows higher education and research institutions to pool their resources to address pressing challenges. 

Parr pointed to a new study by nonprofit Climate Central that projects the number of people at risk of coastal flooding linked to climate change is three times greater than previously thought. The study found that about 300 million people live in low-lying areas that would flood annually by 2050 as the planet warms. The research shows some places — including large chunks of Louisiana and Bangladesh — would virtually disappear.

“You’re going to be experiencing huge migrations across the planet and internally in individual countries as well,” Parr said.

Despite the bleak projections, Parr said there’s optimism in acknowledging the data and planning ahead by playing out scenarios related to climate change.

“What’s not optimistic is pretending it’s not actually happening,” she said

Financing parks requires creative approaches

While Dallas voters have approved millions of dollars in bond funding for parks, that money can only be used for building them, not for maintenance and operations. 

The city has leaned on the private sector as it faces the challenge of growing its park system and paying for its long-term upkeep, Collins-Bratton said. Dallas now requires developers to dedicate certain acreage for parkland or to pay into a fund for park development. Since July, that fund has grown to $270,000, she said.

The park board president urged designers to look for more opportunities to add open spaces, whether it’s in a retail complex or a sports venue.

“As you approach design, think about it as a park user, as someone who enjoys being outside, walking on trails, helping our city become more walkable,” she said. “Parks and trails are critical to that. You have to have high-quality safe trails, wide sidewalks, places that people want to walk to.” 

Collins-Bratton also gave a nod to the public-private partnership to build the $250 million Harold Simmons Park along the Trinity River. The catalyst was a $50 million gift by Annette Simmons in honor of her late husband, businessman Harold Simmons. In 2018, the city of Dallas tapped the nonprofit Trinity Park Conservancy to design, construct, operate and maintain the park.

Good design can also help cities pay for parks, said Parr, the UTA dean. If a city provides spaces that are beautifully designed and that people enjoy, then people will be willing to have their taxes increased to produce better parks and cleaner waterways, she added.

Lamster said the public should pay for the amenities it wants. He pointed to another Texas city, San Antonio, where an ad valorem tax levied by a river authority helps maintain segments of the famous San Antonio River Walk and improve parks and trails tied to the river system.

A Trinity River park needs to be more than a park to succeed

The Trinity River floodway — vitally important for the safety of millions of people as well as millions of dollars in real estate — has long been a physical barrier between the city’s wealthy northern half and its poorer southern sector. The future 210-acre Harold Simmons Park can bridge the two halves, Brown said.

“We’re as close as we’ve ever been to realizing what could be a great gathering space for our city,” he said.

The conservancy is coordinating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will have to approve construction in the area, to make sure the park design is consistent with flood control, Brown said. In fact, the design will accept the flooding as a feature of the park, he said.

A preliminary concept illustration shows side channels, elevated areas with flood-tolerant prairie flora, wetlands and spaces for other natural ecosystems between the levees. The landscape extends beyond the levees, featuring overlooks on both sides of the river for more permanent recreational spaces such as playground and cafés.

Brown said his nonprofit and its partners need to do more than build a park. They must harness the economic value created by the park to benefit the surrounding communities, protecting local residents from displacement and delivering affordable housing.

“Where we are on the Trinity is we’re trying to move it from a single functional flood control device (to) a public space …that has ecological, recreational benefits that can also bring equitable development around it,” Brown said. “It’s a big leap.”

Julieta Chiquillo

Julieta Chiquillo is a Writer at HKS. She writes feature stories, case studies and other content for the firm’s website and social media platforms. Before joining HKS, she covered local government and urban affairs at a major Texas daily newspaper.