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'We Still Are A Blank Canvas': Rethinking Dallas' Urban Identity As The City Grows

Allison V. Smith for KERA News
Chris Crowley, 39, doesn't have a car so he commutes six hours by foot, train and bus round trip four days a week to get from his home in Old East Dallas to his job at a Home Depot distribution center in the southwestern part of the city.

Dallas’ web of interstates and highways transformed the city in the 1960s, allowing people and families to prioritize cars and spread out.

But recently, the “commuter city” identity has been challenged.

People are gravitating back to the urban core. And people with knowledge of city planning say there’s a right and wrong way to handle that.

Instead of fixating on big-box stores, chains and shopping centers, some argue that adding more duplexes to the residential landscape, encouraging walking and fostering pop-up markets might be a better way to invest in parts of Dallas that need a boost.

On KERA’s “Think,” Patrick Kennedy, a Dallas Area Rapid Transit board member and D Magazine contributor, and State Rep. Rafael Anchia talked about urbanism in Dallas — a city known more for horsepower than hoofing it.

Read highlights from the conversation below.

Interview Highlights

On the definition of urbanism

Anchia: In the context of “New Urbanism” and urban design, I think about the articulation of the physical environment to the individual. One of the things that holds Dallas back in a way is this very car-centric design: Dallas is made for cars and for cars traveling long distances. When I think of urbanism, I think of rethinking the physical environment so that it allows the individual to experience the physical environment in a way that gives them more options and more opportunities.

Kennedy: I would break it down to the root word of “urban,” or “urbs,” which is people, and it becomes about place for people. So we’re talking about urbanism being design for human habitat. We all have the same kind of needs, but we all have different wants and tastes as well. So we have to build for all of that in a way that works, in a way that’s economically, financially and environmentally sustainable.

On Dallas becoming a “commuter city”

Kennedy: It was largely due to the interstate highway program that was implemented by President Eisenhower in the ‘50s, who incidentally never intended the highways to go through the center of cities and displace existing neighborhoods. They were supposed to link regional economies, which they did, but we overbuilt them through cities and ended up creating barriers. What that's led to is: Cities like Houston, Atlanta and Dallas have the longest length of commute in the entire country and only one form of transportation ends up working.

On what Dallas has on its side

Anchia: We really still are a blank canvas. There are large swaths of this community that remain underdeveloped or undeveloped. While oftentimes we’ll suck up a lot of oxygen talking about the negative aspects of that, there’s also a lot of positive. We can catalyze neighborhoods, we can start anew, we can plans things better that are more responsive not only to the environment as we find it today, but the environment as we see it evolving with changes in technology, modes of transportation, etc. There are lot of things we need to keep our eye on, but the fact that we do have a blank canvas gives me a lot of hope and optimism for the future.  

On what kind of development works well

Anchia: If you listen to the neighborhood, they’ll usually give you the right answer. They’ll tell you exactly what they want, and it’s usually not the Super Target. Oftentimes, a Super Target is all you can finance in an area, but if you have folks who are willing to take early risk in places and catalyze neighborhoods, then market capital will follow. And with the collaboration of the neighbors and elected officials, you can build something really great. I don’t think we need to replicate Bishop Arts 10 times around the city. I think you need to take that Bishop Arts process in a box and replicate it 10 times around our community. There’s some real opportunity in the southern sector to do this.

Kennedy: I think there’s also an important point to be made about not just what the neighborhood may want and need, but also what is best for the city and municipality as a whole. I looked at different land use types throughout Plano to say which land uses performed the best in terms of property taxes generated per acre, rather than just saying, “Hey, this Super Target generates X amount of jobs and X amount of property taxes.”

And what I found was that the best-performing land uses in all of Plano — which there’s a lot of growth — was historic downtown Plano, where it’s sort of the two- and three-story businesses. That’s what produces the most amount of property taxes, the most amount of jobs per acre — that sort of small-scale, historic mixed-use [development]. What doesn’t perform is the single-family developments, the strip center retail, the single-use office parks. And if those things aren’t producing enough property taxes per acre, it means there’s this slow loss of money to the city that they have to compensate elsewhere.  

Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Learn more

D Magazine recently devoted an entire special issue to urbanism. Patrick Kennedy and Rafael Anchia will participate in a symposium hosted by D on the topic Wednesday at the Dallas Museum of Art.

To listen to the entire conversation on “Think,” stream it here or subscribe to the podcast

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.