Dan Noble: Livable Cities—A Vision for Dallas

Dan Noble
Dan Noble

What exactly is it that makes urban life … well, livable? Why are people attracted to cities?  And what can we do to recapture the vibrancy of downtown Dallas? These are questions that I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about, and I’d like to share some of these thoughts in a few posts.

First, a little bit about me. I’ve lived in East Dallas for more than 30 years. I’ve moved around—from Velasco Avenue to Bryan Street to Lorna Lane—but I’ve never strayed more than a few miles from the central business district.

I’ve treasured the amenities that the inner city of Dallas has to offer. I’ve ridden my bike on the trails at White Rock Lake. I’ve walked the trails at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, White Rock Lake, and the Kiest Nature Preserve. I’ve spent many happy hours in Samuell Grand Park with my family, playing tennis, coaching youth basketball games, and taking in Shakespeare in the Park performances.

Some of these amenities have been around for more than a century, and they’ve helped to define the public realm of Dallas. But urban life is also defined by constant change—a characteristic that makes city life so exciting.

I’ve certainly witnessed that change in my neighborhoods. (Who could’ve imagined that Lower Greenville would go from being a sleepy antique shopping strip to a hot night-life spot full of rowdy bars, only to die and be reborn as a hip restaurant scene?)

But not all of the change has been good. When I first came to Dallas, the downtown core was a popular shopping destination with three department stores. (Remember Sanger-Harris and Titche’s?)  There has been a similar loss of vibrancy and life in Deep Ellum and the area around Fair Park. Today that vibrancy is beginning to return, but it’s happening far too slowly.

What has happened to the center of our city? More important, what can be done about it?

We need to think about what we can do to connect downtown with the inner-city neighborhoods. We need to start thinking about these neighborhoods in context of each other, and we need to think about how they can work together as a whole.  Ultimately, we need to stitch the torn fabric that is Dallas back together.

I think it’s instructive to look at what other cities have achieved, and how they’ve achieved it. I’ve been lucky to travel extensively, and I’ve been able to see how great urban life can be experienced in places like San Francisco, London, Barcelona, and Vancouver. I’ve also been surprised and impressed by cities that you may not associate with livability—places like Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, and Pittsburgh.

Through the years, I’ve taken note of some features that seem to recur over and over again in cities like these. The following seem to strike a common chord:

• These cities have a real consideration for the importance of the public realm—parks, open spaces, and the necessary connections that tie these spaces together. They also prioritize the infrastructure and provide the financial leverage needed to maintain these amenities.

• They achieve a critical mass, a density that makes the area feel as if it’s teeming with life, energy, and the messy vitality to which people are naturally attracted. They strive for a robust mix of people from many different demographics and education levels, who offer an amazing array of talents.

• They have focal points—central areas where many nodes of interest are within walking distance of each other. (And where you don’t feel like you are navigating unsafe neighborhoods or intrusive commuter roadways.)

• They effectively utilize mass transit as well as alternative transportation systems.

• They have a clear understanding of sustainability issues, which encompasses economics, nature and manufacturing. There is engaged civic or governmental intervention to articulate an enlightened public policy, as well as a comprehensive regional plan that touches everything from building codes to public safety and crime.

• They never lose sight of the fact that economic vibrancy is the glue that binds any city together. These cities strive to maintain a steady stream of jobs to ensure the money flow that enables all of this.

When I think of the immense potential of this city I’ve lived in for three decades, I can’t help but be excited and bullish. But there’s no denying that right now, Dallas is simply not the sort of connected, vibrant, energetic city that it could be. Dallas is a burgeoning metropolis of 7 million people that feels like a conglomeration of small towns. The city often seems to be in open competition with the separate tax bases in its scores of suburbs.

Dallas lacks density. At the moment, it has a weakened core. Part of the problem is that the extension of sky-bridges and tunnels has sapped all of the life from the streets. We have created an expeditious regional traffic flow at the expense of making downtown a connected part of the city with a sense of place.

Worst of all, I get the feeling that people in and around the city don’t seem to realize how a thriving downtown would serve to draw people to North Texas and benefit this entire region.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how to address these issues. We need to be having these important conversations. We need to listen, and we need to act upon the insights that emerge.

In my next post, I’ll try to sketch out a vision of what Dallas might look like if we start working today to make it the sort of vibrant city that it deserves to become.

Dan Noble, FAIA, FACHA, LEED AP, is president and CEO of HKS Inc. Contact him at [email protected]

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