Nature & Environment

What’s the Army Corps of Engineers Going to Say About the ‘Simmons Park’?

It's a floodway, people. It's all about moving water.

The Van Valkenburgh vision of the Simmons Park
The Van Valkenburgh vision of the Simmons Park

Since Monday’s announcement that the Harold Simmons Foundation is planning to give $50 million to build a park in the Trinity River floodway, something has been nagging at me. That something is the above rendering of the Trinity park done by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. Look at all those trees! Wouldn’t they hinder the flow of floodwaters? I happened to be in an email conversation with a landscape architect named Kevin Sloan as this nagging was happening. I asked him whether he thought the Army Corps of Engineers would ever approve such a design. The TL;DR version of his response: probably not. The full version is here:

My encouragement to you is trust your intuition and eye. The first time I saw the model at City Hall, I went “Whoa” with astonishment over the aggressive grading and levee alternations. Why is rupturing the river bed necessary? Why won’t the proposed hills and the arabesque of trails become silt traps and snags for trash and sharp objects?

Given the failed levees and the other engineering measures that didn’t withstand Katrina, the Corps of Engineers took a real hit after the storm. Post Katrina, the Corps became noticeably (and understandably) more demanding to work with. When we accomplished Vitruvian Park in Addison, in 2008, it didn’t take long for us to realize we had to work with the Corps. Pushing landscape ideas on them they wouldn’t accept was a non-starter.

The Trinity discussion seems to have settled along two lines of thought. They’re actually closer than one might realize.

The proposed Harold Simmons Park is a design project. Land architecture is the priority, since all the shapes — while naturalistic — are clearly manmade. The land architecture is planted with natives.

The second group is arguing to re-wild the floodway as a nature project — a blackland prairie and wetland NATURE PROJECT. This initiative puts nature first — a real nature that is self-sustaining, filled with waterfowl — and leaves manmade things for the world outside the levee.

A nature project for the Trinity is actually the cheapest, safest, and most original solution possible. Also the most indestructible to flooding. Here’s why:

In it’s current condition, the landscape of the existing floodway is already halfway to becoming a nature project. By strategically reworking the surface of the floodway to diversify the plant ecology, add food sources that attract migratory pollinators and waterfowl, etc, would produce a city/nature relationship that has never before existed. Urbanity with nature.

Also, the original blackland prairie landscape evolved to withstand flooding. A re-wilding project creates A Wild Dallas Nature Preserve.

… and come along with me for one more second. In other cities, people “go downtown to the Arts District,” or they “drive out of the city for nature.” A blackland prairie and wetland restoration project in the Trinity would put both objectives in the same geography, and in walking distance to each other.

Even Houston has a “park” now. So does Oklahoma City. Dallas would have something that neither one of them, nor even Paris or New York can ever have because they don’t have this particular opportunity.

The world doesn’t expect Texas to make nature projects, which might be another reason to advertise that Dallas is ready for the future.

Two things: Earthen levees are a rural flood control system that Dallas grew around. Altering them for aesthetic purposes may be seen by the Corps as a threat to safety. What individual with the USACOE is going to sign off on aesthetically altered levees? They’re 80 years old and brittle. Most people don’t want to be known as the person who flooded West Dallas and the Design District.

Secondly. Fifty to 60 years of urban runoff has been concentrated through the downtown floodway. Fortunately all the toxins that came with it, heavy metals, lawn products, etc. were safely sealed with each event, in layers of silt.

The Corps also has an environmental mandate. Any design that will torment the floodway with a massive grading operation runs the risk of releasing all the safely encapsulated toxins into the river and potentially with concentration. Why take that chance?

Sometimes instead of pushing a concept onto a problem, the right answer is more like a pull. And this time the “pull” is to help the floodway become the nature it keeps trying to be.

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