This sucker should be torn down. (photo by Scott Womack)

Welcome to Dallas, the Border Vacuum City

Jane Jacobs wrote about the ways in which everything from roads to parks can devastate urban life. But don't take her word for it. Look around.

Over on CityLab, Andrew Small has a piece that parses out Jane Jacobs’ ideas about “border vacuums” and how they affect life in cities. Like many urban planning ideas, you already know what Jacobs is talking about from experience even if you are not familiar with the concept. A border vacuum is a space in a city that cuts off activity and separates neighborhoods or districts. They could be elevated highways, like I-345, which effectively creates a trench between downtown and Deep Ellum. Or they could be urban features that carry less of a stigma, like parks. In many ways, Fair Park is as much of border vacuum segregating the north and south of Dallas as I-30 is.

The entire piece is well worth reading, particularly if you are not familiar with Jacobs. Small applies Jacobs’ thinking to prominent contemporary examples of border vacuums, including San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, which is one of the most famous and successful example of urban highway removal. He also highlights one of Jacobs’ most important points. Often, the reason urban planners and policy makers don’t recognize the potentially devastating impact of various city projects and improvements is because they are constantly looking at cities from a bird’s-eye view. From 30,000 feet, border vacuums can fit neatly — almost satisfyingly — within the geometry of a city grid. But that, of course, is not how we experience spaces. At ground level, well-connected, porous spaces, even if aesthetically unappealing when viewed from above, are the secret to attracting pedestrian life:

Even a street with scattered border features can survive small spots of urban blight so long as people can move freely amidst small city blocks on narrow streets. A border vacuum emerges when some kind of barrier seals what otherwise be accessible space to pedestrians. Ideally, parks need to be accessed from multiple directions to succeed.

Dallas’ urban landscape offers a case study in how the allure of top-down, 30,000-foot urban planning can shape a city clogged with border vacuums. Despite a long history of inviting some of the best planners in the world to take a shot at shaping Dallas into a great city — from George Kessler to Kevin Lynch to William Whyte to Michael van Valkenberg — Dallas is still a city that is defined by a lack of connectivity. Even our biggest success — the much-touted Klyde Warren Park — still suffers from being cut off from adjacent neighborhoods by an urban landscape that doesn’t allow for easy-to-navigate routes in between the park and into other parts of the city. No wonder Dallas’ supposed big urbanism win has a parking problem.

We certainly have plenty of highways and roads and other urban features that most typically constitute border vacuums. But with Dallas, simple scale has often been a contributing factor to pedestrian impenetrability. When was the last time you walked from Klyde Warren Park to Uptown, or from one end of the Arts District to the other, or from Deep Ellum to Expo Park? Walking between these pseudo-walkable neighborhoods, which are each situated within a proximity that, in any other city, wouldn’t ever feel like a long walk, is to encounter a litany of border vacuums — from roads with too many lanes, to long block faces, to backsides of buildings, to complicated intersections, or, simply, ugliness:

As Jacobs put it, “Almost nobody travels willingly from sameness to sameness and repetition to repetition, even if the physical effort required is trivial.”

In the 1980s, William H. Whyte made a documentary called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces which offered a simple, if profound observation about the way city’s work. Paying attention to the small ways in which people interact with urban spaces offer clues into how to design spaces that will allow for vibrant urban life. The trick is to design from the street level, not the view at 30,000 feet.

Perhaps the title of Whyte’s documentary offers the biggest clue as to why Dallas, even when attempting to apply progressive urban planning ideas to create places like Klyde Warren Park and the Arts District, has continued to design as a patchwork of isolated urban moments surrounded by boarder vacuums. Whyte extols careful study of small spaces. But this is Dallas. Big things happen here.


  • Hannibal_Lecter

    Peter, it’s really funny how you keep using that same old photo on your posts.

    Of course you have to use an old photo, since you couldn’t take the same picture now. After all the vacant lot in the foreground is a now large residential development. Then again you might want to get a new picture now — before they start construction on the 10-story residential tower next door (complete with Tom Thumb on the first floor).

    But Scott Womack (the photographer) is going to have to be very careful. He did such a great job framing that shot to leave out the condo development and the Latino Cultural Center to the left and One Arts Plaza to the right, to make the area look desolate. But that’s going to be harder now, with all the new buildings now blocking the empty sky in the right half of the frame.

    At least he doesn’t have to worry about the new Kroger Center a couple blocks to the right and the huge KDC/Westdale development to the left, since they’re just getting ready to break ground.

    Thankfully, he can head a few blocks down the street to Deep Ellum to grab a beer after the photo shoot. Maybe he should take your restaurant critic with him. With new places opening every week I’m sure he/she has some catching up to do in that neighborhood.

    Yup…all that desolation sucks.

    • MattL1

      Um, that lot (NW corner of Live Oak and Good Latimer?) is still empty.

    • @zaccrain

      This is not perfect but I took this about 20 minutes ago from where Womack shot his.

      The other stuff is there, yes, but so is the border vacuum.

      • Hannibal_Lecter

        I may have been fooled by the zoom. I thought Womack’s shot was from across Good-Lattimer. Either way, my point still stands: that area is booming. The empty parcel in the foreground is going to be difficult to develop. Not because of I-345, but because of it’s weird shape and DART. They own the land surrounding it on all sides but the south, cutting off street access except from Live Oak.

        • Los_Politico

          Have you ever walked there? It’s awful. I walked with out of town friends from Pecan Lodge to Klyde Warren and aside from being bored to tears, almost died crossing the streets multiple times.

          • Hannibal_Lecter

            You can thank DART for most of that. All those No Pedestrian signs? Those are DART’s. The huge intersection at Central Expressway? DART again — that used to be grade-separated. And don’t forget the Deep Ellum Tunnel that DART removed.

  • Michael Hassett

    What’s this guy’s deal?

  • BamBam

    They could be elevated highways, like I-345, which effectively creates a trench between downtown and Deep Ellum.

    How can an elevated highway create a trench. Or is Jaden Smith one of the new interns?

  • Mavdog

    “Border vacuums”? interesting rebranding of what was previously just called “barriers”. Guess it’s a better hook.

    These exist in both a physical and a psychological manner, and it is impossible to remove them. Every city has barriers, uh “border vacuums”, they are a fact of life.

    Interesting to see that parks are categorized as “border vacuums”, parks typically are magnets that pull people into a community rather than divide it.