Scott Womack

Urbanism

North Texas Won’t Win in the Long Run With a ‘Dallas Also’ Attitude

A recent editorial in the city's daily sheds a light on the complacency that characterizes much of Dallas' civic leadership.

Over the weekend, the Dallas Morning News editorial board published its take on the Texas Monthly interview with Mayor Eric Johnson, which we also spoke about last week. In the interview, Johnson tells TexMo that he believes regionalism is fine when it comes to big economic engines like Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. But when it comes to services like public transit, he argued that Dallas needs to start delivering for its own residents. To my ears, that sounded like Johnson pointing out that sometimes the region’s interests and the city’s interests don’t align. In those cases, the mayor of Dallas must stick up for the city.

If that’s what Johnson really meant, it’s a striking shift in tone compared with his predecessor. Nonetheless, the News’ edit board, one of the former mayor’s biggest champions, tried to close the gap on Johnson’s comments. Johnson’s comments were “nuanced,” the editorial says, and they demonstrate that “he deeply understands this difficult dance” between regional and urban interests. “We don’t hear from the mayor a ‘Dallas First’ motto that excludes our important partners in this region,” the edit board writes. “What we hear is a ‘Dallas Also.’”

I’m not sure what exactly “Dallas Also” means, but I find something pejorative about the phrase and the way it implicitly frames the city’s interests as subordinate to a greater regional project. More importantly, the general tone of the editorial—the way it brushes off criticism of DART’s light rail, its fawning at supposed “nuance,” its suggestion that the future success of DFW requires a delicate dance between large urban centers and suburban partners—underscores a complacency and a general failure to grasp the real stakes of the city’s—and the region’s—future. It is a lack of urgency that also seems to be shared by a large subset of Dallas’ civic leadership.

On a certain level, I can understand why so many of Dallas’ boosters fail to see the looming crisis. Dallas doubled down on a regional model of growth in the 1960s and it has helped make DFW the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country. The economy is booming, and the region continues to win corporate relocations. Looking at this track record, I can understand how Dallas’ civic leaders want the Dallas mayor to dance the “difficult dance” of balancing the city’s priorities with those of North Texas.

But as the mayor seems to suggest, regional growth isn’t always good for Dallas. And the problem with that is becoming increasingly clear: what will make metropolitan regions competitive in the emerging economy is not the kind of sprawling growth that regionalism has provided DFW, but the kind of vibrant and resilient urban settings that regionalism has drained from Dallas. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported on “the widening gap between a limited set of successful cities — which draw both highly educated workers seeking well-paid jobs and high-tech companies that want to employ them — and pretty much everywhere else.”

“This new pattern of economic development amounts to a fundamental break from the decades after World War II, when poorer and generally smaller cities were catching up with richer, bigger places. In recent years, this convergence stopped.”

In another recent article on CityLab, Richard Florida writes about this deepening geographical inequality across the U.S. and the broader economic shift that is concentrating “knowledge” workers—people who work in education, healthcare, law, arts, tech, science, and business, what Florida famously labeled “the creative class”—in a handful of coastal cities. Florida says economists and urbanists are beginning to believe that we will soon see a “rise of the rest,” a period of growth in other well-situated cities that is motivated, in part, by the increasing unaffordability of established urban hubs. This should be good news for Dallas. As coastal cities price out, the coming generations of economy-driving, knowledge-based workers will seek out places like Dallas.

But that is not what is happening.

Florida breaks down Census data to determine which cities are best-positioned to absorb this new growth. These cities have a shot to compete in an innovation-driven global economy over the coming decades. How does Dallas do? Decidedly mediocre.

The growth of the “creative class” in the Dallas metro from 2005 to 2017 ranks the region right below cities like Richmond, Va. and Indianapolis, In. During that same time, cities like Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Salt Lake City have leaped ahead of Dallas. And what about our supposed peer cities, like Boston, Austin, Minneapolis, and Denver? Forget it. We’re not even in the same league when it comes to attracting top talent in education, healthcare, law, arts, tech, science, and business.

What is driving this shift? There are a variety of factors, but one is that knowledge-based workers and their employers seek out cities that are attractive, vibrant, and viable. They are looking for a strong existing workforce and great educational opportunities. In short, they are looking for the things Amazon was looking for when it courted Dallas and moved on: an ability to attract employees with science, technology, engineering, and math backgrounds; an exceptional public education system; good public transit; and the ability to leverage a vibrant, walkable neighborhood as an urban campus to recruit talent.

The cities that will be successful in the coming decades are the cities that are investing in neighborhood vibrancy and re-urbanization and reaping the economic benefits that come with the efficiencies and attractiveness of dense, walkable development.

But Dallas isn’t doing that, in part, because the focus of its civic leadership is on sustaining the “difficult dance” that drives regional growth. Dallas isn’t doing this because the prevailing attitude is “Dallas Also.” Evidence is offered by a new study by the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at the George Washington University.

The Center found that DFW ranked in the bottom third of the 30 largest American cities when it comes to investing in walkable, urban development. Dallas is building less walkable urbanism than its peers, the study shows, and as a result, DFW is missing out on increased market premiums and the expanded social equity that comes through re-urbanization. As we’ve written previously, the 38 walkable neighborhoods that exist in Dallas-Fort Worth comprise just .12 of one percent of the region’s land mass but account for 12 percent of its economic output. There is demand for urban spaces, and the city’s policies should encourage their creation.

The DMN editorial attempts to laud Mayor Johnson for shifting the focus of the mayor’s office back on Dallas, but in doing so, it also mis-frames the conversation. There is no difficult dance, no need for nuance, no reason to balk at criticizing 30-year-old policy decisions that are still hampering Dallas’ urban growth. There is only a misalignment of priorities that needs to be righted. If the region wants to realize long-term success, then the region should support the success of a vibrant and viable urban core in Dallas.

That’s not putting “Dallas First.” It’s being smart.

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