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Architecture & Design

Remembering Kevin Sloan, Urban Dreamer and Originator of Wild Dallas

The landscape architect’s big idea was that Dallas could change the way it imagines itself and its future by restoring nature's place within the urban environment.
By Peter Simek |
Photo by Billy Surface
I can’t remember the first time I met architect Kevin Sloan, who passed away a week ago today at 62. I’m sure it was at D’s offices. Kevin was at the magazine a lot in the lead-up to the publication of our Wild Dallas issue, in March 2017. Kevin would come armed with renderings and maps and big ideas, talking excitedly about new ways to think about the Trinity River or Dallas’ all-but-invisible network of creeks and streams. His cherub cheeks, mischievous grin, thick-rimmed round glasses, and mess of hair lent him something of a mad scientist look. And when we kicked around ideas about the future of Dallas with Kevin, it always had the excitement and boundless potential of entering a madcap laboratory.

Kevin had big, crazy ideas about this city and, by extension, about the future of all cities. And yet what made his thinking around landscape architecture, urban ecologies, and sustainable development so brilliant was that his vision was so simple, sensitive, and subtle. In 2017, few people who looked at Dallas and North Texas’ vast acreage of concrete saw, as Kevin did, a hidden and expansive network of creeks, tributaries, and forgotten greenspace. That greenspace, Kevin argued, was part of a native riverine ecology that was the reason North Texas sustained human life for thousands of years before Anglo settlers arrived. He also saw that these natural conditions played their own role in shaping the region’s urban growth.

Kevin’s big idea was that under the concrete there was nature, and we could unlock it, free it, restore it, and learn to live with it while being sensitive to ecological balance and appreciation. He believed that by restoring our city’s proximate relationship with the natural world we would make Dallas-Fort Worth a global model for sustainable urban growth. His vision was more narrow, too: a future urban environment that enhanced our connection with nature instead of pushing it away, making each of us happier, healthier, and more empathetic.

That may all sound idealistic and abstract, but, as a practicing landscape architect, Kevin gave us concrete examples that illustrated his broader vision. He designed a multi-family, mixed-use development in Addison called Vitruvian Park, located not far from the intersection of the Dallas North Tollway and I-635. In the midst of alienating, multi-family box complexes, Kevin restored a spring-fed creek and transformed it into a 17-acre public park that runs through a new mixed-use community. He showed how suburban growth could be reimagined to create density while also bringing that density up against nature in a manner that both limits its ecological footprint and bolsters a sense of community and place.

On the Waterfront: Architect Kevin Sloan tapped into a network of once-neglected natural springs (inset below) to create an island-dotted waterway that is now the focal point of Vitruvian Park, a master-planned Addison community.

In 2017, I wrote about Kevin’s Airfield Falls Trailhead and Conservation Park in Fort Worth. It was something of a prototype for what he saw as a possible approach for rethinking the Trinity River Project: not a single downtown park, but an interconnected network of parks along the broader tributary system.

Like Kevin, Airfield Falls is at once modest and radical. Its design mostly gets out of the way of the existing topography and riverbed, winding paths through butterfly gardens and clarifying the landscape around a small limestone waterfall. A sculpture constructed out of the wing of an airplane manufactured at the nearby Lockheed Martin plant serves as a trailhead marker.

For a city that has spent the better part of a century battling over how to best redesign, redevelop, and otherwise remake the Trinity River into a splashy urban showpiece, Airfield Falls demonstrates the power of a simplified approach aimed at celebrating the senses of history and subtle ecology within a location. There should be a thousand Airfield Falls all around North Texas.

In the debates surrounding the ultimate killing of the Trinity Toll Road, Kevin emerged as important influence in reframing the terms of the conversation. He worked to refocus the city’s attention on the ecological fragility and beauty of the floodway that runs through downtown. He believed that if Dallas—land of highways, sprawl, and big oil—really wanted to raise eyebrows around the world, it would toss its ambitions for a flashy new architectural design around the Trinity and instead “rewild” the floodplain into a massive natural preserve at the heart of one of the country’s largest urban areas.

It speaks to both the power of Kevin’s ideas and personality that he was viewed as a co-conspirator by people on both sides of the Trinity debate. He often spoke at Trinity Park Conservancy events and served on the park’s design advisory committee. He also helped former Councilwoman Angela Hunt organize a Saturday symposium that gathered scientists, ecologists, naturalists, and other environmental types into the empty dining room of the Saint Rocco’s restaurant in Trinity Groves to hash out a rewilding program for the Trinity, establishing what it might look like and how it could be implemented.

Don Gatzke, Kevin Sloan, Karen Factory, and Dustin Thibodeaux want to create an urban farm in this space.

Kevin’s ability to work with all sides of the highly contentious Trinity project speaks to his genuine nature and generosity of spirit. He had an evangelist-like enthusiasm for the Trinity and the rewilding movement worldwide. He spent considerable energy spreading his vision beyond Dallas, speaking at symposiums and conferences around the world.

Last year, he wrote a piece in the Dallas Morning News about how cities were catching on. Places as diverse as Chicago, Dublin, and Beijing were beginning to experiment with new approaches to restoring natural ecosystems within urban environments, demonstrating that these were not merely feel-good, environmentalist interventions, but potent investments in urban restoration that could improve people’s health and well-being while driving major economic growth.

“When I was trying to figure out what the Chinese had discovered to justify a multi-billion-dollar investment in nature, Google took me to a 2001 economic study by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department,” Sloan wrote. “According to the 20-year-old study, more than a million people travel to Texas to observe wildlife each year, spending, at the time, more than a quarter of a billion dollars on travel. The 3 million Texans who claimed wildlife watching as their primary form of outdoor recreation, according to the study, added another $1.2 billion for equipment and services to the Texas economy. Taken together, $11 billion was generated annually for wildlife appreciation at that time, the majority of which stayed in Texas. The 2020 figures are surely higher.”

The impacts of rewilding go far beyond ecotourism. Kevin saw rewilding as a relatively simple, localized grassroots approach to sustainable growth that had a role to play in addressing daunting, planetary sized challenges. This vision is especially resonant this week, as global leaders scheme top-down solutions to our planet’s pressing environmental challengers at COP 26 in Glasgow. Kevin believed that bottom-up, community-based solutions had a big role to play, too.

“According to the U.S. Nature Conservancy, less than 1% of the original Blackland Prairie in North Texas, remains,” Sloan wrote in his Morning News piece. “They consider it the most threatened ecology in North America for extinction. Texas could be a national thought leader for how communities can change course. Every project, even a modest backyard landscape, can rewild a portion that may be peripheral to human needs, but the rich and diverse array of rewilded plants would be greatly appreciated by the other species we often neglect: butterflies, hummingbirds, honeybees that pollinate our food sources, and other species that enable the recovery and success of the planetary environment.”

Kevin Sloan’s Airfield Falls

For Kevin, the grand plan was to rewrite the relationship between urban growth and natural ecologies. But this plan boiled down to restoring interpersonal relationships, both within communities and between people and the natural world. Sure, rewilding could drive new kinds of urban growth and restore Blackland Prairie, but projects like Airfield Falls and Vitruvian Park also created opportunities for people to live more closely and intimately with the natural world. They were designed to reawaken our appreciation for, and love of, the wonder and beauty of nature.

Perhaps the best way to explain what I mean by this is to tell a story.

Once Kevin invited me to speak to his class at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he taught architecture. He wanted me to share with the students what it was like to write about cities for a living. To be honest, it wasn’t something I had really thought about much before. Preparing for the class afforded a rare occasion to pause the treadmill of churning out articles and consider for a moment what I do every day and how I find perspective and meaning in it. Like one of Kevin’s landscapes, the event forced me to slow down and take notice. I’m sure I got much more out of creating the presentation than the students got from hearing it.

I had no idea that, a few months before the COVID-19 lockdown, Kevin was diagnosed with brain cancer. Although I would often bump into him at civic events or around Oak Cliff, I had not seen him for some time. That wasn’t odd during COVID. When news broke that the city would name the new Jefferson-Twelfth Street connector park in Oak Cliff after him, I found it an apt, if bittersweet, honor. In many ways, the new park flows from Kevin’s thinking and reflects the impact his ideas have had on the city. The park will transform an overbuilt strip of concrete road into a much-needed oasis in a neighborhood desperate for greenspace. The park will also serve as a reminder of how easy it is to undo the urban planning mistakes of the past.

I also find it significant that the naming of the park means that Kevin Sloan’s name will be forever imprinted on maps of this city. His ideas, curiosity, openness, world-traveled intelligence, and practical experience as an architectural craftsman have already imprinted new ways of seeing Dallas on our collective imaginations.

He helped us see that this city didn’t have to be defined by cars, concrete, sprawl, and simplistic notions of urban and economic growth. Dallas prides itself as a city that celebrates big ideas, and in a somewhat unassuming, paradoxical way, Kevin Sloan dreamed one of the biggest. He believed that, through strategic naturalistic interventions, Dallas could reclaim its over-built urban environment for people and for nature, and by doing so reimagine the trajectory of its growth. He believed that restoring greenspace could not only change how Dallas looks—it could reframe how Dallas sees itself.

Kevin Sloan left us way too soon. But we can be grateful for the outsized impact he has had—and will continue to have—on how we imagine Dallas’ future.

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