Sunday, May 29, 2022 May 29, 2022
Dallas, TX
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The Tale Of Dallas’ Inequities Can Be Told With These Two Maps

There are many ways to illustrate the infrastructure inequities in Dallas, but one is the ability for residents to access an online platform to help inform the city’s land use plan update.
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Dr. Barbara Minsker and SMU graduate student Zheng Li visited one of the infrastructure deserts in Dallas that they identified in their research, which was turned into a series of interactive maps. Courtesy SMU

SMU professor Barbara Minsker once sent her civil engineering students to compare neighborhoods and their infrastructure, directing them to two wealthy Dallas neighborhoods and two low-income neighborhoods. The students had two questions to answer: How do we define an “infrastructure desert?” What do you see that looks like an infrastructure desert to you?

“They came back and they said, ‘Well, you just know it when you see it,’” Minsker recalled.

There’s a lot to see.

During the last couple of months I was with our sister publication, People Newspapers, I wrote two stories about maps. Those two maps are only peripherally connected—mostly because they each address things the city needs to do to make this a more equitable place for all of its residents to live.

Minsker’s civil engineering students worked on a project to map the inequities in Dallas’ infrastructure, using machine-learning models, good old-fashioned shoe leather, and plenty available data to examine 12 types of neighborhood infrastructure at the census-block level. It then used that framework to evaluate and compare nearly 800 Dallas neighborhoods.

After looking at everything from gathering spots to tree canopies to sidewalks to access to broadband internet, Minsker’s team identified 62 infrastructure deserts in Dallas.

Not long after they rolled out their project, the city’s Planning and Urban Design department launched its Social Pinpoint map, which is designed to allow Dallasites (and people who work in Dallas) the opportunity to weigh in on what specific neighborhoods and areas need as the city works on updating its ForwardDallas Comprehensive Land Use Plan.

“Prior to this — at events and other similar mapping exercises—those were very localized,” said ForwardDallas project manager Lawrence Agu, adding they often involved paper maps and people gathered around a conference room. “But with the Social Pinpoint map, we can do two things at once — we get to focus people’s attention to their neighborhoods, but then they can also see what other neighborhoods are saying at the same time.”

But it also (albeit unintentionally) demonstrates one of the infrastructure inequities in the city. Looking at this map from Minsker’s team, you can see huge swaths of the city that get internet upload speeds of less than 200kbps in at least one direction.

Now, look at this screen capture of the Social Pinpoint map.

As you can see, there are far fewer people engaging with the map in areas where there is spotty-to-no broadband internet. We also know from the other maps Minsker’s team has created (as well as the city’s own comprehensive housing policy racial equity assessment), that there are definitely things that need to be addressed in the city’s land use plan.

The Social Pinpoint map is great and it’s probably allowing more people to talk about what the city needs. But it also isn’t completely mobile phone-friendly and takes a bit of bandwidth to use on a computer, too. 

And this isn’t just insight gleaned from a map. The city’s own 2019 Equity Indicators report found that 27.32 percent of Black households and 20.7 percent of Hispanic households lacked access at higher rates than White households (5.96 percent). 

If anything, the scramble to get students connected to reliable internet during the earliest months of the pandemic threw into sharp relief the disparity.

And to its credit, the city isn’t just relying on this map to get public input. Staff is meeting with communities as well, Agu told me. 

District 6 Councilman Omar Narvaez said keeping his ear to the ground has been helpful in gathering that information, too. He gets a lot of information from neighborhood associations and crime watch groups, as well as at events the district holds. 

“We also get a lot of information from our rec centers and libraries because they hear from the patrons,” he said. “And we’re very lucky here in West Dallas now that we have the West Dallas Multipurpose Center, and we hear a lot of information from them as well.”

But there is a big difference between marking something on your calendar and making plans to attend. The city is competing with your Amazon order, hoping that you’ll take the time to point out that somehow the city often misses filling in a big divot on the outer edge of northbound Preston Road near St. Mark’s School of Texas, and if your car hits it just right, it sounds like your wheel is being stripped right off the axle. 

Perhaps the biggest infrastructure deficit of them all in Dallas is convenience. 

And that quality of life component to infrastructure is important, Minsker told me in March. Yes, access to safe, driveable streets, good sidewalks and crosswalks, and even noise buffering from highways are important things. But all 11 of the items her team considered “infrastructure” speak to how well residents are living in Dallas, including access to banking, food, and medical care.

Things like parks and recreation centers and high-speed internet access, which can sometimes be seen as frivolous expenditures, are important pieces of infrastructure and community building.

“So in some of these places, there are no community gathering places for your community to gather,” Minsker said. “And so if you don’t know your neighbors when the next disaster strikes, whether it’s a pandemic or a tornado or an economic downturn, you don’t have anyone to turn to. The way we meet our neighbors is by standing out on the sidewalk and meeting them at a playground, those kinds of things. Having these spaces that are safe and nice where people can gather as a community is a really important piece of the fabric for resilience.

“That’s what a lot of this is,” she said, “infrastructure supports that fabric.”

The Dallas City Council’s approval of adding racial equity components to its Comprehensive Housing Policy is a start, but only if it results in a policy that actually addresses historical inequities in substantive ways. 

Just about every single infrastructure desert Minsker’s team identified has always been so. Many were redlined, and you can, she said, “still see the pattern there.”

Minsker said that newer, yet-to-be-released research compares Dallas to other large cities.

“We compare Dallas with Chicago, LA, and New York City, and Dallas has the worst infrastructure and the most inequity of any of those cities,” she said. “We have a hypothesis that when we look at the maps of those four cities in terms of neighborhoods that are predominantly Black, predominantly White, predominantly Hispanic, or none of those, Dallas has far more segregation—even though it’s no longer official — than the other three cities do.”

But the city has historically been hung up on equal spending, not equitable spending. It isn’t doing enough to ameliorate the failures of the past, Minsker said.  

“It’s actually interesting on the bond money—it’s pretty much split as an equal amount of investment in every council district,” Minsker said. “So what that means is that the council districts that have been neglected never get to catch up because the money is always, as someone said to me, spread like peanut butter across the whole city.”

“We have to understand that if we want to level the playing field, it’s not about spreading resources equally,” said southeast Dallas Councilman Jaime Resendez during last week’s city council meeting. “We need significant financial investment focused on infrastructure and really addressing the opportunity gaps in southern Dallas, a place that has been historically neglected.”

A recent white paper looked at nine of the city’s 14 city council districts that are mostly south of I-30, (although part of the area considered was just north of I-30 and included part of West Dallas). It determined the area contains about 64 percent of the city’s population but only 10 percent of its total property value. 

“Segregation in Dallas and under-investment in the southern section of Dallas have deep historical roots,” wrote J.H. Cullum Clark, director of the George W. Bush Institute – SMU Economic Growth Initiative. “Dallas was the first city in Texas to impose explicit housing segregation by race, in 1916. Decades of redlining, policies to promote northward development, “urban renewal” initiatives, and construction of highways and other infrastructure running through the middle of historically Black and Hispanic neighborhoods have left a lasting imprint on the economic geography of southern Dallas.”

The council’s vote to add 11 tasks to City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s plate when it comes to making sure the city’s housing policy is equitable is an ambitious list of things designed to change the city’s collective amygdala when it comes to racial equity in housing. It will need to quit fighting the things that actually create equity. It aims to address the infrastructure deserts in southern Dallas, improve economic mobility, address NIMBYism that’s blocking affordable housing, and creating dedicated funding streams to support that housing. 

Councilman Casey Thomas, who led the initiative to amend the housing policy as chair of Dallas’ Housing and Homeless Solutions Committee, was optimistic Wednesday.

“We are serious about moving forward with this, and this is only one piece,” he said, adding that the council should be getting a briefing on a citywide racial equity plan in August.

“The one thing we must do is focus on southern Dallas,” said Far North Dallas Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn. “The city can’t continue moving forward while leaving southern Dallas behind.”

But even before the city addresses the policy that will result from the council’s directive, Narvaez told me that the pandemic has helped kick into gear City Hall’s attempt to address the issue of broadband internet connectivity.

“One of the big things that we’ve already started—we’re adding internet wifi access into certain street lamps, into the poles. So certain streets that have no access, those neighborhoods will have free wifi that they can access from the comfort of their homes,” he said. “And that’s a really big victory.”

The city is also working to make sure that recreation centers and parks can also provide internet access.

“We’re not done yet, but we’re working on building our own grid to get to the places that don’t have it,” he said. “All the companies are working with us so we can get this right.”

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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