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The Case For Using Dallas’ Massive Waterway

Here, nature and a connected, walkable urbanism can coexist—thrive, even.
By Kevin Sloan |

In 1909, the Dallas Chamber of Commerce hired George Kessler to turn a chaotic and shortsighted tangle of infrastructure into an actual city. Two years later, the renowned landscape architect and planner delivered his “General Plan for the City of Dallas, Texas,” which suggested tree-lined boulevards and an elegant set of parks among its more practical concerns, such as an attempt to tame the wild Trinity and a central consolidated rail yard.

Ultimately, only one part of his plan was fully realized: the transformation of the 5-mile-long Turtle Creek corridor, an otherwise featureless ravine. Kessler felt it could become what he referred to as “a civic and cultural promenade.”

He was right. A century later, Turtle Creek demonstrates that building around nature, using it as a feature rather than an obstacle to be overcome, can generate anything you might want from an urban environment. Culture, recreation, high-rise living, real estate value. The only real problem with Turtle Creek is there isn’t more of it.

wild-dallas-Farmers-Branch-CreekBut there could be. There should be. Turtle Creek is a small part of a natural waterway system that spreads across North Texas like veins on a leaf. I call it the Dallas-Fort Worth Branch Waters Network. It is a massive nexus of rivers, creeks, and ravines, more than 400 miles worth, rivaled in size and scope only by the highway system. Most of it is taken for granted and underutilized, sometimes even covered up. In Dallas alone, 90 percent of the waterway is unimproved.

My idea for the Dallas-Fort Worth Branch Waters Network is simple: let’s use all of it.

The network could be an attraction to form ribbonlike strands of urbanism along its edges, offering the civility of streets and shops on one side of a block, the forest and nature on the other. It could finally give Dallas a nature park hugging the banks of the Trinity. It could—to put it grandly, but without hyperbole—remake the entire region over the next century.

The best part? It’s already there, just waiting.

The concept of reengaging with nature, specifically around our waterways, is not new. Legendary planner Bud Melton and his wife, Annie, began an effort to push for branch trails in the ’80s. Today, trail segments such as Irving Campion, the Trinity Strand, Ten Mile Creek, and portions of the Trinity Forest Spine Trail dot the Branch Waters Network like charms on a living green bracelet. The North Central Texas Council of Governments estimates there are currently more than 300 miles of trails; by 2035, there could be 1,800. And some formerly lost water branches are in the process of being recovered. Most notably, George Prejean, a Dallas planner and former president of the Greater Dallas Planning Council, is leading a campaign to re-daylight Mill Creek in East Dallas.

The network of waterways could form ribbonlike strands of urbanism along its edges, offering the civility of streets and shops on one side of a block, the forest and nature on the other.

Too, we’ve seen the light on creating green space. Klyde Warren Park, Belo Garden, and Main Street Garden show that new parks and beautiful landscapes improve the economic performance of a surrounding environment. On any given day, at any given time, these areas are full of people, many of whom have had to drive to get there and enjoy an outdoor park environment. But most Dallasites have to drive a long distance to get to a park and enjoy nature and the outdoors.

That is the point of the Branch Waters Network: it brings nature and the park to you. The important first step in activating the Branch Waters Network is actually referring to it as the Branch Waters Network.

Dallas is governed by 14 districts, which can make improvements in one a source of resentment for all the others. Giving the waterway system a singular identity will help it overcome these jealousies, especially since it traverses the entire metropolitan area, toeing into every district regardless of affluence or social status. On a block-by-block level, suddenly that forgotten creek or shady drainage swale in your neighborhood becomes a water branch, something of value and stature. Identity is conferred wherever the network goes.

And it goes everywhere. There are more water branches, and in more locations, than most people realize. They have different qualities and physical characteristics, but they are there. Many are sheet springs that formed when the region was blackland prairie—street names like Marsh Lane, Spring Valley Road, and Kidd Springs Drive give them away. Some are placid landscapes like a bayou, while others are green swales that periodically fill with stormwater. There is almost certainly one in your neighborhood.

Once water branches are identified, communities have a lot of choices. They can make a simple park by cleaning out the trash, maybe forming a volunteers group—say, The Friends of Our Water Branch—to keep it up. Perhaps they would prefer to develop housing and recreation along a more ecological landscape like a wetland, a grove, or community gardens. Turtle Creek is proof of how nature and urbanism can not only coexist but thrive, but it’s not the only example. It is an idea that has been extended by recent projects and others that are on the drawing board. Let’s look at two that my landscape architecture firm, Kevin Sloan Studio, has worked on.

Vitruvian Park in Addison is a mixed-use plan that is organized along a 12-acre spring-fed park that features cypress-planted islands, a re-wilded creek, and a bridge painted bright red. So far, only two phases of the overall 120-acre plan have been completed. Still, the park has already established new civic events such as a holiday lights festival that attracts thousands of people to the development over a weekend.

On a smaller scale, there is the Dallas Urban Reserve—50 modernist, energy-efficient homes located in a former illegal landfill off White Rock Creek Trail. The development is organized around a street that has been turned into a continuous biofilter, which cultivates a drought-tolerant, nature center-like terrain as a common ground for the neighborhood.

Urban Reserve developer Diane Cheatham and architect Robert Meckfessel, president of DSGN Associates, have another Branch Waters project in the works. The plan is to nest moderately priced houses into a wooded creek just south of Richland College. Interspersed with these contemporary homes will be offerings from Habitat for Humanity, and it is all tied together by a street named Branch Waters Way.

These scattered developments show that the impact of the Branch Waters Network could be tremendous, since they represent only a fraction of it. New urbanist planners frequently use a principle known as the pedestrian shed to ensure that mixed-use plans are laid out within walkable distances that humanize the neighborhood. Typically a circle that is described by a 1,000-foot radius, the pedestrian shed is a five-minute walk for most people, including children and the elderly.

Applying the pedestrian shed to the 400-mile linear landscape of the Branch Waters Network means hundreds of thousands of acres of real estate could potentially be enhanced.

The concept sidesteps the usual bureaucratic red tape that stymies conventional projects and comprehensive plans. Typical planning proposals are expensive and can descend into bitter confrontations within a community. Pattern books and planning abstractions tend to confuse public participation. The Branch Waters Network simply embraces the cultural affinity for nature that Dallasites already understand. We locate homes and other buildings where there are trees and shade, water, a spectacular view, an escarpment with rolling topography, even along golf courses. There’s something about nature that helps a largely suburban culture overcome its hesitations for living in urban arrangements that are also walkable.

You might be saying right now, well, all of this is fine for smaller parks and developments in individual neighborhoods. But what about the Trinity? That’s even simpler: just leave it alone.

In May 2015, a monsoonlike series of thunderstorms filled the Trinity floodway from levee to levee for more than a month. The river, for once, was an actual river, or at least it looked like one. People flocked to the Ronald Kirk Pedestrian Bridge to savor the blessed event. Sundowns became ad hoc street fairs.

The idea of a permanent Dream Lake—a notation Kessler made in his 1911 plan for such a body of water in the floodway—is exciting. But when 2015’s Dream Lake receded after 40 days and nights, it left a dead landscape of mud that buried trails, roads, and parking areas with 12 to 20 inches of silt. In addition to the drowned vegetation and silt bars, trash snags as large as 2 acres accumulated with driftwood, thousands of plastic bottles, baby strollers, and an arsenal of sharp objects.

The only possible landscape that is beautiful and tough enough to contend with the drought and deluge cycle, and the formidable engineering forces of the floodway, is the original landscape. Re-wilding the Trinity with a blackland prairie and wetland nature project is the safest, most cost-effective, and most creative solution for the Trinity Park.

Re-wilding the Trinity is cost-effective because it affects, in most cases, only the surface of the floodway. Much of the 8-mile open area of the Trinity is already marshes, sloughs, and wetlands, so a nature project would simply complete a process that is naturally trying to form.

Re-wilding is the safest because touching only the surface will leave unperturbed the decades of encapsulated toxins that have washed in from upstream and accumulated in the sediment layers between the levees.

Several North American cities, such as Houston and Oklahoma City, have recently accomplished architecturally designed parks. Design projects make artistic conceits, metaphors, and stylistic elements the priority. Re-wilding makes nature the priority. It would give Dallas an opportunity to show the world a solution that no other world city can ever have—a nature reserve within walking distance of downtown.

Re-wilding is also an unprecedented opportunity to co-locate the cultural arts, the flourish of Uptown, the financial quarter of downtown, and nature all within the same geography. Generations going forward would grow up in a city that offers urbanity alongside a sort of wild classroom where they can witness nature and urbanism together.

The Trinity and the Branch Waters Network also might be the last, best chance for a city of Dallas’ size to create something of this magnitude. In the 19th century, American cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco established park systems that set their future. Treasured and venerated, many of these parks continue to inspire. But it’s almost impossible to pull off a giant landscape project like that now. North Texas might span some 6 million acres, but most of the land is already atomized by private ownership.

That’s why the Branch Waters Network is so exciting.

Since the waterway land already exists, no eminent domain, extra taxes, bond programs, or philanthropy is needed. It is just waiting for us. In an entirely new way, the Branch Waters Network circumvents all the obstacles to deliver a park straight out of the 19th century, but even better. Its forebears lacked the fully grown trees and spaces that generations enjoy today. They were never entirely appreciated in their own time, gifts given to future generations.

The Branch Waters Network is both an idea that can deliver benefits to the authoring generation and, when its forms and ribbonlike urbanism are braided into nature, its descendants. Future generations will be as grateful to this moment as Americans are to those in the 19th century, cherishing how they had the vision and courage to send forward the spaces and places we enjoy today.   

Kevin Sloan is a professor in practice for the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs at UTA and the founder of Kevin Sloan Studio.

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