Stroll to the Future: Walkable Neighborhoods are Next for Dallas

Welcome to Seinfeld America, a fine place to take a walk that's coming soon to Dallas

"We have a policythat says we willnot expand theaccess into our city by even one laneof additionalautomobile traffic."

Unfortunately for me, life is not always a conspiracy. Sometimes it's just how people think. Which can change. Last week I attended a day-long seminar put on by City Manager Mary Suhm at which I do believe I saw light bulbs appearing over the heads of the Dallas City Council and mayor.

Maybe they were just hungry.

But even better than the possible light bulbs, the news at this particular tent revival was that Dallas is going to change for the better, whether Dallas City Hall gets it or not.

This is all about the new kind of living together that experts are calling "walkable community." On the one hand, it's not that complex a concept. It's a community. You walk.

On the other hand, it's a 180 degree turn from suburbs, gated communities, segregation, stratification, fortification—all the things we thought were the American dream.

By walkable urban neighborhood, they mean Seinfeld America, a place where people live in buildings that are anywhere from four to 15 stories, with a coffee shop for Jerry, Elaine and George on the corner, entertainment places right out there on the block. Maybe your work is even in the neighborhood. And everywhere you need to go is an easy walk.

My own term for it is no-DWI neighborhoods. You can go to work, come home, go out, get hammered, maybe get dumped by your girlfriend or boyfriend, maybe find a new one, maybe have something really terrible happen like lose your cell phone, find it again in a lovely sidewalk planter, and the whole time there's never a chance of a DWI. You are DWI-proof, because you are not in a car.

You have outwitted the law! You are brilliant!

Suhm, with money from a private group, brought in a panel of experts from around the United States and Canada to tell the mayor and council what's really known about this stuff. One of the speakers, Christopher B. Leinberger, has been here before. Larry Beasley, a developer who is also professor of planning at the University of British Columbia and retired director of planning for the city of Vancouver, was here for the first time.

Armed with solid numbers showing the trend in this country and Canada, Leinberger, Beasley and two other experts told the council that human beings will come back into this city and all cities in droves in the decades ahead, no matter what city councils do. They will come searching for many of the things city planners and elected officials have always believed were bad and undesirable—presumed barriers to growth.

"We say that congestion is our friend," Beasley said. He also told the council, "Regulation is our friend."

Congestion our friend? Regulation our friend? You could see the looks. I know what everybody on the council except Angela Hunt was thinking. "If congestion and regulation are our friends, who are our enemies?"

Hunt gets it. First of all, she represents East Dallas, downtown and Uptown, where all of the coolest things are happening in the city—towers pushing up from the soil, people squeezing together, awnings blooming over sidewalks, tables sprouting. It's a life where people from all walks get out and walk and talk together and relish spontaneity and variety.

In the second place, Hunt completed a major fellowship in Europe last year with some of the world's brightest thinkers in urban planning. Much of what she was hearing at the seminar she already knew. But I swear I saw signs that others on the council were getting it, too, as the day wore on.

Suhm scheduled this thing to happen just as the Dallas City Council comes to a crucially important vote on zoning—a decision that will influence the shape and nature of the city for the foreseeable future. So far the council debate on so-called "form-based zoning" has been full of sound, fury and signifying.

But at this deal set up by Suhm, the invited experts expressed certain core concepts that seemed to illuminate the ground for everyone. That doesn't mean Dallas will do a single thing these guys recommended, but at least the city council will have a better idea what it's deciding and why.

Judging by body language and facial expressions of the council members, I think some of what the experts had to say at the seminar sounded like blasphemy spoken in a foreign tongue by strangers standing on their heads. I could barely keep a smirk off my face when Beasley told them about Vancouver's secret to success.

"We have been very lucky in our city," he said. "We do not have any freeways."

Beat. Council staring with round eyes. When does he get to lucky part?

"We do not have freeways that take people in and out of the core city. And that's because of some very courageous action in the early 1970s by the councils of the day, who said, 'We're just not going to go that way.'"

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