Twelve of New York's Central Park would fit into the area encompassed by the Trinity River project.
Twelve of New York's Central Park would fit into the area encompassed by the Trinity River project.
Melpomene via Shutterstock

Trinity River Project Too Huge for Tiny Ideas

The greatest challenge in the thing we call vaguely “The Trinity River project” is sheer size. The full project area along the river through downtown is 10,000 acres.

That’s 15.6 square miles. You could put New York City’s Central Park in it 12 times. It’s two-thirds the size of Manhattan, a third the size of San Francisco. It’s bigger than Farmers Branch, bigger than Duncanville. It’s twice the size of Kaufman.

If you made the whole Trinity River project area only one quarter of an inch wide, it would stretch to … very far away. Like to outer space or to China and back a bunch of times. Like that. I’m an English major.

The other staggering dimension is the topography. In the portion that begins downtown and runs northwest along the river lie 4,000 acres of prairie, a rare survivor of the landscape here before settlers started planting trees everywhere.

At the southern end is a true forest 6,000 acres in size, sadly neglected in places, but guess what: That’s why it’s still there. Neglect, difficulty of access, susceptibility to flood, racism, fear of snakes, fashion, all of those factors have conspired to save the Great Trinity Forest from the one terrestrial plague that consumes all mountains, all deserts, forests and prairies in its path: the dreaded, unmerciful and relentless cul-de-sac.

And even greater than those elements — more staggering than its sheer size and diversity — is the project’s potential to fundamentally change the city, to change what it is to be here.

Every year or so, I drag out a conversation I had years ago with former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt and tell it again. She has one of the best minds and eyes in the city for envisioning what is not here but could be, and she put it all so simply and wonderfully for me in that long ago conversation that I keep coming back to it.

She said she envisioned a young woman living in a small subsidized apartment in a high-rise downtown, waking up on a Saturday morning, pulling her bike off the wall, going down the elevator and out the door, coasting down Main Street through downtown, rolling past crowded sidewalk cafes, pumping up over the levees and on to the other side, where she finds 10,000 acres of forest, prairie, river and ponds to explore.

Since Hunt told me that story years ago, Dallas has moved dramatically toward her vision. It’s way more that way now than it used to be. Dallas is more in touch with its physical place. The beauty of Hunt’s vision for the river is the way she sees the project as an apotheosis of the city’s best potential. The Trinity River project could bring together and give form to everything good, everything positive in the city’s better nature. Life in Dallas would never be the same.

If it’s that big, if the project has the ability to change the city that dramatically and fundamentally, then obviously we need to really open our minds and our imaginations when we think about how to do it. There’s nothing small or ordinary about it.

That awareness has been growing in the city by leaps and bounds. Last spring, D Magazine hosted a wonderful public seminar that brought together a broad spectrum of thinkers, from naturalists to engineers to political leaders, all thinking and talking together about how to approach the Trinity River project. It was exciting.

But I guess at this point I should pause and explain something to newcomers who may be wondering, quite properly, about the timeline. Is this a brand-new project? Is it about to start or something? Who thought it up, and, oh yeah, by the way … what is it?

Yes, that’s the problem. It’s a big problem. What is it? We don’t really know. Who thought it up? Don’t get me started. Is it about to start? No, actually, it was about to start 25 years ago. It’s still about to start. It has been about to start for a quarter century.

Sometime if you have a spare weekend plus part of a Monday and I can stay overnight, I will pack a toothbrush and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and come over to your house and give you the lecture on why the Trinity River project has been stalled for so long.

Now the project is at a point where it is fully funded and authorized with all the basic engineering done, and all it needs is for us to push the do-it button. So that’s why things like that seminar are happening. We’re trying to decide. Yes, do it, but do what, exactly?

I have no polling or other scientific measurement to base this on, but my overwhelming impression is that most residents of the city, especially the younger ones who will enjoy this project as adults when it’s finished, want the simplest, most natural scheme possible for the project. But that’s an overarching principle, not a design.

One of the interesting commentaries at the D Magazine seminar was by landscape architect Kevin Sloan, who talked about the mistake of applying the wrong ideas to the wrong venues. You don’t want to wind up with an urban pocket park that’s trying to be a nature preserve, nor you should you pack a nature reserve full of stuff that belongs in a pocket park.

All of that means that the Trinity River project, intended to encompass 10,000 acres along the river through the center of the city, needs to be open to the broadest possible creative process. The more minds the merrier.

I know there are people who get terribly nervous when you talk about an open process with everybody chipping in. They think it will never get under control, that it will meander forever. And it’s true that an open and public creative process needs strong leadership and a good plan of attack, with deadlines and a process for making decisions.

But if we start small with the Trinity River project, we will never be able to encompass its powerful potential for change. We need to begin with a big bonfire of creativity. Then, gradually, we can pare that down and render it into a keen flame. We’re civilized grownups. Some of us. We can do meetings.

D Magazine hosted a community seminar where experts discussed "re-wilding" the river.
D Magazine hosted a community seminar where experts discussed "re-wilding" the river.
Jim Schutze

Maybe you have guessed already the particular fear that is pushing me along in this discussion. The mayor of Dallas is determined to set up a thing called a local government corporation to run the Trinity River project. I am truly worried that an LGC is a tactic intended to accomplish exactly the wrong thing — that is, to constrict and control the creative process before it even gets going.

My real concern is not even elitism. Not that I’m a fan. The thing to be much more concerned about is what I began with — the size. The sheer vastness of the project and its enormous capacity to change the city require the biggest possible contribution at the front end of intellectual, cultural and political capital.

It’s really not something you do to be nice or to show respect, not that there’s anything wrong with nice or respect. It’s about getting ideas that are big enough. For that, you have to listen to everybody’s ideas because you don’t know where the next good one might come from. If you think you have all the good ideas yourself and people just need to do what you say, then you really do need to stay home.

To flower, to burst into the world as big as it should be, as big as it can be, this project needs to leap up out of the ground with the whole city cheering. The only way to make that happen is to make sure the whole city is there at the beginning.

Keep it open. Keep it big. And then, you know … do it!

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