The few parts of the vaunted New Cities Summit that actually dealt with Dallas left Unfair Park feeling a bit nonplussed. We were glad Dallas was selected to host the conference, of course. Anything that brings together a bunch of really smart people to discuss pressing urban issues like density, sustainability and building more caring cities is fine by us. It's just that nothing that happened told us anything about where our city is and where it's headed. Maybe that wasn't the point of the summit, but we were curious nonetheless.
Aaron Renn, an urbanist who attended the conference, wrote a two-part essay about his New Cities experience and has written extensively about cities for publications such as The Guardian, City Journal and Forbes. We called him up to get his impressions of Dallas, what the city does well, what it can do better and why dealing with entrenched car culture doesn't have to be as hard as it seems.
The fact that Dallas hosted New Cities at all, Renn says, is important.
"[The two previous editions of the summit] were in Paris and Sao Paolo. [Having the conference in Dallas] shows the type of ambition level to showcase Dallas to the world," he says, "to start aiming for that globally elite status."
It was aspirational. Not reflective of where Dallas is, necessarily, but reflective of where it wants to be. Dallas is at an inflection point, according to Renn, because much of the city's population growth is far more recent than in other major metro areas, like Chicago.
"I don't know when Dallas will stop growing," he says, "but at some point in your city's growth you say wait a minute, man does not live by bread alone. We don't just want to get big, and we don't just want to get rich, but we want to live well."
Things like the arts, green space and the ability to get to everything without to much of a hassle become important as cities mature, Renn says. This is something Dallas is starting to better understand with things like Klyde Warren Park, a place for which Renn had high praise.
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Key to all of that is making the city, and downtown specifically, more pedestrian friendly. Renn says that doesn't mean making the area car unfriendly -- that just isn't feasible because of Dallas' layout and summer temperatures, he says.
"For something like downtown Dallas, you still need to be able to get there and park a car, because not everybody is going to be able to live by a transit line," he says, "but you create a more inviting environment so that when people are there they are able to do different things and not have to drive to and from every destination. In a place like Dallas, it's more about providing choice and not forcing the car."
As economic growth in Texas inevitably slows, Dallas must establish an identity beyond being a generic growth hub, he says.
"Will Dallas be able to reinvent itself?, What you're doing now is laying the stage for being a city that has an intrinsic appeal, that goes beyond it just being a growth story and people moving there because it's cheap and there's jobs," he says.