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Turning the Trinity into Something Magical Doesn't Require a Bridge, It Needs You

Jen Sorensen

Old news department. Dallas has a new bridge over the Trinity River near downtown designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. It has been the subject of hoopla. I have been negative. The story of why is too long, too boring.

When they had the hoopla party several weeks ago, my wife went down there with some neighbors. I waited at home. They swung back around the house later and picked me up so we could all go out for hamburgers. Everybody said it was beautiful, but when they said that to me, they said it slowly and soothingly, like I was a special-needs person.

Fine, fine, fine. So people think it's pretty. I'm happy for them. That was never the point. Ever. Pretty bridges were not the point in 1998 when voters passed bonds for the Trinity River project, sold to them as the biggest urban park in America.

We're talking about 10,000 acres of land along 20 miles of river through the heart of a major city. Central Park in New York is 843 acres. The park that we voted for in 1998 could change the destiny of Dallas forever. It is capable of transforming the city into a truly unique place on the globe.

The bridge, on the other hand, is decoration, like a souvenir a rich person brings back from Europe and sticks out in the middle of his lawn to show where he's been.

But a vast urban forest park stretching up through the city could make this a place to live like no other. That much land, free from development but nestled within the city, is the one thing that really could set Dallas apart.

In the great competition of cities in the world, setting ourselves apart in that sort of way could spell the difference between a bright future and decay. It could be so much. It rives my heart to think we'd miss it for a bauble.

Several years ago my wife and I discovered a series of podcasts of a program called Shank's Mare on RTE Radio, a division of Irish public radio. Reporter Ella McSweeney, who produced the series herself, walked around Ireland looking for cool stuff, especially natural and historic areas, and talking to interesting people along the way.

On June 30, 2006, she broadcast a piece on Terryland Forest Park in Galway in the west of Ireland, a part of Ireland we had visited and found romantic during that gauzy half-remembered era we think of now as life before children.

Terryland Forest Park sits on what was 160 acres of undeveloped floodplain , or "waste ground" as the Irish call it, near the center of Galway, which is the third largest city in the Republic of Ireland, with a population of about 80,000. The 1,000-year-old city straddles the River Corrib, which flows down from Ireland's biggest lake through the center of the city to Galway Bay on the Irish Sea.

A campaign to create a forest park was an entirely grassroots citizen effort begun in about 1996. It was only in 2000, two years after our own Trinity River vote, that the Galway City Council voted formally to bar residential development on this land, to carry out a program of tree-planting and to turn this stretch of the Corrib into a true urban forest park.

When McSweeney did her broadcast, the project was barely a decade old. One part of the broadcast that has stuck with me ever since described how wildlife was already finding its way along this woodland corridor into the heart of Galway, cohabiting cheek by jowl with gritty urban districts and crowded residential areas.

Dr. Colin Lawton, a research scientist in mammalian ecology at the National University of Ireland in Galway, told McSweeney in the broadcast that he and his students already were live-trapping and documenting rare and surprising visitors to this ancient urban center.

"If there's a suitable corridor or route for them into the park," Lawton said, "they will make use of whatever areas are available.

"During the last year we found Irish hares in the park. We found a number of species of bats, a range of small mammal species other than house mice and rats, such as wood mice and pygmy shrews. They've all managed to find their way into the park."

The big discovery, however, was the bank vole, which is a little English chipmunky kind of a guy. Lawton, the scientist, was excited about finding the bank vole in Galway. "It was the farthest north and farthest west they've ever been found, and to find them in an urban area is quite unusual."

McSweeney also spoke with Gordon D'Arcy, a naturalist, author and painter, who talked about how birds normally associated with the countryside were beginning to show up in the heart of Galway. He spoke of the redpoll, a member of the finch family whose range is in boreal and arctic forests.

 

"It's so unusual to see a bird like this, normally a very wild rural bird, right here in the heart of the city," he said. But D'Arcy predicted the park will attract more and more woodland immigrants as its 10- and 15-year-old trees and brush mature.

"We know that mink and fox come in here from the boundary of the city," he said. "They walk right into the center of the city.

"Birds will do the same. They'll use the linear park as a corridor to bring them from the countryside into the city, and this is one of the park's great values."

All right, think of this. Drought and suburban development, accidental expedients, are already driving wildlife such as coyotes and bobcats into our own city. What if we allowed the entire expanse of the Trinity River bottoms, 10,000 ares of land reaching 20 miles across the city, to become a forest park more than 60 times the size of Terryland Forest Park?

Everyone living in the core city would be within biking distance of a true forest. Not a zoo. Not an exhibit. And not to demean Frederick Law Olmstead's historic achievement in the design of New York's Central Park, but ours would be a true and natural forest, not a man-made re-creation.

I traded some emails last week with Dr. Lawton at NUI Galway, asking him to catch me up on the history of Terryland since I listened to McSweeney's podcast. Apparently it hasn't all been smooth sailing. A grassroots friends-of-the-forest group had to do battle with a plan to build a road through it. Sound familiar?

The city has suffered budget cuts, making it more difficult for police to deal with what the Irish call "anti-social activities," never quite spelled out. Online photographs show booze containers and wadded clothing in trampled mud in the park. I believe that's what we in Texas would call social activities.

I asked Lawton how important the Terryland Forest Park is to people in Galway. He wrote back: "When there were rumors of a development of roads encroaching on the park, a petition of 10,000 signatures against the plans was delivered to the City Council. This is out of a city population of 80,000. People do care about the park."

In fact that has been the history and the heart of the forest park movement in Galway from the beginning. It didn't come from City Hall. The citizenry, acting through a vigorous friends group, took it to City Hall, and then they went back to City Hall to save it when City Hall wanted to ruin it with a road.

That's what we need here. We need a friends group. Friends of the Forest Park.

Not Friends of the Trinity River Project. That's called the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Not Friends of More Calatrava Bridges. That's called rich people. Well, actually I believe that's called the Trinity Trust, otherwise known as Friends of the Toll Road, but let's not plow up all that old ground again.

The concept of a true forest park through the center of the city needs its own friends group. That's the only way it can happen. It's a way to change history. But it must come from the grassroots.

There may be architects and park planners out there just coming out of the schools who would get this, but they are few and far between and not in the news yet. I have spent a good deal of time over the last couple years looking and watching for the Calatrava of forest parks to emerge, and I do not see him or her anywhere on the far horizon. Not yet. Maybe Dallas is where that person will get a start.

For now the big-name star-chitects are all still decorators for the money. Calatrava is a prime example. That guy could make better cuff links than he could a forest park.

The idea of excavating and reviving waterfronts is not unique. It's going on all over the world, which only makes a bigger mockery of our own city's determination to bury its only waterfront beneath a freeway. But the idea of linear riverine forest parks is quite new.

I already offered last week to help set up a steering committee for the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, so I'm not going to do it again for this. I don't want to become Steering-Committees-R-Us.

But somebody damned well needs to do it. Someone who gets it. Someone who sees it. Someone with the heart.

The most stirring aspect of the park in Galway isn't really the park itself. It's the way this park in the city's geographical heart came up out of its human heart.

 

That's what we need. Without it, this moment will pass, and 20 years from now that entire reach of river will look like a set for The Shopping Channel.

The forest needs friends, but first it needs a friend, a true friend. Do you feel like I might be looking at you like you're a special-needs person? Believe it. And believe.


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