City Hall

For Dallas, Urbanism Versus Sprawl Is Quickly Becoming a Zero-Sum Game

The Trinity toll road is a pretty good litmus test for future leadership.
The Trinity toll road is a pretty good litmus test for future leadership. Brian Maschino
Two huge forces are bearing down on Dallas right now — climate change and Amazon — and either one could be the boost the city needs to leap ahead. Or land in the ditch.

See what Hurricane Harvey did to Houston, Irma to Florida. People can nibble around the edges of it all they want, but climate change and resilience to it already are major factors in the foot race between cities. There is no longer a viable way out of it. If nothing else, at some point the simple matter of insurance will call the question.

And now let’s see what Amazon really wants in its continental search for a new second headquarters. Most of the announced criteria — mobility, culture, talent pool and so on — sound like one thing. City. In fact, it sounds like a bright-lights big city, with lots of sizzle and jazz.

But what else? One assumes Amazon’s second home will need to be a city that also is good at its basic chores: keeping up the infrastructure, keeping down the crime, providing a congenial physical setting.

And forget about Amazon. Even if there were no corporate behemoth scratching at our door right now, the issues of environmental resilience and urban quality of life are already the paradigm for local politics. All of the big questions to be settled or not settled in upcoming local elections will have to do with resilience and cityhood.

By resilience, I mean not setting the city up to be a patsy, a hapless victim of climate change, violent weather, flooding and other forms of catastrophe that we know await us in the near future. But what is cityhood?

Cityhood is related — bonded at the hip, in fact — to resilience because all of the answers to climate change are going to have to do with density, and density is all about social trust. When human beings share basic social trust, they can rub elbows, live stacked on top of each other, have a lot of fun and not start hyperventilating every time they get stuck on an elevator with somebody who doesn’t look like a cousin.

Without social trust, everybody wants to live in a fortified sensory-deprivation chamber out in the land of cow patties. It won’t defend against floods. It won’t get the new Amazon second headquarters.

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Without social trust, not so much. Without social trust, everybody wants to live in a fortified sensory-deprivation chamber out in the land of cow patties. That pattern, which we know by the name sprawl, does not and will not and cannot work. It won’t defend against floods. It won’t get the new Amazon second headquarters. Pretty soon, it won’t even make money.

These questions are right under our noses already in Dallas because the leadership of the city is so evenly divided between the old-school champions of sprawl, which they call regionalism, and the new-school champions of cityhood. As the confrontation between the two camps matures, it gets easier to recognize who is on which side.

The best litmus is still the massive public-works campaign that the old school fought for 20 years to carry out along the Trinity River through the center of the city. Only recently defeated by the new urban forces, the project was known mainly for its most salient feature, the Trinity toll road, which was to have been a six- to eight-lane expressway built almost on top of the river, cutting off access to the city’s largest natural feature and seriously threatening the already rickety and inadequate system of flood control that is supposed to protect downtown from disaster.

During the old establishment’s 20-year war for that road, the main justification for it was that it would promote regionalism. By offering regionalism as a selling point, the old guard betrayed its utter unawareness that people on the other side of the paradigm think regionalism is the problem. And there you have it.

I know I started by suggesting that getting ahead of this curve was a good way for Dallas to get ahead of other cities, but I ought to let you in on a kind of confidence here. I don’t really believe that’s how these problems will get themselves worked out. A very new, still nascent effort is underway in Texas to stitch together a new urban alliance based on these questions, and so far it’s a product of cooperation more than competition.

I don’t get the impression anybody involved in it seriously thinks that solving the issues of environmental resilience and social trust will provide a cool way for one city to get two jumps ahead of the next one. Instead, it looks to me more like a bunch of people scattered around in cities all over Texas are more or less simultaneously realizing that they have a shared interest in resisting the forces of sprawl, social distrust and climate vandalism.

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Former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt and her daughters attend the Trinity River toll road funeral.
Brian Maschino
Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston is helping to organize one statewide network of urban officials and thinkers, based not on a left-right or progressive-conservative paradigm but on questions of urban sustainability. A lot of the shared challenge, he believes, is in Austin with a governor and Legislature that often seem pointedly anti-urban.

“We have passed these two constitutional amendments that sequester huge swaths of our budget for transportation,” he says, “in a period of time when everybody acknowledges that the importance of the car is shrinking.

“And then our governor says, ‘OK, Texas Department of Transportation, here’s what I am telling you to do. You are to spend all this money that the voters have just sequestered on building more highway capacity inside cities,’ which cities do not want. We don’t want it, and it’s going to really damage us. It’s going to really harm our urban fabric.”

Former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt says that the recent defeat of the Trinity toll road, a project she fought for a decade, has given her an opportunity to pause and look forward.

“I have been thinking a lot about this since the Trinity toll road was killed last month,” she says. “What are the issues that we need to focus on as a city?

“Here are the three that have come to mind as critical for the next 50 years to our really creating a 21st century city: improving our schools, creating affordable housing across the city and creating mobility options that don’t focus on massive highways to the suburbs.

“How do cities survive and compete and sustain themselves? How do they bounce back and sustain an economy that can withstand national fluctuations? Our city cannot sustain itself on a model of simply having the wealthy inhabit the center part of our city and pushing people out and out.”

Hunt thinks properly managed density with an important element of economic diversity will create urban success.

“You simply create a more sustainable environment in a multitude of ways, and you create positive benefits that you didn’t even set out to create when you create more economic diversity throughout the city,” she says.

The natural catastrophes dominating the news of the last month are pressing on us in a drumbeat of fear. We know that our vulnerabilities will be tested at some point. But at the same time, the enormous economic promise of something like an Amazon headquarters lures us forward, offering new dimensions of prosperity and opportunity.

It may sound like two things, toughening ourselves to be resilient, expanding ourselves to be attractive. But there’s a growing sense that’s it’s not two things, that it is all one thing and that the one thing is cityhood. That’s what we’ve got to vote on next time we go to the polls.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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