Last Night at SMU, Andrés Duany Took the Wrecking Ball to "The North Dallas Special"

Mayor Tom Leppert's introduction of renowned urban planner and architect Andrés Duany last night at the Hughes-Trigg Student Center Ballroom on the SMU campus was less a please-welcome than a separate speech altogether. Full of pragmatic optimism and pride, and clad in his trademark pinstripes, the mayor insisted, "Not only is Dallas a player on the environmental front, but we're [in] a leadership position, and I can say that because of policies that have been put in place by the city of Dallas."

Leppert went on to describe those policies, from Dallas's green building ordinance to its "very aggressive" recycling program, before, yet again, instructing the full house how to vote on May 9.

But after climbing down form his soapbox, the mayor handed over the stage to Duany, co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism and principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, which has gained international recognition for its urban planning work.

"New Urbanism" is a multifaceted and, till recently, a somewhat obscure concept, but Duany outlined its basic points in a few words: diversity, connectivity and compactness, the last of which could describe Duany himself.

Small and energetic, what he lacked in physical stature he made up for in style and wit. Within two minutes, he had the audience laughing; within three, he was raining down fire and brimstone on one of the great barriers to the walkable, livable city -- suburban sprawl, exemplified by what Duany calls "the North Dallas special," by which he means the over-sized, treeless mansion of isolation that's cheap to build and far from the city center.

Cul-de-sacs of postwar McMansions, Duany said, are emblematic of the single-use suburbia in which residents must work in one place, shop in another and live in yet another -- and use cars and highways to shuffle between them. Such a model, he says, encourages "social segregation," in which uniformly priced subdivisions separated by walls, gates and automobiles preclude the kind of diversity that makes such cities as New York and Paris edgy and alive.

"We need diversity, and diversity is mixed-use," Duany said. "We need places that within walking distance you can shop, you can live, you can go to school, and you can work. Very little can occur, in terms of the foundation of a community, unless you can walk to things."

Duany has several development projects underway, from Houston and Galveston to North Richland Hills and the Legacy Town Center in North Dallas, so he's heard the old argument about walking: It's too hot to walk in Dallas.

"People walk in hotter places and in colder places [than Dallas]," Duany argued. "There are more walkable streets in four cities in Canada than the entire United States," he added, eliciting a chorus of sheepish laughs from the audience. "It's not the climate, it's the [city's] physical design."

But walkability doesn't come on its own, and it doesn't come just from "creating density," or smooshing buildings together until a city block is full. Rather, Duany insists, crafting a diverse and thriving city needs precise planning and conscious efforts to design incentives, like street life and a "sense of place," that will create real urbanism -- livability -- from density. The more sprawl ensconces people in cocoons of self-sufficiency and car-driving, the more it eliminates their interaction with others and with their environment.

According to Duany, what Dallas lacks "time and time and time again is sense of place. You have a pretty low quality of life, given your wealth."

That's a bitter pill, but the audience took it well.

Duany has the ability to be at once scathing and encouraging, hilarious and morbid. He calls the country's three-tiered crisis -- rising oil prices, a caving economy and global climate change -- "incredibly exciting," because there's just enough desperation to make people open to change. And so it should go with Dallas, in Duany's view.

"When you look upon your Dallas, your model is the neighborhood," Duany explains, illustrating his point with slides of quaint, tree-lined prewar American towns. "That's the human habitat. Nothing in your codes allows that."

So, then, what are we to do?

"Comb through your codes," Duany said. "Better yet, throw them out. They have suburban sprawl in mind. Incentivize the [new] code and let the old code wither. It'll be an historical and hilarious artifact."

Not unlike the North Dallas special, perhaps.

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