Dallas is a prosperous, forward-thinking place. It is, the tired catchphrase goes, a “world class city.” “Big Things Happen Here” is the city's brand.
Dallas is also where:
- More than 115,000 children live in poverty, among the worst rates of any large U.S. city.
- The median income is the lowest of any big city in Texas.
- Residents of ethnically diverse neighborhoods have 17 times more job opportunities available to them than residents of African-American neighborhoods.
- African-American workers earn, on average, 54 cents for every dollar their white counterparts earn and are six times more likely to be poor with a full-time job.
- Fewer than 4 percent of local jobs are accessible within a 45-minute commute for the majority of those residents who depend on public transit to get to work.
- One in 10 children has asthma. In African-American communities, the rate is 1 child in 8.
The grimmer picture of Dallas — or at least parts of the city — was painted by a plan called Resilient Dallas, adopted by the City Council in August. The plan is intended to guide policy and community efforts for decades to come, to create a city ready to weather the rest of the century in prosperity and stability.
Resilient Dallas is the result of the city's selection by the Rockefeller Foundation to be one of its 100 Resilient Cities worldwide. The award brought planning funds, plus technical assistance and links to a network of 100 peer cities, among them Venice, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, and Jaipur, India. The program’s website says only “the value of funding and expertise for each city can be expected to exceed $1 million.”
“It’s easy to not talk about it,” Theresa O’Donnell, the veteran city planner who serves as City Hall's chief resilience officer, said in a recent interview. “We have an unemployment rate that has consistently been below the state and national averages for a decade. … Our unemployment rate is 3.8 percent, pretty amazing, unless you’re in South Dallas. In some communities in South Dallas, the unemployment rate is 13 percent.”
“Shocking” is one word for the “state of the city” initial assessment by O’Donnell and some 30 Resilient Dallas partner organizations delivered to the City Council this summer. Shocking, that is, for anyone who doesn’t venture south of Interstate 30, follow City Council or volunteer at local charities. It’s no surprise to those who work in organizations such as Children’s Health, Dallas County Health and Human Services, the Communities Foundation of Texas, Dallas ISD and 26 other community partners in the plan.
More than 50 other nonprofits, universities, businesses, philanthropies, 15 city departments and scores of residents also worked on Resilient Dallas’ analysis and strategy development for the past 2 1/2 years.
The problems are hiding in plain sight, but coming up with meaningful plans to solve them is what the 100 Resilient Cities' program aims for. This means, in the program's parlance, to develop the “capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.”
The project is helping other cities in the network that face severe stresses, such as extreme racism, destitution or drug cartel corruption and such acute shocks as hurricanes, sectarian violence or war. Dallas' challenges are less dramatic than those in places like San Juan, Puerto Rico, ravaged by a hurricane. In Dallas, the demons are the usual suspects that loom over most talk about inequity: race, ethnicity and their invariable links to poverty.
The plan O’Donnell delivered to City Council included two maps that show population by ethnicity and by income level. The color-coded ethnicity map, with red, blue, green and gold dots for every 10 people, shows that Dallas is largely still segregated.
The income map showed, unsurprisingly, that the low-income parts of town are the black and brown ones. Also, in the southern half of town below I-30, neighborhoods with 10 to 40 percent of households living in poverty predominate.
To determine just how wide is the gap separating the haves and have-nots, the Institute of Local and State Governance at City University of New York provided tools: an “equity score” process and an “equity indicators” model for follow-up tracking. The University of Texas at Dallas Institute for Urban Policy Research developed equity indicators specific to Dallas.
CUNY’s model and Dallas’ statistics provide a baseline and success measures for the actions
toward each goal. Those “equity indicators” will serve as performance standards for every city
department, and the plan specifies annual “equity audits.” The city manager’s office has started its equity
audit of city operations.
One hundred interviews with residents and representatives of organizations with an interest in better
outcomes for the disadvantaged produced an equity score that belies the business pages.
Six areas — economic opportunity, public health, education, justice and government, transportation and infrastructure, and housing and neighborhoods — were rated for disparity between north and south. All but one, transportation and infrastructure, rated below 50, a classroom grade of D.
The numeric scores, on a scale 0 to 100, reflect a comparison of resident responses on the city’s own community survey. A score in the 90s means only minor deviation between races, ethnicities or genders. Conversely, a score of 28, as for economic opportunity in Dallas, means a wide gap between populations.
“This is a tale of two cities,” council member Clayton Thomas said.
The groundwork by the Resilient Dallas team identified seven main goals to improve the deficiencies and a host of actions to reach them. But Dallas has a history of creating grand plans and a less than stellar record of having them bear fruit. At the meeting Resilient Dallas was unveiled, council members Philip Kingston and Mark Clayton wanted to know which actions are underway now. The voluminous plan and its some 30 multi-pronged initiatives appeared to be overwhelming the council.
“How are meetings of council representatives with DART board different from ones we already have?” Kingston asked.
“I am looking forward to getting to actionable items,” Jennifer Gates said.
“We need integration and simplification,” Mayor Mike Rawlings declared. “Simplification. We’re boiling the ocean here. What are the 10 things we need to do for the city? Ten tactics that will move the city the fastest.”
“A lot of things are already being completed,” O’Donnell told the Observer in a later interview. “Under Goal 1, advance equity in city government, the city manager in his new budget has announced the Office of Equity and Human Rights. ... They have money to begin their internal audits of equity in the city,” which examine city policies for fairness to employees and in city services to residents.
Goal 2 is making Dallas welcoming and inclusive for immigrants, who make up 32 percent of the employed labor force here. “In Lucidio Pereira’s Office of Immigration and Welcoming Affairs, a number of initiatives are underway that she has started working on … with a big task force, about 85 people.”
Neither O’Donnell’s office nor public affairs responded to repeated requests for a second interview for more detail on Pereira’s or others’ immediate efforts beyond "a big task force." However, the Observer found that several are on.
Auditing equity and creating task forces hardly seem to be the sort of emergency triage such ugly numbers suggest, but they're a start, and to be fair, the city does have a solid free-tuition program called Promise Dallas launched by DCCCD and some fairly concrete plans in place for Goal 7, to “promote environmental sustainability to improve public health and alleviate adverse environmental conditions."
Dallas’ third greenhouse gas emissions inventory is 95 percent completed by the newly consolidated
Office of Environmental Quality & Sustainability. It’s the first inventory that will be followed with
emissions reductions in the community, not just in city operations. Dallas will be in accord with the Paris
Climate Agreement, as Rawlings pledged in June 2017 when he joined the Mayors Climate Agreement of
the National Conference of Mayors.
This is possible with City Council’s recent unanimous approval of $500,000 to fund development of a
climate action plan to identify emissions sources citywide and “market-driven solutions.” James McGuire,
managing director of environmental quality, declined to give examples of possible market-driven GHG
reductions at this time. New York has employed several.
“We expect to complete the analysis and present the inventory to a City Council committee by the end of the year,” McGuire said.
Supporters advocated for greenhouse gas reductions, with the important side benefit of reducing other, accompanying air pollutants. Failure to meet federal air quality standards costs DFW more than $500 million a year in hospital care, lost work and school days and air- pollution related deaths, studies by University of North Texas and UT Southwestern found.
Health and inequities in environmental conditions and education in Dallas schools will all be tackled by
Breathe Easy Dallas, a project launched this month by The Nature Conservancy, Dallas ISD and public
health leaders. “Dallas has a persistent problem of poor air quality and pediatric asthma,” said Dr. Kathy Jack, The Nature Conservancy's urban conservation associate, at a Sept. 24 briefing to the City’s Quality of Life, Arts & Culture committee. “Dallas County leads the region for hospitalizations from childhood asthma.” This is according to a 2009 Cook Children’s hospital community-wide children’s health assessment. DISD reports that respiratory issues are a leading cause of student absenteeism. Both are disproportionately high in low-income neighborhoods. In 18 DISD schools, more than 17 percent of the students have asthma. Sixteen are located south of I-30.
This month, Breathe Easy Dallas will make its final selection of nine southern Dallas elementary schools for a pilot program that will monitor and measure air quality as well as asthma attacks, gathering data to establish correlations. In the 2019-2020 school year, the program will place on each of those campuses one of three selected health or air-quality interventions. These include screens of vegetation between the school and street, policies against vehicles idling at schools and in-school asthma therapies and/or health education
They'll see which work best and make them available to other schools.
Jack’s partner in the project, Texas A&M Transportation Institute scientist Dr. Haneen Khreis, told council members at the briefing that this study will fill an important research gap. “Few studies have documented health improvements resulting from specific real-life interventions," she said, explaining that most studies have applied models developed elsewhere to a new project without establishing a local baseline. Breathe Easy Dallas “will provide data that education and health care leaders have lacked to most effectively direct programs and resources to address health and air quality.”
Jim Schermbeck, director of clean-air advocacy group Downwinders at Risk, spoke immediately after the Nature Conservancy-Texas A&M team at the briefing. He was there to ask support for a project co-led by UT Dallas to establish a regional air-monitoring network.
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Next day, in a September 25 Downwinders blog, he questioned the value of school intervention efforts such as Breathe Easy Dallas, unless action is taken to improve Dallas’ overall air pollution and reverse policies that place polluting industrial plants in low-income black and brown neighborhoods.
“In the end, a year of intervention strategies at your school does little lasting good if you walk home through a polluted neighborhood …” he pointed out. He cited three instances of “racist zoning and land
use planning” in placement of polluting facilities during the past year: city staff’s March recommendation
for two concrete batch plants in Joppa, in February for the Ash Grove Cement Silo in West Dallas and the
prior move of the Argos batch plant from “trendy Trinity Groves” to a location next to a West Dallas
Observer reporting in the Joppa concrete-plant permit battle in April showed that the city requires no environmental review of zoning permits for heavy industry in neighborhoods or elsewhere. “We will be working to change that,” said council member Sandy Greyson at a recent council vote for climate action.
This is the situation that Resilient Dallas operates within. Its one apparent plan that could address serious air pollution citywide is the climate action plan. As for the unequal pollution burden on southern Dallas, that’s an inequity that wasn’t named on the list.