It took 20 years to kill the plan for a high-speed toll road on top of the river that runs through the center of the city. The reward for that long divisive struggle is a moment of relative calm when we can think about what actually should happen with the Trinity River.
Wouldn’t you know it, this being Dallas and that being the river, some voices out there don’t want no stinking calm. They’d rather fight. But the fighters are missing one big thing.
In decades of brutal back and forth and relentless yammering about the Trinity River downtown — Were you here for the brutal back and forth and the yammering? — the one thing nobody ever asked was what about the river.
People had ideas. A highway on top of it. Fake lakes. A New York-style Central Park. Man-made Colorado whitewater for kayaks. Solar-powered water taxis, no less and how darling. Even a shipping canal to the Gulf of Mexico.
But what about the river? What kind of river is it? What does nature say can be done with that river? What does nature say cannot be done? What should be done?
Getting to that answer requires a certain humility, a willingness to scrape down all the way to the bare ground of our assumptions and open our minds to science and the knowledge of people intimately familiar with the river. In the end, science and the river itself are going to tell us what we can do, and not consulting them first is why all the previous plans were failures.
That’s not to say we can’t impose our own human needs, desires and dreams on the river. But science and the river will determine which of those dreams are viable.
Some dreams, like the disastrous whitewater kayak thing that is still being torn out at great pubic expense, just won’t work on our particular river. The Trinity is a “meandering dynamic alluvial” river. Left to its own devices, the Trinity would be a big, brown silt-laden flood surging out over flat plains during twice-a-year rainy seasons, slinging up new banks of sticky mud hither, tearing down old ones yon.
Of course, we can’t have the river slinging up new sticky mud banks in the center of downtown Dallas, so human beings have had to whip the river into shape through the center of the city, boxing it up between miles of high-walled levees on both sides. Last weekend when the annual fall monsoon rains began, you could go down to the levee tops downtown, look out and see that big brown muscular river thrashing against the levees, yearning to be free.
The best known advocate against the toll road, former City Council member Angela Hunt, has done a partial about-face on the river. She still has her own strong feelings about what should happen. But she has abandoned her famous and effective partisanship in favor of a certain humility, a willingness to pause and ask other people — people with special knowledge — what they think is right. Part of that effort has involved asking them frankly if her own ideas are viable.
Hunt is at the head of a growing movement of people who want to see some portion of the 10,000 riparian acres of publicly owned land along the river devoted to a process commonly called re-wilding, in which nature itself would be the lead architect. But one of the questions she has been asking experts is whether she’s wrong, whether re-wilding is a bad idea.
Toward that end, Hunt and others convened a small, informal symposium recently. Invited to participate were paleo-botanists, wildlife biologists and other hard-science experts. Also taking part were people like Charles Allen of Trinity River Expeditions. Allen is a canoe outfitter generally acknowledged to know every foot of the river’s reach better than anyone else alive.
Bill Holston, an amateur naturalist who leads walks to introduce people to the river, was a participant, as was Ben Sandifer, an activist known for his nature photography along the river. Another important participant was landscape architect Kevin Sloan, headquartered in Dallas, who is a reigning expert on the kind of flora and fauna that can be married to this particular urban environment and climate.
Hunt says her own examination of the many failed Trinity River plans of the past revealed to her that none of them had ever started by consulting the kind of people who might actually know something about the river:
“Two groups were left out — the expert scientists and those who have a deep intimate practical knowledge of the Trinity,” Hunt says.
She offers Allen, the canoe man, as an example of the first person who should have been consulted in the past but never was: “I challenge you to find anyone who has a deeper understanding of our river than Charles Allen.
“Ben Sandifer and Bill Holston walk the Trinity frequently and engage with the wildlife and work to bring others deeper into the natural life of the Trinity. We have left them out of this conversation for two decades.”
Hunt believes this moment, with the toll road project finally buried and the river a blank slate again, provides us with a rare opening: “We have an opportunity,” she says, “to begin questioning from a level of humility that has not been part of our approach to the Trinity before.”
At the recent symposium, after the participants had heard the history and some of the politics of past Trinity plans and after they had traipsed the river themselves, they were asked if the re-wilding concept made any sense.
“We asked, ‘Is this a good idea, this idea that we have come up with for the Trinity?’”
There were many tough issues to consider. What kind of wildlife do you invite into an area that you know in advance will be violently flooded twice a year? What kind of plants? What is out here now that would need to be removed? How do you do any of this and guarantee that human beings can still get out there to enjoy it?
And is re-wilding an exclusive concept? Does it rule out other uses? The city is well down the road with planning for a formal architect-designed 200-acre park downtown. Would re-wilding other portions of the 10,000 acres along the river impede or compete somehow with the formal park that is already underway?
Sloan says the idea that the re-wilding concept could compete with the formal park is a misunderstanding of what they both are. "For one thing, they are in different locations," he says, "and they serve different constituencies. I think this is an issue mainly of clarity."
At the conclusion of the symposium, Hunt tells me, the participants were enthusiastically supportive of re-wilding and saw no reason why it should get in the way of the formal park. They saw lots of work that would have to be done, especially in ridding the river banks of invasive plant species. But none of it looked impossible to them and all of it looked worthwhile.
The recent re-wilding symposium was not open to the press or the public because Hunt and other organizers wanted the participants to speak frankly without fear of getting snared in another public Trinity River fistfight. She tells me public participation comes later and is the part she looks forward to most.
“We are approaching this from a standpoint of, ‘Is this the right thing to do to create a re-naturalized area in a location that floods? Do we know for a fact it is appropriate to attract wildlife there? What are the physical challenges we would face? What is the plant life that we want to attract?' It is a question of science and nature rather than design.”
In other words, why waste the public’s time talking about re-wilding if the science and the river itself are telling you it won’t work or is a bad idea for some other reason? Hunt says the broad conclusions of the symposium will be published soon and will show, among other things, that the re-wilding concept will not conflict or compete in any way with the formal park that is already underway.
Now for the fighters. On the same weekend the re-wilding symposium was taking place, the group sponsoring the formal 200-acre park was hosting a public engagement event to solicit opinion about their project. Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster took offense at the scheduling of the wilding seminar, which he felt detracted from the event on the same weekend dealing with the formal park. Instead of holding their own event, Lamster said, the people at the seminar should have attended the public meeting hosted by the backers of the formal park.
“Critics could have participated,” Lamster said on Twitter. “Instead opponents have scheduled an alternative meeting at the same time. Come on Dallas. Stop acting like children.”
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Interesting. Lamster is labeling Hunt and others at her seminar as opponents, presumably because Hunt was an opponent of the toll road. But Hunt is not an opponent of the formal park. Lamster seems to be saying, “Once an opponent, always an opponent.” He’s a very smart person who is from New York originally, but he may have been in Dallas too long.
He and I spoke about it. He wouldn’t discuss it on the record, because he said he has to write about it. He obviously doesn’t want to waste all his best lines on me. That’s OK. I ask my own family questions, and they tell me they’re saving their answers for their books.
But here’s the bottom line. People like Hunt and Sloan simply are not opponents of the formal park. They welcome the park. They believe the thousands of acres owned by the public along the Trinity River in Dallas should provide sufficient canvas for diverse visions. They’re mainly still trying to make sure their own vision is viable before they take the public’s time with it.
Lamster is a valuable asset, too. I just hope we won’t be seeing him down there any time soon on the levees spitting sucked martini olives at the peasantry. We’ve got enough of those already, God knows.