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CHAPTER CORNER: CNU-North Texas Reclaims and Reconnects | Congress for the New Urbanism

CHAPTER CORNER: CNU-North Texas Reclaims and Reconnects

Welcome to the first post in CNU's CHAPTER CORNER. Chapter Corner will feature dispatches from CNU's individual chapters around the country. Hear firsthand about what others are doing to instill New Urbanist principles into their neighborhoods, cities, and regions.

The Dallas-Fort Worth region has started a movement to reclaim their public spaces, reconnect their sprawling bounds, and more. Russ Sikes, president of CNU-NTX, fills us in on what his chapter has found about the DFW 'megapolitan' area.

We are all aware of the most gigantic urban regions:  New York, Chicago, L.A....but many would be surprised to learn that DFW is this nation's 4th largest megapolitan region already, and further, that it is forecast to explode from its current population of 6.5 million to between 9 and 12 million by mid-century.

Commonly referred to as “Dallas,” even the extended moniker “DFW” shortchanges the fact that this vast metropolitan region encompasses 290 municipalities and parts of 16 counties.  It also gives short shrift to the 70% of its inhabitants who live neither in Dallas or Fort Worth proper, but are dispersed among a seeming ocean of contiguous burgs.  This actual settlement pattern, resulting in the unbelievably low average density of 1.1 persons/acre, serves as a point of departure for understanding urban trends shaping this region as it morphs into the future.

With growth at such scale both inside and outside of traditional boundaries, development in this region is best comprehended from two perspectives:  the micro-level, bottom-up, and the macro-level, region-wide.

A burgeoning grass-roots movement to reclaim human spaces has emerged in the past few years, spearheaded by Dallas' renowned “Better Block” campaign of instant urbanism, and accompanied by many coalescing forces of a zeitgeist that has finally put wind at the backs of those who demand a more human-centric, less auto-centric world.  These developments, all currently underway, include:

·      two streetcar trolley systems in Dallas, both with funded starts

·      on-going expansion of DART's light-rail network

·      active Bike Plans in both Dallas and Fort Worth

·      connection of a regional trail system, including the new trails required, into a Veloweb that spans the metro-region

·      separate projects in both anchor downtowns to finally integrate human access to the Trinity River, branches of which serve as the front doorstep of each

·      dedicated pedestrian bridges (which used to serve autos)

·      the targeting of many select areas for re-zoning and re-coding to serve as mixed-use urban destinations

·      new public parks, especially downtown (4 major new parks in Dallas within 4 years, a public plaza as the crown jewel in downtown Fort Worth)

Toss in dozens of infill residential/retail projects totaling billions of dollars, many of them transit-served by light-rail, the advent of food trucks, and a general, unofficial trend toward better integration of indoor and outdoor life,  which is blurring the distinction between private and public spaces through sidewalk dining, rooftop bars and gardens, and one can actually feel the yeasty leavening of urban life occurring largely from the bottom up in central urban neighborhoods.

“Central urban neighborhoods” is the catch though.  Recall that 70% of this region's citizens live outside of the two central cities, and 90% outside of their densest, central zones.  That leaves the vast majority of DFW denizens adrift in the soporific sea of suburban sprawl so typical of sunbelt cities. 

Nodes of commendable urban infill have begun to dot this landscape, like disparate oases emerging on the hazy horizon.  Perhaps you are familiar with Addison Circle, Legacy Town Center, Southlake Town Centre, and other urban nucleii emerging in formerly centerless suburbs.  In addition to enormous greenfield projects like these, many far-flung municipalities within this suburbanized confederation are grappling with issues suburban build-out, decline and decay, even amidst robust regional growth, and far-sighted ones are reforming their growth plans around selective mixed-use zoning and form-based codes, including the SmartCode.  This is indeed a hopeful trend, and one that is slowly converting this regional metropolis into a poly-nucleic one, augmenting the two established anchors of D and FW.

As is true nearly everywhere though, this patchwork of long overdue reforms confront an obdurate suburban legacy of segregated-uses and worm-hole neighborhoods, many built with only keyhole entries to over-scaled high-speed arterials.  Here we must not delude ourselves.  Retrofitting suburbia is remedial, and like re-constructive surgery, it can yield stunning improvement.  It cannot reverse all manifestations of bad initial design.  Throughout suburbia, we must train our efforts on adding what is missing, and connecting what we can.

And this leads to the last piece of the evolving puzzle:  the regional, macro view, connecting it all together.  DFW roads are already among the nation's most congested, and there is no prospect of increasing highway capacity to match population growth.  Improvements in future mobility both locally and at regional scale will necessarily depend largely on expanding and inter-connecting rail transit.

The Denton County Transit Authority, DCTA, began service in 2011 linking Denton, Texas via commuter rail with the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) light rail system.  Meanwhile, DART has just opened its Orange Line, which will finally connect downtown Dallas with DFW airport in 2014.  Four DART lines lines now form a “hub and spoke” network through downtown Dallas, and at 93 miles in length, comprise what is already the nation's longest light-rail system.  The two new streetcar trolleys referenced above will inter-connect with these lines in downtown Dallas in coming years, providing much greater mobility in that urban core.  And in delayed recognition of our region's emerging poly-centric form, the first cross-town DART rail link, the “Cottonbelt” line, is slated eventually to connect the swelling population north of Dallas with the DFW airport and directly with Fort Worth.

The missing link of true regionalism, at least in this urbanist's opinion, is the Regional Rail Network proposed but not yet funded, a commuter-rail network running over upgraded freight lines already in place, which would create a 3-tier rail network (commuter rail, light rail, trolley) linking virtually all of this vast “metroplex”, at least with park and ride capability proximate to all residents.  Capitalizing on the TOD potential of such an expanded network would channel future population growth into potentially vastly more walkable patterns, enhancing the quality of urban life through rapid growth.

From this twin perspective, our twin challenges: bottom up, to reform zoning and coding rules in place among these nearly 300 municipalities.  Region-wide, to connect all corners of this far-flung metropolis via multi-modal transit.  And yes, all while retrofitting a “suburbia” the size of Massachusetts.

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