Beyond Humane – Developing a Higher Vision for “Fort Dallas”
Rich Morgan, AIA
Several months ago, Larry Allums asked me to lecture in this series on the humane city. I told him I would be delighted and he said, “Great, I’ll need to have the title for the lecture in a day or so because we need to print it in the promotional materials. If that’s a problem, just give me a ‘preliminary’ title – you can adjust later on if you need to.” I didn’t have much time to think about it over the next few days, before I called back and said, “Larry, here’s my title – Beyond Humane – Developing a Higher Vision for ‘Fort Dallas.'” Larry said, “That sounds nicely controversial.” I thought to myself, “Well, that’s a good start, but I really have no idea what I’m going to talk about.” During the subsequent process of developing the lecture, I kept going back to that title and it kept feeding me ideas – and more ideas – and still more ideas. At one point, I realized I had an outline that was 12 pages long! You don’t need to worry; I’ve pruned it back and we’ll be out of here on schedule. The point is that, much to my surprise, we can actually look at that preliminary title and get a sense of what I’m going to talk about.
“Fort Dallas” is a name I borrowed from next week’s lecturer, Martha LaGess. I have heard her use it a number of times to refer to our greater metropolitan area. It appeals to me because I absolutely hate the name “Metroplex.” “Metroplex” has such a chamber of commerce air about it. Other names that we commonly use are not much better. The term “DFW” carries a little too much airport baggage to be a good name for this metropolitan region. (No pun intended.) I like the name, “Fort Dallas.” It has a certain irreverence that appeals to me. Can’t you just picture Amon Carter and R.L. Thornton rolling over in their graves? The name, Fort Dallas, suggests that the two bull-headed, arch-rivals of North Central Texas have merged into one without so much as a slash or a hyphen to separate them. That’s one thing I want to talk about this evening. No, I’m not proposing a merger. What I want to talk about is a future in which residents, as well as the outside world, think of Dallas and Fort Worth as one entity – for lack of a better name – a “Fort Dallas.”
I also want to talk about developing a higher vision for Fort Dallas. The vision of transforming this place into a truly regional city is a challenging vision and an important vision, but, in my opinion, not a highervision. For example, a regional city is not necessarily even a humane city. The connection I hope to make this evening is that it is unlikely that we will ever achieve a higher vision without first becoming a regional city.
Isn’t it wonderful that we have the Dallas Institute to encourage us to dream about our city and to share our thoughts and ideas? Dreaming about making this a better city is not only interesting and enjoyable, but also critically important. I think that all of us who dream and plan for the city’s future are often guilty of setting our sights too low. In that initial conversation with Larry, he mentioned the series title – The Humane City. I immediately recoiled at the thought. “Humane” is a term for animal shelters, correctional facilities, mental institutions and nursing homes. Striving for a “humane city” implies that we are living in one of Dickens’ cities of perpetual despair. Shouldn’t we set our sights higher than merely “humane?” I react the same way to a term currently favored in urban design circles – “livable.” Is “livable” the best we can expect from our cities? “Sustainable” is a similar, tepid, overused, and incoherent term frequently used to describe our dreams for the city. Let’s raise the bar! If nothing else comes from this lecture, maybe we can launch a better word. Maybe we should consider world-class, grand, lovely, intimate, or some other adjective that is both positive and sufficiently challenging. Allow me to nominate the word “nurturing” as one that will truly set a higher vision. My dictionary defines nurturing as furthering the development of, or modifying the expression of an individual’s heredity. I hope that gives you some clue as to where this title is taking us this evening.
Arguably the favorite quote of the architectural profession is Winston Churchill’s. “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” I don’t think Sir Winston would object if we scaled that up a notch to say to say it this way: “We shape our cities, thereafter our cities shape us.” Churchill recognized that our built environment is a factor that influences the human condition, our development and our behavior. That implies that, since we exercise control over the built environment, we should be able to use design as a tool to influence a desired social or cultural outcome. Let me restate that so that no one misses a very key point. Given that our built (or manmade) environment influences our behavior and our development, we should be able to manipulate that manmade environment to influence behavior and development. If that logic is valid, and I believe that it is, we should be able to reduce some of our urban problems such as crime, racial or gender discrimination, class separation, environmental health issues, and stress-related health issues, to name a few, by creating the right physical environment. In doing so, we would be making our city kinder, safer, fairer – in short, more humane.
Certainly that’s a worthy goal. But imagine going beyond that basic expectation level – beyond humane. What if we had the knowledge, the skill and the resources to use design as a tool to stimulate all of the residents of Fort Dallas to achieve their maximum human potential? Think about that. The layout and features of our homes, our neighborhoods, our public spaces, our workplaces, our streets, our entire city would be carefully planned and constructed to help make you and your neighbors as happy, healthy, strong, wise, creative, spiritual, loving, beautiful, and talented as you possible could be. Fort Dallas would be a nurturing city!
Is that possible? Is it realistic? Is it desirable? Maybe it’s inhumane and unethical to even consider. Perhaps social engineering through design is in the same league as genetic engineering and should be subjected to an intense moral debate. Maybe it’s unethical not to use the best tools we have in our toolbox to mitigate human problems. You may be surprised to hear that architects and planners even think about this stuff.
I can vividly recall a first year design problem in architectural school. We were told to build a model of a space that would choreograph the movement of people through it. Turn left. Turn right. Pause. Look up. Speed up. Slow down. For the first time, I became aware that the designer has a certain level of power and influence over people’s lives…and a responsibility to use it appropriately. That awareness is a basic foundation of the architectural profession as well as other allied professions, including urban design and city planning.
That ability and that responsibility have been reinforced many times throughout my professional career. The focus of my career has been on three, somewhat diverse, building types – criminal justice facilities, churches and, for the last 20 years, educational facilities. In all of those facilities, there are expectations about user behavior and response. Generally speaking, as designers, we have had to rely heavily on our own instincts and observations to produce those results. Scientific data has been scarce and has been considered by most of us as being less reliable and less applicable than our own instincts and observations. Pink may reduce conflict, but there’s no way I’m painting a school cafeteria or junior high locker room pink! However, there is evidence that research is finally starting to provide usable information, plus there is evidence that members of the design team are more open to accept it. I’ll use my experience in school design to illustrate.
I grew up on a farm in north central Kansas. From first grade through sixth grade, my school was a one-room country school house, the same one that my father had attended in the 1920’s. It was definitely rural. The largest town in a fifty-mile radius had a population of just over 6,000. The school had a pot-bellied coal stove, a hand pump for rust-colored well water on the front stoop, two outhouses downwind and a library that was a small bookcase with no more than 50 books, half of which were an encyclopedia that I’m sure my father must have used. While I was there, the total student body varied in size from 6 to 12 students. None of our parents had gone beyond a 12th grade education. There wasn’t much parental involvement in our education. By today’s standards, that learning environment would probably not be considered “humane.” We were undoubtedly poor and disadvantaged, but we had no awareness of that at all. We were like everyone else around us. We were not struggling to free ourselves from our rural roots. We were just kids, doing kid things.
This is a picture of my classmates and me. This is Dean, a nuclear physicist. This is my sister Sue, recently retired as the food editor for the Columbus Ohio Dispatch. This is my other sister, Sharon, a political activist who played a role in Willie Nelson’s farm aid effort, among other things. This is Norris, a former county commissioner. This is Dale. I don’t know whatever happed to him although I always thought he would have been a great pro wrestler. This is me. This is Rodney, who I believe studied architecture, but became a successful real estate developer in Hawaii. This is my classmate, Brenda, who is a respected regional artist. The little guy on the end is Loren, who had this amazing talent of being able to swallow a gulp of milk and then spray it out of his nostrils. Loren owns and manages an organic farming operation producing flour and bakery products that are distributed nationally.
These are just people with strengths and weaknesses like everyone else – no better and no worse. But it does seem that the objectives we try to achieve in sending our kids off to school were pretty well met in this case. An unusually high percentage of these kids went on to college and successful careers. I doubt if I will ever stop trying to figure out why. We had average teachers, limited exposure to the world beyond the county line, seemingly poor facilities and a definite lack of resources. What was there in this learning environment that struck the right chord? Can architects and educators possibly isolate it, identify it, and recreate it in the learning environments of today and tomorrow? Maybe so.
School architects, like me, have long understood, instinctively, that the architecture, or design, of the schoolhouse affects the education inside-but we have never had good scientific research to back it up. In the past few years, however, we have seen significant advancements. For example, recent research has clearly shown that smaller schools are better. Research has shown that “daylighting,” which is jargon for lots of natural light in the classroom, not only produces better test scores, but also increases the physical growth rate of students and reduces the incidence of tooth decay. I’m not kidding! Research has shown that students fare poorly in facilities that are not well maintained. Recently we were surprised to discover how much learning in today’s classrooms is missed because a high percentage of the students can’t hear their teachers very well. To put all this into perspective, we’re not just talking about painting things pink, we’re talking about data that administrators, educators, planners and designers can use with confidence. I can tell you that there is a feeling that we have just started to scratch the surface with research on learning and on learning environments.
Let me give you another example of a correlation between design and human response. You may have heard the acronym, CPTED – Crime Prevention through Environmental Design. After the Columbine shootings and the Oklahoma bombing, seminars on this topic became very well attended. The basic premise is that many crimes, from violent crimes to crimes of opportunity, can be reduced or prevented by design measures. I attended several of those seminars. Most of the ideas and techniques suggested were obvious, but were seldom consciously addressed prior to those disasters. For example, we learned about establishing a clear definition of the private domain versus the public domain, and we learned about natural observability as two of the principles of CPTED. Consider the sidewalk along the street in front of your house. That sidewalk is part of the public domain. Your front yard is part of your private domain. As soon as I take a step or two off the sidewalk and onto your grass, I feel a little uncomfortable, knowing that I’m trespassing onto your property. Your neighbor looks up from raking leaves. He knows I’m trespassing and he wonders why. You look out your window and wonder the same thing. I don’t see you watching but I notice there are lots of windows facing toward me. I quickly step back on the sidewalk and walk briskly away from the scene of the trespass until I’m out of sight.
Now I’m not a criminal, so no serious threat was averted. That’s not to say that those principles have limited value, even in protecting your property from a relatively good guy like me. My wife and I have a couple of miniature schnauzers. She typically walks them, but when I do, I will confess that I’m less inclined to scoop-the-poop when it’s dark outside, I’m away from a streetlight, there are no other dog-walkers around and the deposit is well away from the view of your picture window. Of course this is a fictitious illustration. But, if you happen to have a messy spot in your lawn, I can help you out. I’ve been to the seminars!
In those seminars, we learned about creating clear definitions of private and public turf through fences, gates, doors, portals, or travel distances. We learned about enhancing natural observability – eliminating objects that obscure my activity from possible view, so that I will be less tempted to do something bad. There are a number of other principles of CPTED, but you get the picture. Design can be a tool to influence human behavior.
“We shape our Cities, thereafter they shape us.”
Let’s get back to that idea of shaping a nurturing city-one that would encourage all of its residents, and maybe even its visitors, to rise to their greatest potential. It would be fun to just stop here and convert this session into a brainstorming workshop to see what we could collectively imagine that a “nurturing” city would be like in its physical form. What would its design be? Maybe we can do a little of that in our class tomorrow evening. I suspect we could conjure up some great ideas. You are a good audience, but one that few of us would consider to be particularly diverse. It would be interesting to hold similar brainstorming workshops in the various ethnic communities and in varying socio-economic groups within Fort Dallas to compare results. Just possibly, others may imagine a nurturing environment differently than we do. Maybe we should also hold a workshop involving planners, designers, behavioral scientists, sociologists, psychologists, educators, spiritual leaders, and other experts to see what they would envision as a physical environment that is “good for us.” Now that’s a scary thought, isn’t it? In lieu of a workshop, let me offer two of my own visions for a “nurturing” city.
In John Norquist’s book, The Wealth of Cities, he says, “The positive qualities of cities have created the world’s great civilizations. We should strengthen the natural ability of cities to foster wealth and culture and to build civilization.” In one particular aspect, New York City is a great example of a nurturing city in the sense that Norquist describes it. It is, perhaps, the place that fosters wealth, culture, and civilization more than any other place on the planet. If I aspire to create or achieve something great, something of global importance, chances are good that I could find all of the best resources, expertise, energy, and connections I need right there in the city – probably within a short cab ride. You can walk the streets of New York and feel the energy. You can sense big things happening. You know this is the ultimate proving ground. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere…”
On the other hand, many question just how “humane” New York is as a place to live their lives. Give them the rural life, the good earth, Walden Pond, the big sky, the scent of new-mown hay, serenity, friendly (but comfortably distant) neighbors, a faithful dog, a big table for the home-cooked family meal ritual, and crickets chirping in the distance as the last candle flickers out. “Good night, John Boy.”
After World War II, a great American dream rose up – a dream of having the best of both worlds – city life and rural life. Corporate and public policy were carefully developed to create the ultimate Eden for postwar Americans – a place known as Suburbia. The FHA supplied the funds for affordable loans giving rise to huge new tracts of mass-produced homes in the agricultural and natural landscape. Government funds built a massive network of streets and highways across the land. No longer pledged to the war effort, assembly lines at Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, and others turned out cars that promised the freedom of the open road for everyone, while those same automakers were simultaneously buying and closing an effective mass transportation network. At last, the middle and working classes could escape the problems of the city and live their dream lives in the carefully manicured wilds of arcadia.
For half a century, Suburbia served us pretty well. It has been only recently that many Americans have begun to recognize its limits. We started to hear the derogatory phrase “urban sprawl” pop up more frequently. Then we began to hear new terms, such as, “smart growth,” “sustainable development,” and “new urbanism.” Mass transit systems started to reappear. City centers started redeveloping. People began deciding to live downtown again. Could it be that people were choosing to escape Suburbia?
Interestingly, people moving back to the city center are wanting to bring the rural environment along with them. All of the sudden, we hear a cry for parks downtown, we hear how important a river and forest are! They want trails! They want tree-lined boulevards instead of superhighways! They want to walk in the fresh air, and, oh yes, they want their dogs to be happy in the city too! Have you heard about “Bark Park?” Home-cooked meals and candles are still a priority, but they can pick that sort of thing up at Eatzies on their way home.
As our American cities grow to unprecedented sizes, it seems to me that we still seek the best of both worlds – we want to somehow have both the city life and the rural life. I believe our nurturing city must offer that. On one hand, our development as individuals and as a civilization needs the community, the energy, and the resources of the city. On the other hand, we need the solitude and connection with nature that the rural life offers. So here’s one of my contributions to the vision of a “nurturing city.” James Pratt suggests that we need to arrange our city so that everyone is within a five-minute walk from “nature.” I fully agree. But I think we should also be within five minutes from “city.” By “city,” in that context, I’m talking about a place to experience other people, a place for community. I’m talking about a place for commerce and culture and the easy exchange of knowledge and resources.
You can envision your own model for both the “nature” component and the “city” component in your ideal neighborhood. I’d probably imagine SMU and Snider Plaza (with a Home Depot) a few interesting blocks to my left with White Rock Creek passing through the Great Trinity Forest a few blocks away on my right. I know that’s not realistic, but think what we could do. What if we said that all of the waterways in Fort Dallas are important to be preserved and protected as the “nature” part of the equation? Chances are there is a waterway within a five-minute walk of your home, although it’s probably been buried, lined with concrete, or purchased to become someone’s private domain where you have to worry about scooping the poop. For the “city” part of the equation, what if we said that the shopping strip near your home should be more pedestrian friendly, like Addison Circle promises to be as it matures? That might be realistic over time. Maybe we simply envision an old fashioned corner store, with the basic necessities of daily life, perhaps with a small café offering Starbucks and bagels in the morning and frozen yogurt and neighborly conversation at night. That seems more achievable, doesn’t it? We could always drive or ride our bikes to SMU and Home Depot.
In addition to the “five minutes to nature, five minutes to city” idea, let me suggest another concept for making Fort Dallas a more nurturing place for everyone. Let’s find a way to increase our exposure to a wide variety of people, cultures and ideas. I think we all understand the value of diversity and would view this as a positive step in fostering personal growth and development. The problem is that we all seem a bit reluctant to pursue diversity very far. Diversity is fine just as long as we experience it at arm’s length. Take a close look at our community, how reluctant we are to mix and mingle. Someone recently remarked that Dallasites are generally open and accepting of other races and cultures; it’s mingling with other classes that we fear and avoid. There may be some truth in that observation, but whatever the reason, there are not that many economically or ethnically mixed neighborhoods around here. We know where the rich and powerful live. We know where the working class lives. We know the Hispanic neighborhoods, the Black neighborhoods, and where the Asian community predominates. In recent years, we have seen powerful opposition to placing affordable housing in higher income areas. We have seen low income neighborhoods fight against “gentrification” of their areas. We’ve seen a proliferation of gated communities. Why are we building barriers that prevent us from expanding our own boundaries of personal development? Surely there is a way to improve neighborhood diversity that would be more acceptable to our population. Surely there is some way that design can influence this social issue.
The solution might be one in which we provide easy access to diverse mingling opportunities while, at the same time, providing easy access to a safe haven made up of people just like us. Such a solution could be somewhat like our “five-minutes to city, five-minutes to nature” idea. In this case, it would be “five-minutes to us and five-minutes to them.” In plan, the idea would be to keep our neighborhoods small and provide buffers of separation containing strategically placed centers for interaction.
In his book, “A Pattern Language,” Christopher Alexander describes this ideal pattern for the city as a “vast mosaic of small and different subcultures.” He prescribes that each segment of the mosaic should be a community that has a large enough homogenous population to provide comfort and support, but not so large that it becomes a “ghetto.” He goes on to describe this mosaic in greater detail. Alexander, who I believe has previously lectured here at the institute, has some marvelous ideas and some insights that are, at the very least, thought provoking. However, the problem with so many of his ideas is that they would be darn tough to implement in the real world. We can’t go out and restructure Preston Hollow, or Casa Linda, or the tenth street bottoms without a bit of resistance. The real value of Alexander’s prescription for a diverse city is that it gives us a vision of someday finding a middle ground solution – one that falls somewhere between a city of ghettos and a heterogeneous city in which all people are mixed together irrespective of their lifestyle or culture. Having a vision, even if not clearly defined, gives us a direction in which to proceed.
So how do we start proceeding in that direction? One approach that is used successfully in many cities is one in which all new residential developments must provide a small percentage of low-income housing. Fort Dallas seems to struggle more than many communities over this issue. Even in the very exclusive Ritz Carlton time-share development on Colorado’s Aspen Mountain, there are units set aside for low-income residents. I’m trying to find out how to get on the waiting list!
Addressing the issue of affordable housing is a key element in creating a diverse environment that serves, or nurtures, all residents. Dallas has long talked about eliminating its great, north/south division. In fact, that’s one of the major goals of the Trinity River Corridor Plan. In an unrelated move, Dallas is about to undertake a massive initiative to create “affordable workforce housing.” (It’s amazing how much more supportive the community leadership is of this initiative as a result of adding the word, “workforce” to the battle-scarred affordable-housing image.) Where will we build this affordable workforce housing? That’s not fully decided yet but you can probably figure it out. The northern sector is pretty well developed out and they don’t even want Wal-Marts coming into their neighborhoods, let alone low-income housing. How about the southern sector? The population is less resistive; in fact, it’s reasonably welcoming. Developable land is abundant and affordable. Dart lines can get the affordable workforce to the workplace. We may finally see real development activity in the Southern Sector. How many of these affordable workforce housing units do we need? 40,000 units is a start! Wow, Christopher Alexander would probably consider that a ghetto! So much for diverse neighborhoods.
I’m being falsely cynical here. In truth, I’m thrilled about the affordable housing initiative. Undoubtedly, owning one’s own home is more nurturing than having a diverse group of neighbors. But remember, the goal should be to have both. Maybe we need to be requiring affordable home developers to construct a small percentage of rich-people housing in those developments.
I’d like to return to the title for a minute. I mentioned earlier that I wanted to talk about the concept of Fort Dallas as a regional city. I don’t think I need to convince this group of the value of a cohesive regional approach in competing in a global economy or in solving common problems that extend across jurisdictional lines – environmental and infrastructure issues, for example. Antonio Di Mambro did an excellent job of raising that awareness throughout the community with his Global City report for the Dallas Morning News in the spring of last year. I think this community has accepted and agrees with the basic need for Fort Dallas to become a cohesive regional city, but is struggling with the details. We’re having problems with a few small issues like (1) how do we get multiple municipalities and jurisdictions to submit to the greater good of the region and (2) what do we want Fort Dallas to look like in fifty or a hundred years?
Don’t get your hopes up. I don’t have any answers. In fact, I don’t even try to figure out how to get umpteen independent Texas municipalities to agree to anything. But I have been thinking a lot about what Fort Dallas should look like, and I have some preliminary opinions, which should not be confused with answers. It is my strong opinion that we must find a way to dramatically slow our outward sprawl. To accommodate our projected growth, we must increase the density within our perimeter. What I’m struggling with is the pattern of development to accommodate that density. Di Mambro suggests that we should become a “multi-polar city” with existing centers of development becoming significantly more dense. The New Urbanists propose creating a patchwork of Traditional Neighborhood Developments (TND’s) and Transit Oriented Developments (TOD’s). Smart Growth advocates and NCTCOG’s Center of Development Excellence all offer slightly different approaches. I’m still not satisfied we have the best answer or approaches. One thing I can’t seem to grasp is a region with two dominant centers – Dallas and Fort Worth. It upsets my need for a sense of order. I keep picturing double yolk eggs and two headed calves. It’s just not right! I’ll keep working on it. I hope you will, too.
So far this evening, we’ve explored several ideas of a higher vision. Let me offer one more idea – that of Fort Dallas as an “intentional” city. This might be the most radical, and is definitely the most subtle, idea of the bunch – the idea of a city that becomes what we want to it be, rather than simply waking up one morning to discover what it has become. This is the idea of Fort Dallas as an “intentional” city as opposed to an “accidental” city. Take note that I’m not suggesting Fort Dallas as a “planned” city, although planning has its place in creating this intentional city. “Intentional” infers something slightly different. What I find appealing about the word “intentional” is that it implies a result that is “willed” without some of the connotations about process that I find in the word, “planned.” Wouldn’t it be great if Fort Dallas turned out to be just what we collectively willed it to be? Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in the city could agree on a vision for this place and then have it turn out to be as good as we had dreamed? Too often, we “plan” something and when it’s finished, we realize that’s not what we really wanted. Brasilia was planned. Pruitt-Igoe was planned. The tunnel and skybridge system in downtown Dallas was planned. The Edsel was planned. Sometimes, we realize that what we planned is not what we really wanted after all. Our vision either wasn’t clear or it was clear, but didn’t accurately predict our needs and desires. The plan may have been fine but the vision was flawed.
You may have been surprised that I appear to be downplaying the importance of planning. Architects and planners are supposed to preach the gospel of good planning as the salvation of humanity and the planet. The examples I just gave point out planning’s Achilles heel. The problem with plans is that they are simply tools that can influence an end result – in this context, that can influence the shape of our city. Planning is essential. The point I’m trying to make is that our ability to envision our needs and desires is more essential.
I want to spend more time on this subject of vision, but before I do, I want to talk about planning a little more. The reason is that there is a feeling, especially among architects, that Dallas needs better planning, particularly on a grand or long-range scale. Here are some of the comments I hear frequently:
- Dallas doesn’t have a planning department.
- We haven’t had a first class planner in Dallas since they ran Weiming Lu out of town thirty years ago.
- Our political leadership thinks the Dallas Plan is our planning department.
- Dallas has a group in place to do a comprehensive master plan for the city, but it only has a staff of two and a budget that ensures it won’t accomplish anything.
- Dallas has never been kind to planners.
- We don’t have planners in Dallas – we have developers and professional sports team owners instead.
With respect to my colleagues, I think those comments are a bit extreme. I also hear the opposing view, frequently coming from those who have a special interest in a property or area of the city:
- Dallas has more plans than we know what to do with. What we need is action. Let’s pick one and just do it.
- The Trinity River Corridor Plan is a detailed plan, with funds and voter approval for an area of this city that is bigger than the entire City of Denton. Isn’t that enough of a plan?
- It’s foolish to think that some eminent urban designer is going to waltz in and whip up some plan that will ensure our world prominence. Olmstead, Burnham, and Kessler are dead and the golden age of planning is gone.
- We just need to let the market place determine the best and highest use of the land.
My opinion is that the first group places too high an expectation on planning and the second group definitely underrates its importance and its value. We must have both good planning and good vision. Even when we have both, they can only influence results. Plans and visions are only two of many factors that push and pull to shape our city.
Natural features and forces have certainly played a key shaping role. The soil, the waterways, the vegetation, the wildlife and the temperate climate began attracting people seeking to fulfill their needs long before John Neely Bryan. One, seemingly insignificant, low-water crossing dictated the site for this great city. The topography of the land and the flow of water contributed the basic design of Turtle Creek, White Rock Lake, Flagpole hill, the Escarpment, the northern and southern sectors, and Cedar Hill. Mild winters gave us a burgeoning population of Yankees and Kansas farm boys. Periodic flooding gave us an industrial district and dreams of lakes and bridges. One characteristic of these natural forces is that they really don’t change much over time.
The city is also shaped by technology and, of course, technology changes by the nanosecond. Consider the past 50 years’ technological development in the fields of communication, transportation, health care, and information management and the impact of that development on the shape of the Dallas. What would Dallas be like today if we didn’t have air-conditioning, computers, cell phones, SUV’s, aerobic exercises, or Viagra? Just imagine what teleportation and genetic management will do to influence the future shape of Fort Dallas.
Cultural, social, and political forces play a huge role in shaping Dallas. Think about the civil rights movement, the baby boom, immigration, the JFK assassination, the Dallas/Fort Worth rivalry, September 11th, and J.R. Ewing and the effect they have had on this place.
Consider the effect the passionate pursuit of wealth has had on this city. After all, John Neely Bryan wasn’t here for the scenery. Perhaps above all else, Dallas is a machine for commerce. The shops, the stores, the offices, the distribution centers, the transportation networks, in fact, nearly everything here in the city that is manmade has a financial aspect to it.
Consider the lesser, but still very powerful influence that visual images have in shaping the city. On a global scale, satellite images of a seemingly fragile earth – a biospheric space ship spinning through a vast and mysterious universe – have changed our understanding of the world and our place in it. Maybe weshould consider sustainability! Closer to home, doctored picture postcard and travel brochure images of our skyline reflected in a grand sweep of placid water have deeply embedded the concept of a town lake in the minds of our people. That image has become an integral part of our shared city of the imagination – a virtual icon that brings tourists and spurs bond program support and dreams of soaring bridges to complete the imagined image.
We could go on forever with this list of influences that have shaped and will continue to shape our city. The point I’m trying to make is that cities are dynamic, living organisms, constantly changing, constantly responding to a fast-changing world. By planning, we attempt to bring order to change and to direct the change to meet our needs. Without planning, there would be chaos, there would be no great cities, and there would be no great civilizations. (Now, I’m starting to sound more like an architect.) But planning has its limitations. It is a tool. As I said earlier, our plans are only as good as our ability to establish a vision that accurately predicts our future needs and desires. You can start to see how difficult that is with this huge array of unpredictable and ever-changing influences. So how do we get these visions right?
How do we get the visions right? How do we establish a vision that ensures the result is what we truly want and need and not an Edsel?
First, let’s recognize that all visions are not created equal. A vision for a park in Downtown Dallas is not equal to a Di Mambro’s vision of Fort Dallas as a global city, for example. A hierarchy of visions implies that there is some ultimate, or supreme, vision that serves to inform other, lower-tier visions and decisions. That line of thinking could take us into areas of theology or into explorations of core human values in search of a basis for establishing unfailing visions for man’s habitations on earth. (I warned you that that title kept feeding me ideas.) Well, I haven’t taken my own thoughts very far into those areas yet. Maybe that’s what we should discuss in tomorrow night’s class. The fact that the preliminary title for this lecture took my thinking this far has already altered some of my views about visions.
For several years, AIA Dallas has been calling for a “Grand Urban Vision” – a vision that is long range and that guides and informs all of the “lower tier” visions. The AIA has been especially vocal in this plea in relation to the Trinity River Development and has added that the vision needs to be led by an eminent urban designer. As you probably know, there is now an eminent urban designer studying the Trinity Plan – thanks to a lot of fine people and organizations including the Dallas Institute, The Dallas Plan, the Mayor, Lee Jackson, Deedie Rose, and others. I’m expecting that we will soon have either a “refined” urban vision, or a “re-confirmed” urban vision, and I’m convinced that’s of great benefit to the community. However, by my own evolving definition, that vision for the Trinity Corridor will be a “second or third tier” urban vision – not the “Grand Urban Vision,” with a capital “G” that will guide all others.
To maintain stability and societal relevance over time, the “big G” vision would have to be based directly upon fundamental human values, at a minimum. It would have to be comprehensive to the degree that it can truly inform all lower tier visions. To be effective, it would have to be ‘user-friendly.” In today’s society that means it would have to be simple and easily recalled and recited – a sound bite like “Dallas, the Can Do City.” To test the vision’s endurance and appropriateness, the big “G” Vision must continue to resonate, deep within our soul. At this point in my thinking, I would probably nominate “nurturing” as the big “G” Grand Urban Vision for Fort Dallas – “Fort Dallas, the nurturing city” – but I’m open to suggestions!
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