SUMMARY: The North Texas Chapter of CNU knew to successfully host CNU 23 would require a transformation in the walkability of the national event itself AND DFW.
Is it possible to make Dallas walk-able?
The country’s leading urbanists seem to think so…
Why Dallas? Bringing the Congress to DFW
Hundreds of the nation’s leading New Urbanists converged in Dallas for the 23rd Congress for New Urbanism (CNU 23). The purpose of the annual national “Congress” is to provide a platform for “learning, networking, and collaborating” with a bi-partisan and multidisciplinary spectrum of place-makers ranging from architects, planners, developers and engineers, to clergy and geographers.
But why would the Congress for New Urbanism host their national conference in Dallas and the DFW region? Despite our “bones” (see below), DFW is hardly regarded as “walk-able.” The construction of “mix-masters” seems more prominent on our skylines than “mixed-use.”
According to a survey taken in the city of Dallas, 68% of residents “believe being able to walk or bike to destinations would be good for the local economy.” Yet the current market of walk-able neighborhoods represents only 3-5% of the Dallas / Fort Worth area. This year’s Congress focused on the forces behind those demands and how to meet them. With the rapid population growth in DFW, the rise in TODs (Transit Oriented Developments), and the rapid expansion of one of the country’s largest light rail systems DFW is ripe for a dramatic change in its walkability.
Transforming Dallas AND CNU
The North Texas Chapter of CNU knew that to successfully host CNU 23 in DFW would require a transformation: of both the host city and the conference itself. There were three things that not only changed the future form of the CNU conference but also made a lasting impact on Dallas and DFW as a whole.
FROM THE CONFERENCE CENTER TO MAIN STREET
Similar to a lot of conferences, the Congress is historically a very centralized event; typically held at one large convention center or hotel (think the Fairmont Hotel). The North Texas chapter of CNU felt that the most effective means of hosting the Congress was in a de-centralized form, hosting its sessions and events among several venues. The only precedent for having a de-centralized Congress had some merits but was less than awesome (NYC ‘01).
The main argument that convinced the national leadership to trust the North Texas Chapter with hosting a de-centralized event: a centralized event at a large conference center is a bad experience of most cities. “We wanted to show the good with the bad of the city in order to show that it’s all a work in progress,” says Patrick Kennedy (CNU North Texas President). For the same reason tactical urbanism is a “mock-up” to test out ideas IN the city, causing attendees to engage and experience Dallas helped them to see the ideas they were discussing in action.
LOCAL LEGACY CHARRETTES
For the first time ever, the large amount of intellectual capital and expertise that gathers every year at CNU was not just consumed in the lecture hall. It was directly invested back into the host city (or region in our case), specifically in: Garland, Downtown Burleson, South Dallas, and Fort Worth’s Riverside neighborhood. For each community CNU invited a leading expert to oversee and lead a charrette with local firms and planners where they brainstormed solutions to specific issues each area was facing.
In Garland, Van Meter Williams Pollack (VMWP) from San Francisco headed a team with local firms Verdunity and Ash+Lime Strategies and local planners Don Raines and Andrew Laska. Together they focused on strategies to energize an area east of Downtown Garland that is adjacent to, but not benefitting from, substantial downtown investments. The incremental development ideas they came up with included things like extending the pedestrian-friendly design of Main Street through the neighborhood, redesigning another street to prioritize pedestrians, and creating strategically located public spaces.
CROWDUS STREET POP-UP PLAZA
Perhaps the most tangible new feature of this year’s Congress was a slice of tactical urbanism in Deep Ellum. This year a very large team took an underutilized block of Crowdus Street in Deep Ellum and transformed it into a multi-use plaza that functioned as a gathering spot, outdoor library, and a hub to showcase local talent and artists. “In order for Deep Ellum to develop more as a complete neighborhood, there needs to be more things to do during the day,” claims Brandon Castillo with Ash+Lime Strategies.
“What I hope is that we start a productive conversation—about how to create more public spaces in neighborhoods,”
BRANDON CASTILLO, ASH+LIME STRATEGIES
Local consultants Ash+Lime Strategies spearheaded the project, negotiating with the city and raising all $15.5k needed to fund the project—much of which came from the Deep Ellum Foundation. However, they emphasize it was a team effort, involving numerous donations and extensive help from dozens of volunteers. The design was developed by TBG and Callison, both of whom provided many of the volunteers during construction and tear-down of the plaza. Rik Adamski with Ash+Lime says the biggest role they played in the success of Crowdus was getting people excited. The key to this is “putting your ego aside and sharing the credit,” Adamski says. When assessing the effectiveness of the project, Adamski, who was a two year resident of Deep Ellum, claims he’s never seen as many people out on the streets on a day to day basis than the four days that Crowdus Plaza was present.
How did Crowdus transform the city?
For the neighborhood of Deep Ellum this was an opportunity to get the community involved in testing ideas that were developed from community feedback and a series of design charrettes for a more permanent solution to providing public space in Deep Ellum. “Projects will be more sustainable when they are supported by the neighborhood,” says Susan Hubenthall with Callison. For the city the effects are more long term. “What I hope is that we start a productive conversation—about how to create more public spaces in neighborhoods,” says Brandon Castillo with Ash+Lime Strategies. While critics may scoff at this idea, they only need to look to Better Blocks and the changes now happening on Tyler and Polk streets in North Oak Cliff, a few blocks from their first tactical urbanism demonstration. What started as a community supported rally of tactical urbanism caught the attention of the city and has led to phase one of converting two one-way streets into more pedestrian friendly two-way streets.
TO CREATE A SPACE WHERE THE ARTISTS OF DEEP ELLUM COULD EXPRESS THEMSELVES AND WHERE PEOPLE COULD ENGAGE IN “DAYTIME” ACTIVITIES THEY INCLUDED THE FOLLOWING PROGRAMMATIC SPACES INTO THE PLAZA:
- Tunnel Vision Exhibit
- Food Carts
- Outdoor Theatre
- Outdoor Library with Seating and Shade
- Busker Spot
- Pop-up Performance Area
- Kids Soccer/play field
- Shaded Seating
- Art Installation
- Garden with Flex Seating
How Does This Affect Us?
Unlike the “seasons of fashion” that characterizes much of our retail work, mixed-use isn’t just a trend. It’s not going to wither away with the next recession. As more and more people want to live and work in walk-able neighborhoods and developments, the competition among firms that specialize in mixed-use is growing rapidly.
How do we know that our designs will activate streets and foster spaces that people want to walk, work, live and play in? How does a car-oriented “metro-mess” transform into an interconnected web of walk-able nodes? There are as many bad examples in our city as good. Our sexiest competitors in the region have delivered fashion forward buildings with all of the right ingredients, in some of the trendiest parts of town. But 5 to 10 years in their sidewalks are empty, their plazas are quiet, and the false promises of their renderings have evaporated into the car-dominated web that currently is our metroplex.
The Diagnosis? “Your Bones Are Good”
So then, is it really possible to make Dallas walk-able?
Renowned planner and author Jeff Speck’s diagnosis of Dallas’ walkability: “Your bones are good.” He was referring to the size of our city’s downtown blocks, which measure at 200 x 300 feet. Compared to the nation’s smallest city blocks at 200 x 200 feet in Portland, he suggested that our “bones” set the foundation for a highly walk-able Dallas.
In the coming issues of ON, expect us to investigate this further. What has worked in our city and what hasn’t? We will learn from current and past projects in an effort to fuel our pursuit of effective solutions to our clients’, city’s, and citizen’s demands for walk-able neighborhoods and developments.
A special thanks to the following: Rik Adamski with Ash+Lime strategies for his multiple interviews and wealth of information. Patrick Kennedy with the North Texas chapter of CNU, for his helpful insight. Eddie Castaneda for the featured photo at the top of the page.