by Taner R. Özdil, Ph.D., ASLA
Vision is Green in Urban Design: Reclaiming Land for Downtown Parks in Dallas
21st century cities are being challenged by significant land and resource allocation and optimization issues requiring balance between the natural and built environment especially in high-density urban areas. Concerns such as population growth, rapid urbanization, climate change, natural resource depletion, extraneous consumption behaviors, and hasty ecological and environmental degradation are increasing new urbanites’ appreciation of the value of nature, land, and open and green space within cities. Recent population trends show that cities now house more than 82% of the population in the United States (The World Bank, 2017). Integrating parks in 21st century downtowns, as part of urban design practice, has become highly desirable, but is often contested by stakeholders. However, it is perhaps the most valuable strategy for reshaping the built environment in urban areas.
Since the turn of the century, increasing environmental awareness coupled with social and economic trends has dramatically affected where people choose to live, work, and play in United States. Downtowns, after half a century of neglect, have become more attractive to members of the aging Baby-Boomers, Gen X, and Millennial generations and young families. There is a growing interest (at least for some segments of the population) and need to return to the traditional centers with smaller housing units and compact environments that have architectural character, pedestrian friendly walkable streets, and the essential elements of a livable community. More importantly, today’s urbanites seem to want both “access to nature” and a “room with a view” within walking distance of employment, housing, and essential services such as parks, grocery stores, schools, and “third places” like restaurants and coffee houses (Reconnecting America, 2017; Florida, 2002).
Even cities like Dallas, the fifth best economically performing large city in US (Jackson et.al., 2019), are not immune to these changes and challenges as available land to provide such amenities and services for future residents is rapidly becoming a scarce commodity. Indeed, the City of Dallas is ranked a dismal 49th out of 100 in the US for park availability/access (Trust for Public Land, 2018). Up until 2013, its downtown has offered only about 8.3 acres of park land per 1,000 residents, whereas the greater city of Dallas offers 22.6 acres of park land for every 1,000 residents (EPS, 2015; Hargreaves Associates, 2013).
Auto-centric, economically motivated, and employment-driven development during the second half of the 20th century replaced the traditional downtown with disconnected single land uses, skyscrapers, hundreds of acres of surface parking lots and lifeless streets. As a result, downtown has virtually become a land-locked concrete jungle with almost no available space to accommodate the evolving needs of growing downtown population of the 21st century.
As data have shown over the years downtown Dallas has been short of urban parks and green spaces by any comparable measures with other major cities in US. For example, only 5.6% of the land area of downtown Dallas is parks as opposed to 33% of downtown Chicago, 14.6% of downtown Atlanta and 9.3% of the land area of downtown Houston. In another words, downtown Dallas has only 8.3 acres of park for every 1,000 residences as opposed to downtown San Antonio which has 12.9 acres and downtown Denver which has 12.3 acres of park for every 1000 residences as of 2013 (Hargreaves Assoc., 2013).
Yet the story does not end here-the city is now aspiring to bring life and vitality back to its core. Perhaps the most promising steps taken for downtown Dallas is not only the adoption but also the implementation of A Renaissance Plan for its park system, starting in 2002 (Carter & Burgess, Inc., 2002 & 2004). This long-range development plan was founded upon a vision for Dallas to have one of the premier park and recreation systems in the United States. Yet, the scarcity of available land downtown called for innovative thinking and reclamation of urban land in order to achieve this vision. The plan recommended aggressive development of permanent funding for resources such as a non-for-profit Park Foundation to achieve this vision.
As a first step, three relatively small parks were added to the downtown landscape as amenities for residents, employers, and visitors alike within the past decade. The 1.8-acre Main Street Garden, opened in 2009, is carved out from early commercial structures and parking facilities, whereas the 1.7-acre Belo Garden, opened in 2012, is converted from a parking lot with contaminated soils. Perhaps the most innovative addition to downtown parks in Dallas is Klyde Warren Park (KWP), where the land is created virtually from thin air. This 5.2-acre urban park built over an existing 8-lane freeway on a suspended infrastructure in 2012. This privately managed ‘public space’ has been a vehicle to physical, socially, and economically connect two bustling districts within the heart of the City of Dallas (LAF, 2019; Ozdil & Stewart, 2015).
In 2013, the Dallas Park Board approved the Downtown Park Master Plan Update. This plan provided additional guidance for the future expansion of park space in downtown Dallas. In this update, Dallas re-committed to increasing its downtown parks from 53 to 87 acres. The update called for an addition of multiple future priority parks and the work has already begun (Hargreaves Assoc., 2013).
Pacific Plaza (3.5 acres) broke ground on land reclaimed from an existing surface parking lot, a segment of a city street, and an aged pocket park (Aston Park) in 2016. Carpenter Park (8.7 acres) is the next in line for construction. The majority of the land is being carved out from aged parks and greenspaces, parking lots, public right-of-ways, DART alignments and setbacks, as well as underutilized land under and near highway infrastructure. West End Square (0.75 acres), in the planning stages, is envisioned as the next park for downtown, located on a newly-acquired surface parking lot and a repurposed city street. Harwood Park (3.8 acres) is the last project highlighted in the updated master plan, anticipated to break ground in 2020. The park is envisioned as a combination of historic buildings and park space with a sustainable agenda. The land is being reclaimed from surface parking lots, dilapidated building, and underutilized streets and public right-of-ways.
According to the Director of the Dallas Parks and Recreation Department the estimated cost for implementation will be anywhere from $80 to100 million (Dallas Morning News, 2013). Nearly half the funding for the new downtown parks is expected to come from Parks for Downtown Dallas, with the city providing the rest (Dallas Morning News, 2018; Parks for Downtown Dallas, 2019). Pacific Plaza’s estimated cost is roughly $15 million, whereas Carpenter Park’s development cost is estimated to be up to $25 million. Harwood Park’s estimated land cost is roughly $14.5 million with and estimated development cost is around $19 million. West End Square land acquisition is costing $8.6 million and its development cost is estimated to be $8 million (Dallas Morning News, 2018).
Like the parks already completed (KWP, Main Street Garden and Belo Garden) before 2013 these new park spaces are also strategically acquired and distributed throughout downtown in order to accommodate the needs of 21st century Dallas. Perhaps KWP is an exceptional example where the land is created from thin air but in almost all instances land is reclaimed from another lucrative land use but not as lucrative as urban parks, which are now acknowledged to add greater value to its context by promoting healthy and viable places to live for a growing and changing population.
As highlighted in the case of Dallas, future urban parks should not be seen as the products of marginalized scraps of land left over from more lucrative developments and uses such as commercial, office, retail and/or residential projects as they have been in the past. The economic, environmental and social value urban parks represent in the 21st century require them to be major financial and urban design decisions for their local context by their respective cities. They require significant strategic forecasting, financial investment, and long-range planning efforts to reclaim a piece of land that may have been already allocated for another financially or strategically meaningful but less competitive use for downtowns on an urban design scale.
As examples from across the United States and elsewhere show, such innovative approaches to creating new urban parks from reclaimed land is not just new to Dallas. The High Line in Manhattan New York was built on reclaimed train tracks and right-of-ways. Olympic Park is situated at the nexus of multiple highways in downtown Seattle, Washington on what was a brownfield reclaimed from a former industrial site occupied by the oil and gas corporation. Millennium Park in Chicago is reclaimed from rail yards, parking lots and aged former park land. Even cities such as London, one of the most vegetated cities in the world, aspires to reach a goal of becoming 50% green space by 2050 designating the built environment as one big urban national park. The city is asking residents to turn any patch of ‘grey space’ into green space arguing that for every 1£ spent on trees, the UK saves 7£ in healthcare, energy and environmental costs (Beale, 2019; Natural England, 2019).
Landscape architecture and urban design, in their placemaking capacity, are central contributors to the economic vitality of cities (Mendenhall, 2016). In thein future, city parks should not be just flashy amenities for visitors, but they should be treated as essential elements of the downtown fabric due to the economic, social and environmental value generated for residents. As green and open spaces have become a highly desired but hard to come by commodity for evolving downtowns and urban areas, the question for stakeholders will likely to become: Can you afford to have an urban park where and when it is needed the most? Or should communities be proactive in protecting readily available green and open space and acquiring additional land to reserve for the future, before it becomes subject to some hundreds of millions dollar investment?
According to Christine Perez with D Magazine Klyde Warren Park (which cost roughly $115 million) created more than $2 billion in economic impact by 2018, and has driven up values of properties that surround the park surpassing Dallas Inc. CEO’s 2013 estimate of one billion dollar invested in new projects within a quarter to half a mile radius from the park (Perez, 2018 & 2015; Ozdil & Stewart, 2015). The city is now considering an expansion of the park, which is expected to provide another $850 million in stimulus to the region (Perez, 2018). Seeing the exponential development taking place around the parks in downtown Dallas, one wonders what other (i.e. social and environmental) impacts downtown parks have in addition to economic ones (See LAF, 2019).
Learning from Dallas, one can only encourage landscape architects and urban designers alike to document, asses and disseminate the value of urban parks for the future urbanites in this age of rapid urbanization, population growth, climate change, natural resource depletion and hasty environmental degradation (LAF, 2019; Ozdil, 2018 & 2016). Doubtfully, we should also echo LAF’s urge to create places that serve a higher purpose, support research, and champion new practices that result in strategy, vision, design innovation and policy transformation to influence downtown fabric (See Call to Action in Landscape Declaration, LAF 2019a & 2017).
While we are doing our jobs we must also challenge the status quo so that tomorrow’s downtown parks are not a mere distribution of trees and planting beds on the remaining scraps of lands, as it has been in the past.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Alexandra Hay, Professional Practice Manager, and Katie Riddle, Professional Practice Director, of ASLA, as well as to Hulya Özdil for insightful views, feedback, and edits of this piece. I also would like to acknowledge Jodwin Surio and Paul Spittle with UT Arlington for their support with graphics and/or text.
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Taner R. Özdil, Ph.D., ASLA, is Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture and Associate Director for Research for The Center for Metropolitan Density (CfMD) at the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Arlington. He is also an Officer and Past Co-Chair of the ASLA Urban Design Professional Practice Network (PPN).