If you’re reading these words, it’s likely that you live in an East Dallas neighborhood built anywhere from the 1920s to the 1960s, with big trees, easy access to entertainment, culture and public transit, and generally a settled, “homey” feel. If you’re like me, you might venture as far north as North Park once in a while, but not much farther, and certainly no more often than you have to.
Lest you think I’m provincial and not widely-traveled, I can assure you that I’ve been to Plano, Carrollton and even Frisco, and seen with my own eyes the joys of living in an oversized hodgepodge of banal architectural cliches, with a couple of scrawny little trees in front and the latest chain restaurant “concepts.”.
Have I mentioned yet that I like living in a close-in, diverse, dense urban neighborhood? Apparently, so do a lot of other people around here, and not just in East Dallas neighborhoods like ours. Besides the renovation and infill construction going on here, in Oak Lawn and in Oak Cliff, thousands of new housing units are coming on line in and around Downtown Dallas. This trend is due to several factors – market conditions Downtown, City incentives that actually work – but most of all to the desire of increasing numbers of people, from Gen-Xers to empty nesters, to move back into the city.
This isn’t just a Dallas phenomenon – it’s happening in every big city in America. Even the “bucolic” suburbs, whose denizens moved there to get away from the inner city, are now fervently embracing the “town center” (or “instant downtown”) concept. Sometimes called the “New Urbanism”, this movement has been carried by far-sighted developers who build denser, mid-rise, mixed-use projects, with ground floor retail space, “traffic calming” street layouts and a more pedestrian-friendly orientation with benches, landscaping and lighting – a far cry from some suburbs where they don’t even require sidewalks.
In large part, also, this back to the city movement is a reaction against mind-boggling urban sprawl and traffic-clogged highways that consume vast amounts of land, air and water resources. You’ll be hearing more and more about this “anti-sprawl” idea in the future – it’s being embraced by all kinds of thinkers from environmentalists, architects and theologians to mayors and governors.
In fact, in the recent elections, almost all of the some 200 state and local anti-sprawl initiatives on ballots across the country passed with ease, according to Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, writing in The New York Times.
In early November, the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture sponsored a symposium on the turnaround in Downtown Dallas, the keynote speaker at which was Roberta Brandes Gratz, author of Cities Back From the Edge (a play on the term “edge cities”, places like Plano and Las Colinas). Her idea is that cities should be “reborn,” not “rebuilt,” by building on their existing assets, not by doing massive, fortress-like “urban renewal” projects. Like the “new urbanists”, she favors locally-based small businesses, a more urban, pedestrian-oriented scale, less suburban-type sprawl (think “big box” retailers and endless vistas of parking lots), and notes the importance of details like landscaping and window displays.
In Ms. Gratz’s words, Downtown Dallas has “crossed a major threshold.” If we consciously focus on this revitalization effort in out city’s ordinances and policies, this urban renaissance can gain momentum here as it can everywhere in America. We can reverse the trends of the last 50 years, when governments took urban tax dollars to subsidize suburbs and freeways, and make our downtowns, and the neighborhoods that surround them, the most desirable places to be again. I’ll bet you didn’t realize living in East Dallas had become so cutting edge.