Here's What One of the Urbanists at the New Cities Summit Actually Thinks About Dallas

Categories: Development


The few parts of the vaunted New Cities Summit that actually dealt with Dallas left Unfair Park feeling a bit nonplussed. We were glad Dallas was selected to host the conference, of course. Anything that brings together a bunch of really smart people to discuss pressing urban issues like density, sustainability and building more caring cities is fine by us. It's just that nothing that happened told us anything about where our city is and where it's headed. Maybe that wasn't the point of the summit, but we were curious nonetheless.

See also: New Cities Summit Dallas Panel Is Boring, Not Particularly Helpful

Aaron Renn, an urbanist who attended the conference, wrote a two-part essay about his New Cities experience and has written extensively about cities for publications such as The Guardian, City Journal and Forbes. We called him up to get his impressions of Dallas, what the city does well, what it can do better and why dealing with entrenched car culture doesn't have to be as hard as it seems.

The fact that Dallas hosted New Cities at all, Renn says, is important.

"[The two previous editions of the summit] were in Paris and Sao Paolo. [Having the conference in Dallas] shows the type of ambition level to showcase Dallas to the world," he says, "to start aiming for that globally elite status."

It was aspirational. Not reflective of where Dallas is, necessarily, but reflective of where it wants to be. Dallas is at an inflection point, according to Renn, because much of the city's population growth is far more recent than in other major metro areas, like Chicago.

"I don't know when Dallas will stop growing," he says, "but at some point in your city's growth you say wait a minute, man does not live by bread alone. We don't just want to get big, and we don't just want to get rich, but we want to live well."

Things like the arts, green space and the ability to get to everything without to much of a hassle become important as cities mature, Renn says. This is something Dallas is starting to better understand with things like Klyde Warren Park, a place for which Renn had high praise.

Key to all of that is making the city, and downtown specifically, more pedestrian friendly. Renn says that doesn't mean making the area car unfriendly -- that just isn't feasible because of Dallas' layout and summer temperatures, he says.

"For something like downtown Dallas, you still need to be able to get there and park a car, because not everybody is going to be able to live by a transit line," he says, "but you create a more inviting environment so that when people are there they are able to do different things and not have to drive to and from every destination. In a place like Dallas, it's more about providing choice and not forcing the car."

As economic growth in Texas inevitably slows, Dallas must establish an identity beyond being a generic growth hub, he says.

"Will Dallas be able to reinvent itself?, What you're doing now is laying the stage for being a city that has an intrinsic appeal, that goes beyond it just being a growth story and people moving there because it's cheap and there's jobs," he says.

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I feel this was a bit more balanced article about Dallas's future than the two recent Urbanophile articles about Dallas. (This being a local publication notwithstanding) However, there is still this trope of Dallas (or Texas in general) needs to completely change or "reinvent itself" to be considered successful and respectable. Dallas does not need to be reinvented, and we do not need to be forgiven for "entrenched car culture" which urban planning experts spit at as if the South African apartheid.  I lived in the area for years and never had a car, and I have no complaints. I walked or took transit or hitched a ride when needed. I've walked every street of Downtown Dallas. If there is a space on the side of the road, my walkability requirement has been met. Most Texans are not anti-car, which these city planners either don't know or can't understand. Where I come from, it is not unusual to walk places where there is no sidewalk or shade. Not having a trolley or high speed rail stop every 20 feet is not shocking to me. Could there be more trees and shade in downtown? Sure, but a third world slum we are not. There is something for everyone in Dallas whether is the fancy condo for the CEO or retired couple, there's the affordable apartment for the young professional or retail employee, there's the suburban environment for families within city limits. Dallas is better than most cities I've seen at catering to all income brackets. Dallas is also considered a much safer city than the likes of New York or San Antonio.

What all these articles I've seen miss is the lack of development and interest in South Dallas. Between the Grow South "Initiative" (which I think is a strong word, but nicer than boondoggle) and UNT's south Dallas campus, there is brewing interest but we can do better. South Dallas could be a prime destination for low to mid-skilled manufacturing or call centers, which would encourage middle income housing development, improved streets, and more commercial/retail development. But if huge stretches of the city don't have proper plumbing, who would want to build there? And with a somewhat dysfunctional city hall, who would want to try?

The experts are right in that Dallas is not perfect and could improvement, but trolleys and trees should not bee their greatest concern.


Jobs are a pretty convincing reason to move somewhere...


Bet this jaunt was just a 'get outta Dodge' annual rest for these clowns. And the cost of the last 2, Paris and Sao Paolo, had their constituents in a lather.


He didn't even mention "World Class City".  Why didn't you ask him how to make Dallas a "World Class City"?

RTGolden1 topcommenter

So.... He actually didn't say much at all about Dallas.  He offered up some vague suggestion about making downtown pedestrian-friendly and auto-accepting.  Which basically means build sidewalks, I think.  That's what I hate about these 'summits' focused on subjective theories, they can say anything they want, they don't have to deal with the process of actually doing anything.  The only people I would listen to about the new urbanism are the guys who have skinned their knuckles actually doing it.  The guy with the Better Streets thing, Marianna Griggs and people of that sort, who have already had these ideas and pushed them through the archaic tribalism of Dallas politics and wrought some form of success with them.


There’s a small block in downtown Dallas (Harwood at San Jacinto) that works well. It abuts a multi-story parking garage, which doesn’t seem promising as a hospitable urban space. Yet, with a hefty set-back creating a small plaza, shady trees, tables and chairs, some flowers, and various lunchtime (i.e., cheap) restaurants on the ground level of the garage, this spot consistently draws a good crowd, even in very hot weather.

This is not rocket science, and Dallas’ development officials should require a lot more of it.

Here’s a video (I hope) of the space:

observist topcommenter

" The few parts of the vaunted New Cities Summit that actually dealt with Dallas left Unfair Park feeling a bit nonplussed."

I also used to think "nonplussed" meant something along the lines of "unruffled" but it actually means almost the exact opposite - surprised or perplexed into speechlessness, almost like "gobsmacked".  You can go with the "North American - informal" usage, but that puts it in the company of "literally" used to describe non-literal things, and "ironic" used to describe a black fly in your chardonnay.

holmantx topcommenter

"It's just that nothing that happened told us anything about where our city is and where it's headed."

HA! Too funny.  Here.  Let me help you out:

"Anything that brings together a bunch of really smart people to discuss pressing urban issues like density, sustainability and building more caring cities is fine by us."

Sorry.  That's as good as it gets with with these self-absorbed carnies.  They had you at the new Lexicon.  Just employ the code words.

And have you ever been to Sao Paolo?  

There was a movie once where a guy got drunk at a party in Los Angeles and woke up on the wrong end of that town.  In fact, there's a reason why the ancient cities are so . . . walkable.  

Same reason why raw sewage runs in the streets.


@mmf0066  Yours is a knee-jerk defense of the city, yet you miss the big picture. The blight of south Dallas, as well as other parts of the city, can be directly attributed to segmentation and depopulation. Our legacy of freeways and surface parking requirements slices up and bleeds out the vitality of our urban neighborhoods.


@mmf0066 I think what they mean by "reinventing itself" (Dallas) 

has to do with the 'generic' feeling of "trying" to be a big city, or a 

great city, rather than just 'being' a big and great city. 

And re-inventing also means having an "identity". 

Cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago 

have Identities.  Each is known for something, 

and you can go there, and you will find that thing, 

or feeling. 

(Chicago: Hotdogs, pizza, Windy weather, Gangsters/mobs, the 'EL' train) 

(San Francisco: Gays, Clubs, HIppies, Cannabis & Berkeley Univ.)

(Los Angeles: HollyWood/Film-making, weirdos and gangs, Palm Trees and Surfer dudes, Valley Girls, etc...) 

What is DALLAS' identity?   

This is why Dallas has to re-invent itself.  It has to create 

an Identity that is Unique, and quit being "generic". 

(A city is generic when it has no identity; it has to copy and 

 borrow from other cities' styles)



"Same reason why raw sewage runs in the streets."

Raw sewage running in the streets is what makes for a vibrant neighborhood.


Dallas: opportunity, entrepeneurship, economic mobility, work work work work, building, welcoming and accomodating culture, and fuck anyone who doesn't work.

This isn't intrinsically good or bad and I'm not judging it either way in this text.


@roo_ster @2014chitown2014 @mmf0066

Those are great things about Dallas, 

I agree, but is that REALLY Dallas' "identity" ? 

Perhaps if Klyde Warren Park get so 'hip' 

that it becomes a National Destination 

because of its Unique placement - over the freeway-  

Then THAT is something the city could be 

known for.  

    Perhaps Dallas could make Cover the ENTIRE 

Woodall Rodgers freeway and Extend Klyde Warren.  

   It would become an instant hit.  

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