Urbanism in Dallas & Our Role as Urban Design Professionals

A playground in the middle of a pedestrian street in Historic Downtown Boulder, Colorado, is only this desolate at 8 a.m. on a Sunday. Photo by Staff

The recent D Magazine special edition on Walkable New Urbanism has us all thinking about how Dallas could, or will game this trend. As real estate and design professionals, we all have an opinion, and likely some education we paid good money on for this topic. It’s not, however, easy to see where our skills translate to “making a difference.”

Cue the American Institute for Architecture and their “Architecture On Tap” series. Last month’s event focused on how we can go about impacting our communities, with a panel of experts to discuss: Zaida Basora, VP of Huitt Zollar and former Assistant Director of Public Works at the City of Dallas; John Hetzel, real estate broker with Madison Partners and Deep Ellum Foundation Board Member; and Evan Sheets, Senior Planner with the City of Dallas Design Studio.

From this diverse group of professionals we heard one rallying call: Show up.

Whether you’re a dues-paying member of one of the fine real estate organizations in Dallas/Fort Worth, or simply getting more involved in your own neighborhood, simply showing up can often be the hardest part. As Mr Hetzel put it, “just stepping up and doing things when things need to get done. When a big urban design issue comes up, you’ve got to get in the weeds and take a position. Try to help things move forward. It helps if it’s a bit of a passion project, too. Especially if you’re putting in 800 hours of volunteering a year.” He would know.

Even his employer touts him as their spokesman for all things community- and neighborhood-oriented.

Attendees listen to Zaida Basora at the AIA’s July ‘Architecture on Tap’ event. Photo by staff

Sheets echoed, adding that there’s a special niche we professionals can fill.

“We all walk around and see things that need to be changed,” he said. “We need HOAs and input from neighbors, but how can we help neighborhoods that have more needs than just good urban design? We can come together through organizations to lend services, helping bring visions to reality – help envision plans that are implementable and helpful.”

All three panelists and even the moderator, Robert Kent the North Texas Area Director for The Trust for Public Land, encouraged attendees to reach out to their Dallas City Council representatives. Because it’s easy. And because “They want to hear your point of view and why,” as Sheets put it. “Develop that relationship.”

And if you’re interested in how you can really raise the bar, be an expert resource versus just a political activist.

“Professionals need to have opinion statements and give our input for what’s best for the city.” says Sheets. Basora pointed to the recent update of the landscaping requirements in the city’s development code known as Article X. “We need voices demanding change and demanding something different. You have to be passionate about it and commit to staying involved. The [Article X Update] committee was established 11 years ago!”

Attendees listen to Evan Sheets at the AIA’s July ‘Architecture on Tap’ event. Photo by Staff

Back to the urbanism topic at hand, Sheets emphasized a need to “recognize that what we want to be creating is more choices,” he said. “Lots of people want suburban. We don’t have many choices that support urbanism. We need to build that capacity in our city in places already built to support more walkable density. People are use to what they know. Seeing a new place can change our perspective. Creating a dense urban environment that creates new great experiences, people begin to appreciate and demand it even more.”

Just looking at the rents in the walkable urban neighborhoods Dallas has, one can see the effects of much higher demand than supply. Unpacking the how and where of creating more places is whole Pandora’s box of questions.

That’s where you come in: What’s your perspective? What’s your expertise? How can you add to this city-wide conversation in a unique way?

As a long time activist, mentor, and personal friend, David Marquis advises in his Activist Heart material “Beyond the March” that to become successfully engaged in changing something you’re passionate about, the first step is to pick one specific cause and become an expert. There are so many niches within this idea of urbanizing Dallas. And there are likely a few passionate souls ready to team up with you.

A jumping-off point for professionals looking to get more engaged in yurbanism in Dallas: