Why is Dallas?

Why is Dallas?

Back to Columns Issue

Contributed by:
Joseph A. Pobiner

Talk About It

There are no comments yet, be the first!

Shaping Dallas

Why is Dallas here, how did we get this way, and where are we going? In short, why is Dallas?

Most cities had something that sparked their reason for being — a coastline, a port, a railhead, a tactical military outpost. Dallas had none of those. Wikipedia’s first paragraph about Dallas notes it is the “largest inland metropolitan area in the U.S. that lacks any navigable link to the sea.” And don’t even ask about how Dallas got its name — there’s no agreement.

Regardless, Dallas thrived. By 1900, it was the world’s largest inland cotton market, eventually becoming a center of commerce. Today, Dallas is the ninth largest U.S. city and Dallas-Fort Worth is the nation’s fourth-largest metropolitan area, poised to eclipse Chicago for the No. 3 spot in the next few years.

So what shaped Dallas? It boils down to three mega form-givers— the Trinity River, commerce, and infrastructure.

The Trinity: order out of chaos

Disasters often shape cities. Chicago had its fire, San Francisco had its earthquake, and Dallas had its Great Flood. In May 1908, 15 inches of rain fell in a single day, causing the Trinity River to breach its banks as it reached historic flood levels. Almost 6% of the city population was affected, thousands fled their homes, and five people died.

We’ve had a complicated relationship with the Trinity ever since.

An April 8, 1908, photo shows the Trinity River overflowing its bank a month before the Great Flood. (courtesy of the Oak Cliff Advocate)

To prevent future catastrophic flooding, Dallas did what it usually does — hire a consultant. In this case, city leaders turned to George Kessler, a Kansas City landscape architect and former Dallas resident, to develop one of the nation’s earliest comprehensive city plans. (One of his recommendations was a small “town lake” to contain future flooding.) By the 1930s, construction began on the now-familiar Trinity River levee system; many descendants of those workers still live in the Trinity Groves area. While its intent was noble, it also created a wide scar between neighborhoods — a chasm of empty space blocked by 29- to 32-foot-tall levees that literally “broke” the river. More than a century after the Great Flood, the city is working to repair this scar so that the Trinity River’s potential may finally be realized.

Dallas means business

Commerce lives in Dallas — we even named a downtown street after it.

The region’s agricultural, cotton, and cattle industries leveraged early business developments including Neiman Marcus, Sanger Brothers, and Highland Park Village. Although we didn’t strike oil here, we became a hub for oil companies that were popping up throughout East and West Texas. Eventually, Dallas led the development of technology industries with Collins Radio, Texas Instruments, and other telecom and technology firms (yes, not all were within the Dallas city limits). In 2008, AT&T made the decision to move its corporate headquarters to the appropriately named Commerce Street.

(courtesy CBS television)

Over time, the city’s business-friendly reputation yielded numerous business leaders and developers who served on City Council. And who can forget the television show "Dallas," which introduced the world to a fictitious cut-throat oilman and featured Dallas icons such as the Hyatt Reunion and Reunion Tower in its opening shots?

Without the businesses that made Dallas, the city may not have grown in the fashion it has.

Infrastructure is instrumental

Infrastructure quietly formed the city as we know it. The development of the street network at the same time as underground water, sanitary sewer, storm drainage, gas, and electric lines gave rise to the familiar neighborhoods throughout Dallas. Many are also served by an intricate network of alleys, where utilities and services were often located.

A wise civil engineer once explained the city’s approach to infrastructure and development: Look around and you will see that much of the core of Dallas is a series of neighborhoods laid out on a one-square-mile grid. Every mile or so in each direction, there is a major east-west or north-south road — think North Dallas with Preston Road, Walnut Hill Lane, and Forest Lane.

A typical Dallas highway during rush hour

This one-mile spacing was no accident. The engineer posited that the one-mile grid was the ideal distance for water transmission and sewer collection mains. And since these are usually located beneath roadways, voila, you have Dallas’ neighborhood grid. Of course, there are areas with sweeping curvilinear streets and some organically shaped blocks. But at the heart of Dallas are still the rectangular blocks on a mile-grid pattern.

As North Dallas and its suburbs grew, the network of wide and (then) fast highways supplanted the importance of grid streets. The idea was to provide workers with an easy in-bound commute and get them out of downtown as quickly as possible in the evening.

The Magnificent Seven

The wonderful thing about Dallas is that it constantly reinvents itself. New districts exist that weren’t even a glimmer in a civic leader’s eye 50 years ago. And the following seven influences will help shape Future Dallas:

  1. Water – Simply put, without water there is no development. Our network of reservoirs supplies a vast regional population, but as we grow toward 10 million people and beyond, the provision of sustainable water sources is a major developmental issue. We can lower per capita use through installing more efficient systems, repairing old, leaky lines, and urging residential rain catchment and gray water irrigation systems. But we need to think about the next 50 years and beyond. It takes decades to develop reservoirs (property acquisition, design, construction), so water planning is an ongoing need, both for the city and the region.
  2. Rail – Before cars, many cities relied on passenger rail systems and streetcar lines to move people. While these largely disappeared during post-WWII expansion, over the last 30 years there has been a national resurgence in rail. Since 1996, North Texas went from a single light-rail starter line (DART’s Phase 1) to four rail systems in 2019 – DART, the Trinity Railway Express, the Denton County Transportation Authority, and the new TexRail line. Light rail, commuter rail, and streetcars help promote new forms of mixed-use development that mimic the way we used to build neighborhoods. DART’s proposed second rail line (D2) through downtown and its future Cotton Belt Line will continue to offer new transportation alternatives and development opportunities. At some point, increasing costs could influence political will to combine these systems into a single regional agency.
  3. Parks and open space – We didn’t invent the idea of the deck park, nor did we build the first one, but Klyde Warren Park represents the spirit that Dallas leadership invokes when it seeks to correct a perceived shortcoming. The ongoing Trinity River Project also demonstrates a renewed effort to remake the Trinity River Corridor and reclaim a vast public open space that can help knit together long-severed neighborhoods. (Cooler heads prevailed, and the Trinity Tollway is now a distant memory.) Both projects sparked interest in addressing the city’s lack of urban parks and green space. Belo Gardens and Main Street Gardens are two examples of new areas that previously might have been relegated to parking lots. For Dallas to thrive as a city, a collection of large and intimate people-oriented spaces and human-scale developments are key ingredients.

    Klyde Warren Park represents what Dallas leadership can do.
  4. Power – Electrical power fuels growth, and our dependence on digital devices increases this demand. The prospect of more electric vehicles may help to reduce air pollution, but it also shifts energy demand from the pump to the power grid. We can make buildings more efficient and utilize solar panels, wind power, and other alternative power sources, but our demand will continue to increase. Since construction of power plants takes as long as reservoirs, it is never too early to think about future demand and innovation. Through sensible power diversification and decentralization, we can decrease our exposure to grid-targeted cyberattacks. (China is testing a highway “paved” with solar panels – imagine if the Mixmaster or LBJ Freeway generated power instead of road rage.)
  5. 5G cellular – 2019 sees the rollout of 5G, the next generation in mobile communications. Promising fiber-quality speed, the construction of the 5G network will be quickly followed by the next generation of superfast phones, tablets, smart devices, home automation, the Internet of Things, connected cars, drones, etc. Initially, 5G will utilize existing 4G tower infrastructure, but as demand for 5G-specific use increases, cells will be much smaller (stand-alone mode, or SA) which might require a cell every few hundred feet. In downtown areas, these could be concealed in buildings or disguised as streetlights, public art, or even trees. Distribution in residential neighborhoods might be designed differently, such as atop pole-mounted electrical transformers or as part of streetlights. Properly designed, the 5G network could be nearly invisible. It also may hasten the elimination of the landline telephone system.
  6. The Third Airport – DFW International Airport has had an undeniably positive impact on the regional economy. Should North Texas become the No. 3 metropolitan area, a third airport will surely be on the horizon. (No. 1 New York City and No. 2 Los Angeles have more than three airports.) Without harming the economic business models of DFW or Love Field, where would Airport No. 3 be built? Considering the tremendous financial commitment, not to mention the time for design, approval, and construction, any talk of a third airport is 10 to 15 years out. But no matter how and where it is integrated into North Texas, whether it links up with existing or future rail, and whatever happens in aviation technology, the shape of Dallas and North Texas will be influenced by a third airport.
  7. Autonomous vehicles and connected cars – Finally, no discussion of city-shaping can be complete without addressing the potentials of autonomous vehicles and connected cars (AVs and CCs). These could replace mass transit on a customizable local scale, or they could help close the first mile/last mile gap for those beyond walking distance of a transit station. Right now, it looks like the first adoption of this technology will be in service and delivery vehicles, with some self-driving shuttles on office/college campuses or in downtown areas. AVs and CCs will rely on the 5G network for communication and navigation, so these technologies are inextricably linked (for now). Whenever passenger AV use is widely adopted, no one knows for sure what that influence will be.

A self-driving shuttle in service in Concord, California (courtesy of Stantec)

The future is now

Even with all the above form-givers and influencers, the future of Dallas and of North Texas will be a combination of the old and new, the familiar and the innovative:

  • Downtown will be the core in a polynodal region, much as it is today.
  • Residential areas will evolve to be more walkable and include more supporting compatible uses;
  • Offices will exist, but signs point to a combination of traditional and co-working spaces, with street-level retail and upper-level residential in the same building.
  • We will still complain about traffic, but the mix will be a combination of cars, AVs, and other options. A new 5G network will make working from home a few days a week a viable alternative, and a simple way to increase roadway capacity without new construction. And Uber promises to deliver the first flying taxi service in Dallas by 2023.

Bell Helicopter’s Nexus prototype for Uber’s flying taxi service, unveiled at the 2019 Consumer Electronic Show

This article only scratches the surface. Barring a disaster or other unforeseen event, Dallas and North Texas will continue to influence, and be influenced by, our surroundings. To be frank, there are challenges, and some areas may remain underserved. But that should not deter us from continuing to shape and reinvent our urban fabric, addressing challenges and opportunities alike.


Joseph A. Pobiner, FAICP is director of planning and urban design at Stantec.