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David Whitley
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David Whitley
Assoc. AIA

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The World Class City


To many, the term global city conjures up images of diverse, cosmopolitan hubs of activity and commerce — the important places on the world stage that are key connecting points of trade and culture. Without these cities, links in the international economic system break down, gears grind inefficiently, and our collective economic well-being degrades. That’s not to mention the color of our world would be dulled without these repositories of culture.

To be a global city is to be inextricably and integrally tied to the well-being of our planet, to be a crucial part of what makes world societies hum, and to define the tenets of our existence as a civilization. Clearly, achieving this status is no small feat, nor is holding this status a small responsibility.

The Brookings Institution, a renowned public policy think tank, launched its Global Cities Initiative in 2011 in partnership with JP Morgan Chase. This effort seeks to help cities and metropolitan areas to more effectively hang their shingle in the global marketplace. These experts outline guidance on how to distinguish yourself in the world market, define your competitive advantages, and maximize the benefit to your local economy.

A quick assessment of Dallas’ advantages yields a treasure trove of assets put into place over several generations. Step back and take them in as a collective portfolio, it is clear that the tracks laid for Dallas and our region over the generations have led to a pretty direct path to becoming a global city.

As Dallas jetted up the ranks of large American cities in the last part of the 20th century, it began to nudge into queue as a global center. But the groundwork was laid in the early 1870s, when a series of deft decisions and a little cajoling by city leaders resulted in Dallas being at the convergence of railroad lines. The primary north-south and east-west rail lines through the state — the Houston & Central Railway (now Union Pacific) and the Texas-Pacific Railway — crossed each other in Dallas, solidifying the city’s place as a hub for commerce.

This was essential because most bustling metropolises relied upon port access as points of origin for their commerce. Being landlocked, Dallas needed intersecting railroads as an inland tactical advantage to get itself on the map. In 1914, Dallas won another major coup by landing the headquarters of the 11th Federal Reserve District, wrangling it away from clear favorite New Orleans. Dallas’ banking and finance industry were in growth mode, whereas NOLA was on cruise control. The choice to place the Fed in Dallas ensured the city’s place as a financial center for generations and served as another asset driving growth and development in the region.

By the middle decades of the 20th century, America shifted its focus on transportation infrastructure to the development of an interstate highway system. The region successfully attracted strategic infrastructure investment, and today may be the only metro in the nation with four interstate highways crisscrossing the region, providing multiple direct connections to trade throughout the continent.

By 1974, the city turned its eyes to the sky and joined with Fort Worth to build Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. This milestone was decades in the making, going back to the early 1920s. Today, DFW has routes to nearly 260 domestic and international destinations. The annual economic benefit to the region is in the tens of billions of dollars, plus an untold benefit in corporate relocations.

Investment in the Inland Port in the southern reaches of Dallas has continued to boost the region’s logistical advantages. To understand the scale and economic benefit to the area, just look at the line of trucks emblazoned with the Amazon logo stacked up on the Interstate 20 service road in southern Dallas. The Inland Port is a continuation of a series of investments taking advantage of the city’s central location in the country.

Many generations of arm wrestling squeezed out more than our share of growth to become the roaring bastion of commerce springing from the Blackland Prairie of Texas. The sheer size of the population and economy has grown into a metropolitan area that is certainly global in scale and has a gravitational pull that continues to attract growth and investment. According to the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the population of Dallas-Fort Worth is about 7.5 million, making it larger than 37 states, including nearby Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arkansas.

Dallas-Fort Worth makes up 30 percent of the Texas economy at 4.8 million jobs. By 2045, the North Central Texas Council of Governments forecasts, the region will have 11.2 million people and 7 million jobs. The metro’s GDP in 2018 was nearly $470 billion. This would outrank all but 26 or so countries in the world.

So here we are. These data tell us that we have pulled ourselves up onto the global stage, and we are not likely to be knocked off anytime soon. However, we cannot rest on the laurels of the many advantages that our region has accumulated over the generations. We cannot expect to maintain our position in the world without continued effort.

So now what? How will we use this platform not only for our benefit, but for the benefit of others? Like those generations that came before us, are we going to lay groundwork for the generations to come? The way in which our political and corporate systems address these questions will serve as leverage to keep us climbing up the ranks of global cities not only as an economic engine, but also as an engine for cultural innovation and equitable opportunities.

Dallas has reached a stage where it needs to be “full of wise saws and modern instances,” to pull from Shakespeare. Dallas can position itself as a leader that balances experience with innovation to improve justice and equity among its population. In driving our economic strength forward as a global city, we cannot focus only on the next big thing, but also on economic access at the individual level. By stretching our aspirations to not only the overly ambitious and borderline impossible projects, but to enable the very least of us to have opportunities, we can provide an egalitarian example of what a global city should be. And where the economic data are not only measured in the billions of dollars, but also at the level of balancing a monthly household budget.

There is a clear sense that the trajectory of today’s civic policies is to broaden the perspective through which we make public investment decisions. Single purpose investments are inefficient and ineffective at truly addressing public needs. Public expenditures should be graded and prioritized by their performance across a broad spectrum of criteria to ensure that the dollars are spent wisely and to the maximum benefit. Key plans and policies must not only pile on large-scale investments that increase our logistical advantages within the nation and among our peer cities to pay dividends for generations to come, but also to deepen the impact within our local communities.

The Connect Dallas: Strategic Mobility Plan developed by the City of Dallas sifts transportation investment decisions based on how they perform under six key principles:

  • Aligning with economic and workforce development goals.
  • Supporting diversified and affordable housing options.
  • Leveraging the innovation economy.
  • Being kind to the environment.
  • Improving equitable access to jobs, services, and opportunities.
  • Improving safety for all transportation modes.

Transportation metrics are no longer solely about minutes of delay and level of service. Looking at transportation investment through this broader lens, a different picture emerges of how we should approach infrastructure development over the next generation. The small-scale project that solves how best to connect individuals to grocery stores and jobs by foot or by bike ranks well against the major investments that have regional or national implications. Better yet, it pushes us to pursue projects that do both. An example: How can the Inland Port immediately benefit its surrounding community? How can streetscapes in the Medical District be reformatted to improve public and environmental health?

The freshly minted Comprehensive Environmental and Climate Action Plan developed by the City of Dallas also holds equity and inclusion as core values. Poor air quality and other environmental challenges disproportionately affect vulnerable communities within our city that are least able to battle these detrimental conditions. Further, the linkages of the environment, equity, access to sustainable transportation options, and improving public health underpin the goals and objectives of the plan. Addressing our city’s environmental challenges also means addressing our city’s social and economic challenges.

As we approach the middle of the 21st century, how can we think broadly and demand comprehensive, inclusive approaches to shaping our city through thoughtful and equitable planning and investment? Looking at the horizon, how can we address the challenges to maintaining our global relevance? As we plan for the future, our expectations will and should change. It is not about how we will keep up as a city, but how we will lead.

As a global city, we have a responsibility to chart the course for others to follow. Today’s decisions and investments should advance an agenda that is increasingly ambitious on multiple levels. Are we making Dallas a more just and equitable city? Are we making Dallas a more sustainable city? Are we making Dallas a more innovative city? If we continually ask ourselves these questions and critically reflect on the progress, the answer to whether Dallas is a global city will take care of itself — or may even be irrelevant.

David Whitley, Assoc. AIA is the owner of DRW Planning Studio.

Special thanks to Sandy Wesch from the North Central Texas Council of Governments who contributed her expertise to this article.