Branch Water DFW

Branch Water DFW

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Kevin Sloan
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Kevin Sloan

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Branch Water DFW: An Unprecedented Form of Cohesion with Nature

The branch water network is a concept to use the entire waterway system in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex (DFW) as an attraction to form and structure a metropolitan urbanism.

Segments of the network are already complete:  Turtle Creek, White Rock Lake, and the pieces and parks along the Trinity River in Fort Worth. Many projects are also in the works, but they are typically seen as rail-to-trail conversions and the hike and bike trails, or they are mega-visions like the unrealized and standalone Dallas Trinity River Project.

This vignette shows the urbanism proposed along the Fort Worth Trinity River Project. Image credit: Trinity River Vision Authority

No larger vision yet exists to see all of these separate projects as stepping stones toward accomplishing a ribbon-like landscape urbanism that would naturally form along the shaded corridors, much as crystals grow on a string suspended in sugar water. 

If the existing process of ad hoc additions continues, and the branch water network is incrementally realized, the thin and fibrous urbanism that would develop could offer a compelling living environment that’s counter to the conventional notion of nodes defined by highways and building agglomerations.

Nested along any branch waterway, mixed-use edges and enclaves would offer the forest on one side and the civility of streets, squares, and the neighborhoods on the other. Turtle Creek and the recent addition of the Katy Trail are current examples to observe the potential. Vitruvian Park on Farmers Branch Creek in Addison demonstrates that the assumption is possible in outlying municipalities.

Above: Before and after photos of Vitruvian Park in Addison, TX, demonstrate how nature can form density where it is typically not found. Top photo credit: Kevin Sloan, ASLA; Lower photo credit: Craig Blackmon, FAIA

In addition to the cultural, economic, and environmental merits of the concept, achieving the branch water network has a built-in potential to avoid the cultural problems and bureaucratic red tape that often stymies a comprehensive plan—or a grand urban vision. Since the waterway system is largely continuous and already exists, no additional land acquisitions, eminent domain takings, bond programs, or any gauntlet of political and economic approvals are needed to continue the process of incrementally constructing the network and the urbanism. Rather, it could succeed with only a simple set of guidelines to construct spatial relationships between the branch water network and the new urbanism.  

The still unrealized Dallas Trinity River Park could be one the greatest benefactors of the concept. Interspersing stormwater detentions and impoundments throughout the branches (as park amenities) would collectively diminish the amount of water impounded between the Trinity floodway levees—potentially making the park more usable and less affected by seasonal flood waters. Building a monumental park in an inundation zone remains a contradiction the current plan has not yet fully resolved.

The network could also address larger questions about the economic and social relevance of DFW.

Planning for World Relevance

World leaders now understand that the future of any nation will be disproportionately delivered by its metropolitan regions and mega cities. For metros to be relevant on the world stage, they must retain talent, attract new talent, generate and export their own unique economy, and flourish into a culture that can compete aggressively in its own nation and within other world cities. 

Seen in this light, architecture, city building, and placemaking are now matters imbued with a new and profound importance.

Parisian Origins

Dallas and Paris were alike as river cities that emerged upon an open and relatively featureless region. Guided by the singular hand of an imperial society, Paris used architecture to construct beauty and a sense of cohesion that is cherished the world over. 

Dallas was originally coherent as a courthouse town, but a land rush that followed favored rugged individualism over careful planning and cooperation. Taken together with a modern architectural culture (that awarded unique and provocative buildings over those that built places and a context), Dallas did not realize the same kind of urban beauty as Paris.  

The stupefying question for DFW now becomes this: Can some 7.5 million acres of discordant construction be transformed into a livable urbanism? Can it be transformed—realistically? Is blight a future certainty?

Architecture and planning are generally without a theoretical model, and without a case study for retroactively providing coherence to a mega urbanism that was originally built without it. Invoking Daniel Burnham’s  “Make no small plans” erroneously compels a process to consider “designs” that aren’t feasible for geographical problems that cross municipal boundaries, established communities, and a political and cultural apparatus that is not equipped to steward projects that could take decades.

The impulse for “design” versus creating a strategy, also misunderstands that the great public works of the 19th century were models for developing an urbanism, not for retrofitting a geography where the land is already atomized by private ownership and sliced by a fully realized infrastructure. The New Urbanism, while honorable in intention, attached its admirations to the myth of the small town and an unfortunate association with tradition and nostalgia. America has not been a network of small towns since the 1800s.

Embracing the Obvious

When mapped and seen in satellite view, the waterway branches of forested creeks, ravines, and rivers within the metropolitan area look like the veins of a leaf or a colossal tree that has been flattened and espaliered onto the blackland prairie. The branches traverse an urban geography that is approximately 60 to 70 miles wide from east to west, 40 to 50 miles wide north to south. Over 400 miles of waterways exist even when only the most viable branches of the natural system are considered.

As the only part of George Kessler’s 1911 plan for Dallas that was fully realized, the seven-mile-long segment known as Turtle Creek represents less than two percent of the available potential.

This does not presume that the entire branch water network should become another Anglican landscape of fine lawns and azaleas, punctuated by towers. The existing characteristics of the riverine areas and their potential are as numerous and varied as are the landscape types that could be added. Ultimately, communities along the network should develop a program that fits their distinctive needs and the unique characteristics of their respective branches.

In the lowest and flattest geography of the waterway system, fragments of the former Trinity River in Dallas, known as the meanders, now operate as flood sumps. In their current condition, they are more akin to the static waters of a bayou than a creek with a current. The Trinity Strand has taken steps to add pedestrian and bike trails above the high water mark.

Creeks and ravines that slope to the natural Trinity floodplain often convey a brook-like flow of water that, over eons, cut ravines through the soft limestone and caliche geology. Many of them are sheet springs and numerous street names like Kidd Springs, Spring Valley, and Marsh Lane are clues.

Most are protected by the Army Corps of Engineers, but the third category typically takes the form of a defined right-of-way that cradles an ecology of hardwoods in the deep topsoil that’s accumulated with time. Many of these can be seen near the West Dallas escarpment or in north and south Oak Cliff. Water flowing in these branches is a pulse condition resulting from a rain event.

The New Schools

Schools of thought are emerging to contend with the appearance of the megacity and to explore the potential for landscape for places and spaces. Championed by Dean Mohsen Mostafavi, the school of architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) is exploring “ecological urbanism,” an architectural strategy to map nature into the mega city and re-conceive the built and biomorphic as one ecology. Conversely, the landscape architecture program at the GSD is also exploring “landscape urbanism,” which considers the opposite—mapping cities into a larger natural framework.

The great Olmstedian parks of New York’s Central Park and Prospect Park, and the Emerald Necklace in Boston that were established in the 19th century, along with the local example of Dallas’s Turtle Creek, demonstrate that for centuries landscape has been a reliable and uniquely American affinity to form urbanism. 

Boston's Emerald Necklace is a seminal example of gathering urban geographies to parks and natural features. Image credit: Emerald Necklace Conservancy

A recent environmental movement known as “re-wilding” takes the architectural explorations to another level by proposing to re-populate the original wildlife with environmental reconstruction. Considering that New York’s Central Park has nesting red-tail hawks and migrating wildfowl, the idea is far from a stretch since foxes, coyotes, and quail are frequently seen throughout Oak Cliff.

Re-wilding the Great Trinity Forest and treating the Trinity River Park as the largest prairie restoration project in North America would transform Dallas into a sui generis—an urban formation that is the result of truly unique circumstances whose physical characteristics cannot be transferred to another city or copied.

Fortune Favors Prepared Minds

A key to realizing a branch water network is how the initiative learns the relevant lessons from Turtle Creek. As the only part of Kessler’s 1912 Plan for The City of Dallas that was fully realized, the seven-mile-long Turtle Creek corridor transformed an otherwise featureless ravine into what Kessler referred to as “a city walk that would be an education in art, architecture, history, nature, and citizenship.”

In lieu of the luxuries of a Frank Lloyd Wright theater, tennis courts, and Exall Lake, a more useful lesson is how the shaded microclimate of the linear park is stippled with athletics, passive meadows, a system of weirs and trails, and landmark bridges—and how the street infrastructure of Turtle Creek Parkway ties it all together. 

The natural and the constructed quality of Turtle Creek produced value and desire to the point that, from the 1950s through the ‘80s, condominium towers appeared along the edges—exceptions to the cultural raison d’être that luxurious living in Texas meant a sprawling ranch or estate. Considering that DFW is on the same latitude as North Africa and frequently one of the hotter places in the U.S. during the summer, Turtle Creek is a model for a landscape-driven DFW and potentially for other metropolitan cities.

In Dallas alone, over 90% of the creeks, ravines, and drainage ways remain unimproved.

Resilient Dallas

The concepts for a branch water network and urbanism could also make DFW stable and resilient to future threats.  

Studies issued by Cornell and Columbia universities in February 2015 align with other environmental studies that show there is an 80% chance that Texas and the Southwest may experience a 35-year-long mega-drought sometime before 2100. Such an event could be catastrophic to the metropolitan economy. The abandonment of parks and irrigated landscapes may be required to conserve water and survive the event.

The natural waterway network in DFW is where the mature trees, water, and any environmental quality currently exist. Gathering urbanism along the edges of the network would anticipate the drought and aid DFW in weathering an event that might otherwise compel businesses and citizens to move away from the region.  

The threat compounds another stupefying problem that’s already imbedded within the existing geography. DFW is approximately seven million acres of incorporated land that supports roughly seven million people. At an approximate average of one human per acre of civilization, if DFW could urbanize to equal the sustainable and walkable four-people-per-acre density (like Boulder, CO), the entire population of Canada—28 million people—would have to relocate to DFW to inhabit the urban construction.

Large metropolises like DFW, Atlanta, and Phoenix, may have horizontally overbuilt the ground plane to an extent that it’s statistically impossible to urbanize all the incorporated land. Edges and areas may densify, but larger suburban lands may lie outside any potential to remain as viable neighborhoods and descend into areas of blight.

The potential for a mega-drought and the eye-opening geographical statistics suggest that involuntary changes may descend upon DFW. The branch water network is a natural draw to organize an orderly transformation of the city into a unique metropolitan pattern that could also keep DFW competitive on the world stage.


Kevin Sloan, ASLA is the founding principal of Kevin Sloan Studio in Dallas and teaches architecture at the School of Architecture at the University of Texas-Arlington.

Header graphic rendering is by Vincent Hunter, AIA of WDG Architecture.