Defining Dallas' Legacy

Defining Dallas' Legacy

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David Whitley
Contributed by:
David Whitley
Assoc. AIA

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Taking an Active Approach to Defining Dallas’ Legacy

What does today’s Dallas say about our legacy? If we look at Dallas as a historical archive of sorts, then what do we see? What provides “meaning” to our city? What defines Dallas as a place?

Certainly the answers vary depending upon whom you ask. Each person brings his or her own experiences of the place and personal priorities that subsequently color the chosen elements that are felt to define our city. Common answers are generally offered when discussing the assets that make Dallas … Dallas. Examples include Fair Park, White Rock Lake, great neighborhoods, vibrant retail and restaurant districts, an iconic skyline, a growing downtown, and more recently, Klyde Warren Park and a fully realized arts district.  

It is understandable to fall back on our natural response to catalogue those buildings and places that we feel best describe our strengths as a community and our achievements as a culture. We then bestow upon them great significance and hold them up as clear symbols of who we are as a populace. Certainly noteworthy assets of the built environment need to be part of the dialogue, but an inventory of our finest built resources do not provide the total picture.  

Who are we? Here are some additional considerations to answer that question: 

  • Part of the sprawling DFW metroplex that is equivalent to the size of the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined 
  • Infrastructure of all sorts that sustain our current way of living 
  • Areas of unbalanced growth and economic disparity 

Juxtaposed against all of this is an ambitious suite of stated aspirations of what we want Dallas to become. All of these pieces of the puzzle contribute to the sense of who we are and serve as examples of the world we are working to create. 

For the outside observer, what does this collection of ingredients really say about Dallas? What story does it tell casual observers about our cultural values? Do they see a disconnect between the type of place that we desire to be and what the actual character of the place says about who we are? Undoubtedly, at times there is a seemingly incongruent relationship between our stated values, chosen representative emblems of our culture and the reality of the built form of places found throughout our region. One manner of reconciling this conflict would be to have an understanding that the place that we are today reflects a multi-faceted challenge: 

  • The difficulty of balancing our ambitions within the constraints of other market forces 
  • The dynamic struggle caused by constant change  
  • The evolution of a community through incremental adjustments and interventions

[Panoramic View of Dallas], Photography, ca. 1905; ( accessed March 06, 2015), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History; crediting Dallas Heritage Village, Dallas, Texas.

​With this in mind, how will the decisions we make today and the work that we do shift and reshape Dallas as a place in the future? And how much of the built form of our city that we are currently creating is proactively crafted through deliberate design decisions? Alternatively, how much is the result of a series of unintended consequences? Taken together, how do all of these factors combine to create a legacy offered to future generations? These are challenging questions for each of us to answer and will likely result in a provocative conversation about honesty in our identity and the need to match actions with aspirations.  

In fact, this is a conversation that our community is primed to have. According to Todd Howard, AIA, president of th+a, “In the area of arts and culture, the leadership of our city’s philanthropists has placed Dallas into the prestige of a world-class city. We need to now apply a similar leadership to the areas of physical growth, transportation, and education. We appear to be on the cusp of establishing a legacy in these areas. Our decisions regarding the Trinity, the growth of our southern sector, our transportation thoroughfares, and the provision of adequate facilities to educate our youth will determine the answer to this question. What a great opportunity for our city!" 

Carrying out this line of discussion requires a shift in focus away from simply identifying a set of specific physical assets as our defining characteristics. It also introduces the approach to city building itself as having significant weight in the conversation. An overarching theme among many planning processes today is to essentially “crowdsource” Dallas’ future. Dallas is increasingly becoming a more socially diverse region and we have an opportunity to let this manifest itself through a richer urban environment. As a community we have begun to adopt a more egalitarian relationship with constructing the built environment such that planning priorities are geared toward discerning and expressing community priorities.  

This ever-growing net that we cast to bring people into the conversation is resulting in a Dallas that is more appreciative of public space, more mindful of the public good, and more aspiring toward common objectives. In fact, an attitude toward the importance of place has been burgeoning in Dallas over the past decade and has grown beyond involving a select group of professionals and civic advocates by filtering its way into the mainstream. The current conversations surrounding transportation infrastructure and historic preservation are timely examples.  

An open dialogue relies on the understanding that we all have a role to play as city builders. There is a diverse cast of contributors that actually participate in placemaking (developers, designers, planners, politicians, consumers, lenders, lawyers, etc.). We must appreciate the role that everyone plays in the dialogue and develop an understanding of the impact that each and every one of us can have on the city. This is not simply a design discussion. It is not only a conversation about the decisions we make collectively regarding what buildings we preserve or tear down (or which natural resources we conserve or pave over) that defines the cultural legacy of Dallas.  

There are countless ancillary decisions involving such things as economic policy, market response, and regulatory concerns that are shaping the place that we are leaving behind. Some participants know that they are actively engaged in shaping our city and they take the responsibility very seriously. Some, however, given the indirect nature of their involvement with the built environment, do not readily understand their impact on their surroundings. Consequently the metrics for their decision-making do not consider quality of place as part of the outcome. This puts a greater burden on the dialogue in which we engage to shape the places around us. It requires that we seek out root causes behind potential disconnects between what Dallas aspires to be and what is evolving around us. 

So what is the legacy being created by the current practice of urban development in Dallas? It is a nice question to muse upon, but ultimately it is a question that we do not get to answer for ourselves. Our best shot at influencing how future Dallasites think of the place we gave them is to be thoughtful and deliberate in the actions we choose to take toward building out our region. 

How does the world around us illustrate legacy?  

As professionals dealing in the built environment, it is natural to consider our individual legacies as the physical record of work that we have contributed to the urban landscape—buildings, open spaces, or transportation projects. After all, it was an integral part of our academic training to develop a design sensibility and create an appreciation of space. We catalogue and examine the work of noted practitioners to track the evolution of their professional practice and to document the endurance of their work in a changing world.  

This understanding creates a barometer for the success of their ideas, as well as their contribution to (and advancement of) their chosen field. It is this line of study that helps us translate ideas into a physical form that reflects the desires and priorities of each client and expresses a set of professional values. When we reflect back on our own practices, in many cases it is through this same lens, viewing our work in isolation in order to draft a narrative that tells our individual stories.  

It is only when considering the context that each of our individual contributions becomes woven together into a larger portfolio of work for our community. Context in this instance goes beyond just looking at the block on which a project sits, its built and un-built surroundings, or the natural climate that influenced our design decisions. It also includes other driving factors such as economic and market forces, aspects of the political arena, and social priorities that may have shaped certain facets of decision-making.  

Consequently, there is a wide array of contributors to the story, from traditional disciplines like architects, planners, engineers, and developers to those less frequently considered as part of the equation. These include professionals in real estate, finance, law, and economics, as well as the ultimate consumers. As Dolores Hayden describes in her work, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History, we are all engaged in the “production of space on an urban scale.”  

Dallas is a collection of artifacts that together build a living record of our cultural legacy. For better or worse, each mark we place upon the earth—whether a building, a road, or a plaza—becomes a documented part of our cultural history. Whether intentional or not, this collective body of work becomes a manifestation of our societal values, economic priorities, and political will. As a result, the built environment becomes the ultimate statement of who we are as a society. This idea has been the subject of scholarly study which articulates the link between the places we build and the forces that built them.  

By this measure then, everything that we build, repurpose, replace, or preserve is part of an unfolding story about us. The built environment, especially in Dallas some would argue, is ever changing. As such, through its continued evolution, the world outside our window serves as a dynamic repository of societal thought and expression. This constantly fluctuating environment adds a layer of complexity to the exercise of answering the question of what legacy we are leaving for future generations. After all, we are not studying a dormant product from an ancient civilization. We are chasing a moving target, one influenced by a constant tension between design intention and inhabitation by the end user.  

Said another way, we not only imbue places with meaning through the act of their creation, but we further create meaning through their use over time. On the supply side of the equation, we design, craft, and shape places to express a number of values and ideals. On the demand side, the take away of a project might be entirely different than its intent.  

Looking back at the historical construction of our city provides one perspective. We evaluate the work product of our predecessors in the context of our contemporary understanding of the place and the modern consequences of their decisions. From this understanding, we can build a narrative of how their work resulted in present-day Dallas. 

Projecting the effects of our work into the future, however, is an entirely different and more complex exercise.


David Whitley is the former associate director of the City of Dallas' CityDesign Studio and now owns DRW Planning Studio in Dallas.