Dallas: Building America's Largest Urban Park on the Trinity Riverside

Trinity River near Dallas.jpg

A flood protection site in Dallas is being transformed into America’s largest urban park. The economic and ecological benefits of conserving this slice of North Texas are destined to reverberate well beyond the city limits. Blackland Prairie is the most endangered large ecosystem in North America. The development that is underway —thankfully — to preserve this remnant of our past will also shore up our natural assets for the future.

The Trinity River Corridor Project aims to restore or develop a total of 10,000 acres, including 6,000 acres of forest, 2,000 acres along the river’s Elm Fork, and a 2,000-acre floodway extension, which alone will be three times the size of Central Park. Over eighty percent of it will comprise natural landscape, much of it Blackland Prairie ecology. In 1998, a $246 million bond was passed to establish the ambitious public works project, which will also preserve the Great Trinity Forest, the largest urban bottomland hardwood forest in North America.

What It Means For Dallas
After plans to turn the 715-mile Trinity River into a shipping channel were scrapped, the value of the Trinity River and its surrounding environs was re-evaluated. At the 21st Century City conference, Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, a principal with Philadelphia-based Wallace, Roberts & Todd, calculated benefits that included 19,000 new trees to absorb approximately 380 tons of CO2 – the equivalent of 750,000 miles traveled by automobile; 300 acres of wetlands to sequester 3,000-4,000 tons of CO2; and $8.8 billon in development value to boost the local economy.

Estimated at around $2.2 billion, the Trinity River Corridor Project also allocates a portion of the land use for recreational amenities including an equestrian center, sports fields, trails, and a “nature interpretative center.” International regattas, fireworks, concerts…these are promises for the future, although at present, the nature interpretive center is the only part of the plan that has been completed.

Trinity River Audubon Center: A Glimpse
Trinity River Audubon Center is a 21,000 square foot LEED-certified nature education facility . The view from the window of TRAC Executive Director Chris Culak’s office is vintage Old West: fertile soil, coneflowers, Lemon Beebalm, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and a vast many other flora and fauna that have sprung up in this nexus of Cross Timbers, grasslands, and wetlands.

“The property started out as a quarry in the 1940s,” explains Chris. “Since the mid-60s it has been a dump. The guy who ran it was fined repeatedly. The dump caught fire twice— in 1988 at 1997— and the second time it burned for two months, primarily due to the construction debris. Bulldozers had to roll in to make room for the fire trucks.” Ultimately, stakeholders organized and sued the City.

The City of Dallas estimated it would cost $107-110 million to clean it up, and would take at least 10 years. In 2000, it resolved the matter by doing a $25 million landfill instead, which was completed in record time. Its partnership with the National Audubon Society to develop a nature center within this property demonstrates how a municipal liability can be transformed into a major asset.

Today, the Trinity River Audubon Center is the gateway to remarkable biodiversity that blossoms across 120 acres, including four miles of meandering trails. Since opening in October 2008, more than 85,000 people have come through the Center, 30,000 of whom are students. Reflecting the National Audubon Society’s mission to connect people to the outdoors, TRAC is fostering a conservation ethos in children who may not get it elsewhere.

Getting Down to Brass Tax
The Trinity River Audubon Center presents a great example of the economic development potential in public-private partnerships. The $15 million TRAC building was jointly paid for by the City of Dallas, which contributed $13.5 million and the National Audubon Society, which covered the rest. Additional funds are appropriations from the federal government for flood control, and from state, county, city, and private funds.

The City’s return on its initial investment is a restoration project that totals $37 million in capital improvements. As with other public-private partnerships for cultural centers such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nasher Sculpture Garden, the City maintains ownership, but only pays a small stipend. Beyond that, these entities must raise their own money.

“People sometimes say that if it’s worth so much, then private interests will develop it,” says TRAC’s Culak, “but without the vision for implementation and municipal support, you can’t get that kind of development in here.” He added, “The economic benefit will be tenfold, but we’re going to have to put something into it to get as much out of it.”

Fortunately, Dallas has tremendous resources within its philanthropic community. A core group of visionaries have been keepers of the dream, including Gail Thomas, Ph.D., the president of The Trinity Trust. “The average citizen in Dallas doesn’t have a clue about the marvelous, dramatic changes that will take place in their lives,” says Gail.

Renewal Takes Awhile
“In the 20th century we created our cities to move as quickly as we could from one place to another," explains Gail. “We built these cities in the fast lane, for connectivity. In the midst of building airports, railroads, and highways we forgot the importance of walking, of having our human senses activated by our environment. Consequently, our 20th century cities have been rather cruel to human sensibilities. We seek a more humane city, one that allows for the complexities of diverse lifestyles while offering serene and quiet places that feed the soul.”

To get to this vision will require a significant amount of development, over the next decade and beyond. Says Culak, “This is on the same order as building DFW Airport was over 50 years ago. Any resistance we have to it is just like it was then.” He continues, “People want things instantly. They are still asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Unless you go on vacation to Indianapolis, Pittsburgh or Vancouver, you don’t necessarily know what other cities are doing. For Dallas, this is it. It’s a city built on a prairie next to a river. The Trinity River is the only natural resource we have. You’ve got to use what you have.”

Dallasites are in for a surprise when they discover that what we do have is a river made for kayaking. The standing wave, a practice whitewater feature, will open this spring, the horse park will open its first barns this coming year, and the first of two Calatrava bridges will open in October 2011.

Such events represent a great thrust forward for a project that is still a mystery to many in this community. “There have been a lot of naysayers,” says Gail, “but we think we’ll have the last laugh.”

Photo of Trinity River near Dallas by gurdonark — Robert Nunnally

Anna Clark is the author of Green, American Style and the president of EarthPeople. She lives in one of Dallas’ first residences to earn a Platinum-LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

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Not the largest

The largest urban park is North Mountain Reserve in Phoenix. That is only if you restrict the list to city-administered parks. If you permit state, county and QUANGOs to count, there are other larger urban parks, like Tilden, GGNRA, Chugash and Bayou Savauge. But then I believe that Texas has always claimed to be the biggest state as Alaska doesn't really count.

(Claiming to have the largest city park is an old game.)


I agree that "largest city park" is an old game. I had always thought that the Trinity was something along the lines of the "largest urban hardwood forest park", but to me, largest is not the key. Having a fun park is the key.

Trinity River

This is a good example of a community taking a serious inventory of its assets and building on them to improve its quality of life and differentiate it from competitor cities. Would be interesting to see how other localities are using their natural capital to improve their sense of place and support business and real estate development. Thanks.

audubon center

I'm pleased to see you use my Creative Commons picture of the Trinity River near the Audubon Center in this piece. I love to see the Trinity and the urban hardwood forest get the appreciation they deserve. Places are distinctive because what they have are, well, distinct.