Dallas: A City in Transition


I was in Dallas this recently for the New Cities Summit, so it’s a good time to post an update on the city.

I don’t think many of us realize the scale to which Sunbelt mega-boomtowns like Dallas have grown. The Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area is now the fourth largest in the United States with 6.8 million people, and it continues to pile on people and jobs at a fiendish clip.

Many urbanists are not fans of DFW, and it’s easy to understand why. But I think it’s unfair to judge the quality of a city without considering where it is at in its lifecycle. Dallas has been around since the 1800s, but the metroplex is only just now starting to come into its own as a region. It is still in the hypergrowth and wealth building stage, similar to where a place like Chicago was back in the late 19th century. Unsurprisingly, filthy, crass, money-grubbing, unsophisticated Chicago did not appeal to the sophisticates of its day either. But once Chicago got rich, it decided to get classy. Its business booster class endowed first rate cultural institutions like the Art Institute, and tremendous efforts were made to upgrade the quality of the city and deal with the congestion, pollution, substandard housing, and fallout from rapid growth, which threatened to choke off the city’s future success. At some point in its journey, Chicago reached an inflection point where it transitioned to a more mature state. One can perhaps see the 1909 Burnham Plan as the best symbol of this. In addition to addressing practical concerns like street congestion, the Burnham Plan also sought to create a city that could hold its own among the world’s elite. And you’d have to argue the city largely succeeded in that vision.

The DFW area is now at that transition point. They realize that as a city they need to be about more than just growth and money making. They need to have quality and they need to address issues in the system. Much like Burnham Plan era Chicago, this perhaps makes DFW a potentially very exciting place to be. It’s not everyday when you can be part of building a new aspirational future for a city that’s already been a successful boomtown. The locals I talked to were pretty pumped about their city and where it’s going.

How true this is I don’t know, but some people have attributed a change in mindset to the loss in the competition to land Boeing’s headquarters. Boeing ended up choosing Chicago over Dallas. In part this was because Chicago bought the business with lavish subsidies that far outclassed what Dallas put on the table. But it was also because Boeing saw Chicago as a more congenial environment for global company C-suite and other top executives to be, both from a lifestyle perspective and that of access to other globally elite firms and workers available in Chicago.

Meanwhile, the cracks in the DFW growth model were becoming apparent, especially in the core city of Dallas. Ten years ago the Dallas Morning News ran a series called “Dallas at a Tipping Point: A Roadmap For Renewal.” This series was underpinned by a report prepared by the consulting firm Booz Allen. This report is well worth reading by almost anyone today as it is a rare example of a city that was able to get insight and recommendations from the type of tier one strategy firm used by major corporations. Booz Allen was direct in their findings, though perhaps with a bit of hyperbole in the Detroit comparison:

Dallas stands at the verge of entering a cycle of decline…On its current path, Dallas will, in the next 20 years, go the way of declining cities like Detroit – a hollow core abandoned by the middle class and surrounded by suburbs that outperform the city but inevitably are dragged down by it.


If the City of Dallas were a corporate client, we would note that it has fallen significantly behind its competitors. We would warn that its product offering is becoming less and less compelling to its core group of target customers…We would further caution the management that they are in an especially dangerous position because overall growth in the market…is masking the depth of its underlying problems. We would explain that in our experience, companies in fast growing markets are often those most at risk because they frequently do not realize they are falling behind until the situation is irreversible.

Put into the language of business, we would note that Dallas is under-investing in its core product, has not embraced best practices throughout its management or operations, and is fast becoming burdened by long term liabilities that could bankrupt the company if the market takes a downturn.

The city responded in a number of ways, some of which were similar to Chicago at its inflection point. Many of these involve various urbanist “best practices” or conventional wisdom type trends.

By far the most important of these was adopting modern statistically driven policing approaches. As crime plummeted in places like New York during the 1990s, Dallas did not see a decline of its own. But with the expansion of police headcount and adoption of new strategies by new police chief David Kunkle in 2004 – and no doubt some help from national trends – crime fell steeply during the 2000s. The Dallas Morning News says that the city’s violent and property crime rates fell by a greater percentage than any other city with over one million residents over the last decade. In 2013, Dallas had its overall lowest crime rate in 47 years.

This is critical because nothing else matters without safe streets. I’ve had many a jousting match with other urbanists on discussion boards about where crime falls on the list of priorities. In my view it’s clearly #1 – even more so than education. It’s simply a prerequisite to almost any other systemic good happening in your cities. Students can’t learn effectively if they live and attend school in dangerous environments, for example. NYU economist Paul Romer made this point forcefully in his New Cities keynote, saying that fighting crime is the most important function of government and that if you don’t deliver on crime control your city will go into decline. Fortunately, Dallas seems to have gotten the message.

But there’s been attention to physical infrastructure as well. The area has built America’s largest light rail system (which was in the works since the early 1980s).

Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) light rail train. Source: Wikipedia

Both the city and region remain fundamentally auto-centric, however, and this is unlikely to change.

There’s been a significant investment in quality green spaces. A major initiative called theTrinity River Project is designed to reclaim the Trinity River corridor through the city as a recreational amenity. This is underway but proceeding slowing. Among the aspects of the project is a series of three planned signature bridges designed by Santiago Calatrava. The only one completed is the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.

The Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in Downtown Dallas. Designed by Santiago Calatrava. Source: Wikipedia

The single bridge tower is quite an imposing presence on the skyline. However, the size of the bridge creates an awkward contrast with the glorified creek that is the Trinity River. It looks to me like they significantly over-engineered what should have been a fairly straightforward flood plain to span just so they could create a major structure.

Another green space project – and the best thing I saw in my trip to Dallas – is Klyde Warren Park, which is built on a freeway cap. About half the cost came from $50 million donations. I’ll be going into more detail on this in my next installment, but here’s a teaser photo:

Klyde Warren Park. Source: Wikipedia

The Calatrava bridge shows that Dallas has embraced the starchitect trend. This was also on display in the creation of the Dallas Arts District. Complementing the Dallas Museum of Art are a billion dollars worth of starchitect designed facilities including Renzo Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center, IM Pei’s symphony center, Norman Foster’s Winspear Opera House, and OMA’s Wyly Theatre.

Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. Designed by OMA’s Joshua Prince-Ramus (partner in charge) and Rem Koolhaas

This arts district – which naturally Dallas boasts is the world’s largest – along with the other major investments that were funded with significant private contributions show a major advantage Texas metros like DFW and Houston have: philanthropy. These are new money towns on their way up and local billionaires are willing to open their wallets bigtime in an attempt to realize world class ambitions, exactly the way Chicago’s did all those decades back.

By contrast many northern tier cities are dependent on legacy philanthropy, such as foundations set up in an era when they were industrial power houses. This is a dwindling inheritance. What’s more, what wealthy residents they do have are as likely to be taking money out of their cities through cash for cronies projects than they are to be putting it in. Thus they can be a negative not positive influence.

This shows the importance of wealth building in cities. Commercial endeavors can appear crass or greedy at times, and deservedly so. But without wealth, you can’t afford to do anything. There’s a reason Dallas could build America’s largest light rail system – it had the money to do so. Similarly with this performing arts district. To be a city of ambition requires that a place also be an engine of wealth generation.

I’m sure that Dallas’ moneyed elite are well taken care of locally and exert outsized influence on decision making. I don’t want to make them out to be puristic altruists. But they’ve shown they are willing to open their wallets in a serious way, something that’s not true everywhere.

This is a flavor of what Dallas has been up to. It’s too early to say whether the city will make the same transition Chicago did. Its greatest challenge also awaits some time in the future. When DFW’s hypergrowth phase ends and the city must, like New York and Chicago before it, reinvent itself for a new age, that’s when we will find out if DFW has what it takes to join the world’s elite, or whether it will fade like a flower as Detroit and so many other places did.

Toyota did just announce it’s moving 3,500 jobs to north suburban Plano. But corporations have long seen Dallas a place for large white collar operations. Boeing was what I call an “executive headquarters” – a fairly small operation consisting of only the most senior people. I haven’t seen Dallas win any of these as of yet.

The Dallas Morning News takes a somewhat mixed view on the city itself. They just did a special section called “Future Dallas: Making Strides, Facing Challenges,” the title of which sums it up. Dallas has put a lot of pieces on the board and made major progress on areas like crime, but it’s failed to make a dent in others, such as Booz Allen’s call to make the city more attractive to middle class families. Poverty is actually up since then, and the city is increasingly unequal in its income distribution. Dallas is not unique in that, but that’s cold comfort.

Despite gigantic regional growth, the city’s population has been nearly flat. Despite the vaunted Texas and DFW jobs engine, Dallas County has lost about 100,000 jobs since 2000. The core is clearly continuing in relative decline, and the Dallas County job losses are particularly troubling. I’m no believer in this idea that everybody is going to abandon the suburbs and head back to the city. But as former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut put it, you can’t be a suburb of nowhere. If the core loses economic vitality, the entire DFW regional will take a hit to its growth.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.

Dallas photo by Bigstock.