• This aerial rendering imagines how the Dallas-Fort Worth area could develop density around its waterways. Image by Vincent Hunter, AIA

Aesop’s fable of the city mouse and the country mouse compares the peacefulness of living in nature with the benefits and challenges of living in the city. While each of the mice in the story eventually returns to the world he knows, today’s human condition appears to be much more biased in its selection. As of 2010, more people worldwide live in cities than in rural areas. Considering that the gross domestic product of megacities can be larger than the GDP of entire countries, national leaders understand that megacities and metropolitan regions will disproportionately deliver the future. While the mice may have agreed to differ, the human condition is clear about the choice: Cities are it.

Nevertheless, in the last 100 years, colossal urban geographies have developed that have never before existed in human history. Dallas-Fort Worth is a textbook demonstration of a suburban metropolis dotted by nodes. What kind of planning strategy could incrementally restructure a population of some seven million people as a resilient, coherent, and sustainable whole — before an economic, energy-related, or environmental calamity forces change that is more convulsive?

The DFW Branch Waters Network is a planning concept that attempts to use the entire network of waterways in Dallas-Fort Worth as a natural path along which to guide urbanism. Segments of the network are already complete. As the only part of the 1911 Dallas Plan by George Kessler that was fully realized, Turtle Creek in the Dallas Park Cities is a 100-year-old demonstration that nature can be a catalyst for achieving greater density and fostering culture. White Rock Lake in East Dallas is another historical example, as are such contemporary completed projects as Vitruvian Park on Farmers Branch Creek in Addison, north of Dallas; the Dallas Urban Reserve; and pieces and parks along the Trinity River in Fort Worth.

Several proposals for rail-to-trail conversions, the construction of hike-and-bike trails, and mega-visions — such as the standalone Dallas Trinity River Project — are in the works. However, no overarching vision yet exists to encourage viewing all of these separate projects as stepping stones toward a ribbonlike landscape urbanism that would naturally form along the shaded corridors and water flows. The DFW Branch Waters Network is just such a vision. It envisions all the separate projects and hundreds of miles of untouched and unimproved segments of the water branches as part of one continuous network — nature, shot through with an urbanism that would follow along and define its edges.

If the existing process of ad hoc improvements along the waterways continues, and the Branch Waters Network is eventually realized, the thin and fibrous urbanism that would accumulate would produce a compelling living environment offering nature and the forest on one side of a building or urban block and the civility of streets and avenues on the other.

Clear lines between city and nature, inside and outside — though they were clear in the pre-modern era of the city mouse and the country mouse — are not to be found in megacities like DFW. Perhaps the Branch Waters Network provides an approach that could invite both “mice” and humans to be at home in the same place.

Connectivity and Urbanism Through Nature

When architects set about planning an urban design, building alignments typically coordinate exterior spaces with interior spaces. In the absence of an urban fabric of pre-modern buildings skillfully positioned to display interesting figure-ground relationships, the Branch Waters Network steps in to play that role, allowing the buildings to cohere as idiosyncratic and pluralized accretions.

Settling along the edge of any water branch, new building projects would aggregate, little by little, establishing connections with the buildings and context on either side of them and/or parallel to the water branch. They also would be expected to make connections, either spatial or through surfaces and paths, to the floodplain-protected corridors of a water branch.

By shifting the role of cohesion from pattern books to the ribbons of nature, architecture is free to explore and form, distinctively. In lieu of regulations, a simple set of guidelines may be all that’s needed to protect the environmental integrity of the waterway edges and steer new urban projects toward making connections along the edge. In essence, the Branch Waters Network replaces conventional and historical notions of urban design with a process that is like a game. This game establishes a set of simple rules, and all are welcome to play. And in the case of the Branch Waters Network, the game is nature and building connections to it.

Social Equity Through the Branch Waters Network

According to documentary evidence, new parks enhance the cultural and economic value of their immediate geography — at a return on investment that some experts estimate to be 7 to 1. However, new parks can also stir up political tensions, when other districts in municipalities feel short-changed and disenfranchised at the lack of equivalent improvement for them.

The Branch Waters Network eliminates this political inequity and avoids the roadblocks that one-off parks can create. The water branches traverse the entire DFW metropolis and thread through most all neighborhoods — regardless of their level of affluence.

Any hope of facilitating social integration via a system of water branches requires assigning a single name to the entire network. This way, improvements at one of the branches would confer the same benefits on the immediate neighborhood as on any other neighborhood through which the water threads: Suddenly, by name and dedication, an otherwise-anonymous ravine is significant to a neighborhood.

The social conscience of the concept is key. In addition to producing revolutionary architectural works, the Modernist Movement of the early 20th century profoundly embodied a mission to disseminate art and architecture among social classes other than elites, the religious, and the crowned heads of Europe. The Branch Waters Network recovers the social potential of the Modern Movement through landscape and demonstrates that design can still be culturally productive and cumulative.

Low Density as an Accepted Condition That Is Repurposed

Urban experts aver that density, a population ratio determined by the number of people living within a measurable unit (typically an acre), is a key concept in designing for a sustainable future: In short, density is it. An analysis of the current density of DFW reveals that 6,450,000 people are living on 5,950,000 acres of incorporated land, a ratio of 1.1 persons per acre. By comparison, New York City and Paris exceed 100 residents per acre and, when the daily commuter population is added, this ratio can climb as high as 500 people per acre. On the other hand, Portland, Oregon, at 5.5 persons per acre, and Boulder, Colorado, at 6.3 persons per acre, indicate that lower-density urbanism can be effective, as well. If DFW were to embark, as a city, on a campaign to “densify” to a level comparable with that of, say, Portland, it would take more than the population of Canada — 5.5 X 6 million acres, approximately, or 33 million people — to reach this goal. Conventional notions of stuffing DFW with people may be statistically impossible to achieve.

The Branch Waters Network concurs with expert notions that “density offers hope.” The urbanism that would collect along the Branch Waters Network, and the nature and wildlife that would be attracted to the water branch corridors, might also offer an alternative to relying on the stupefying arithmetic that results from trying to consider a megalopolis like DFW as one collective geography.

Suburbia’s initial appeal had to do with escaping density to live some version of the “good life.” Nature, or at least greenery, played a role in suburbia’s appeal; however, cultivated English-style landscapes and fine lawns were not necessary features of market-driven housing tracts; instead, these formerly wild areas continued to be home to such species as coyotes and javelinas — to name two — and these creatures began making news. An Internet search on the phrase “bobcat city” reveals that Bobcat City is, indeed, Dallas — and that for several years the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been trapping, banding, and installing radio collars on urban wildcats to study their activities.

Contrary to the historical notion that civilization and high culture are bounded by city limits, and that nature must be visited in the surrounding countryside, the suburban metropolis is morphing into an entirely new kind of constructed phenomenon, where nature and city coexist in a relationship that is more superimposed than segregated.

Millions of acres of cultivated suburban landscaping are increasingly seen to be impractical, unsustainable. Letting the landscape rematerialize as habitat suddenly seems fascinating. As an added bonus, the people that dwell in such an integrated environment might come to see themselves as inseparably part of their surroundings, rather than as dominating nature. Going forward, the importance of both city and “country” become entwined in the minds of the city-dwellers.

Re-Wilding the Dallas Trinity River Project

The Branch Waters Network could help bring about the as-yet-unrealized Dallas Trinity River Park. For several decades, numerous celebrity designers and noteworthy firms have proposed different concepts for a 7.5-mile-long, half-mile-wide open area that is the Trinity floodway conveyance through downtown Dallas. While almost any landscape type or approach could be seen as an appropriate segment of the Branch Waters Network, re-wilding the floodway acreage as a blackland prairie and wetland reserve would be beautiful as well as impervious to seasonal flooding; the ecology is tuned to regenerate naturally after a deluge. It would also ensure that the decades of toxins and non-biodegradable debris that have accumulated in the layers of silt between the levees would not be excavated and released into the river through an invasive grading project.

Re-wilding the Trinity might simply be a matter of transitioning the existing mélange of engineered grasses, fish trap ponds, and meadows into a regenerative ecology of prairie grasses, pothole wetland plants, and food sources that would attract migratory wildfowl and pollinators. The intimate proximity of two highly contrasting environments — downtown Dallas and a wild reserve — offers two juxtaposed environmental extremes heretofore unseen in any other world city.

Only Connect

The DFW Branch Waters Network depends on a cultural affinity for nature — and, yet, can seven million acres of development and the Dallas-Fort Worth society they encompass be plausibly restructured at such a large scale? Where planning and regulations fall short, I would argue that people’s affinity for natural surroundings will step in. Whether nature is a pristine landscape, a lakefront, or the cultivated fairways of a golf course, proximity to it almost unilaterally adds value to real estate and enhances the quality of life. Seizing upon this impulse may be all that’s needed to build cohesion. And architecture, far from feeling threatened at this shift away from canonical models, would be released from a great many obligations — set free, with few guidelines, to experiment in the new form.

As the DFW Branch Waters Network continues to expand through more ad hoc projects, the culture of architecture could aid the process, simply by advancing works imbued with an attitude, impulse, and/or disposition to connect. In the novel “Howards End,” author E. M. Forster provides a compelling dictum that is useful to architects: “Only connect. Live in fragments no longer.”

The Branch Waters concept does not purport to be the only game in town. More realistically, what could eventually unfold over the course of a century of consistent accumulation is an interlaced and braided urbanism of ribbons: One system would geomorphically follow the water branches, while the spider-web-like highways and thoroughfares of DFW would interlace and overlay the new urbanism.

Columbia University Professor Kenneth Frampton handily summed up the possibilities and perils of failing to restructure the suburban megacity during a lecture at UT Arlington in March 2013. He recited a 1980s illicit phrase that had appeared anonymously on a rendering of a 1950s utopian city on display at the New York Museum of Modern Art:

There are no cities anymore.
We are incapable of making cities anymore.
The machine is incapable of making cities anymore.
We’ll have to get used to
living in the jungle.

Kevin Sloan, ASLA, Hon. AIA, is the founder of Kevin Sloan Studio in Dallas and a professor of practice at the UT-Arlington College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs.

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