On June 17, 1972, on a long strip of empty land at the north end of downtown Dallas, between one- and two-hundred thousand young people gathered for an eight-hour-long Christian music festival, the culmination of a days-long event that came to be known as Explo ’72, or the “Christian Woodstock.” The land, left derelict by a drawn-out right-of-way acquisition process, was eventually excavated to create the 12-lane Woodall Rodgers Freeway. But, for that moment, the glacial advance of state bureaucracy allowed an organic celebration of community to arise, and for public space to be claimed, not bestowed.
Decades later, the construction of Klyde Warren Park over the freeway has resurrected that public space, knit together the pedestrian experience of Downtown and Uptown, and provided a gathering place for these neighborhoods and the city as a whole. The integrated design and range of amenities — from the dog park to the great lawn, from food trucks to an outdoor reading room — provide something for everyone.
At least, this is what most of what’s written about it would lead you to believe.
Yes, the park, designed by The Office of James Burnett and completed in 2012, gets many things right. It is stuffed full of things to do, an antidote to the expansive monotony of largely inactive modernist plazas (such as Dallas’ City Hall Plaza, which could get its own makeover). Its design is human-scaled and its details sensuously rich: Crunching gravel pathways give way to smooth stone in patchwork shades of gray, and graceful parabolic arches are rhythmically interspersed with red oak trees and bright orange and green cafe tables and chairs. Its long, narrow strips of program encourage interaction among people while providing intimate spaces to “claim” and in which to feel comfortable.
But Texas’ landmarks of contemporary urban design — including Klyde Warren Park — should be held to a higher standard. In a state with a history of intersecting cultures and automobile-oriented city-building, and in an age of digitalized life, physical public spaces represent a unique opportunity: to gather people of different backgrounds, encouraging tolerance, understanding, civic pride, and engagement; to speak of the cultural heritage and aspirations of a city and region; and to provide an authentic, rooted sense of place.
This is an opportunity, and a democratic necessity, against which Texas’ contemporary public spaces should be judged, beyond their successes at simply attracting droves of people. And there are some — like Houston’s Discovery Green, completed in 2008 and designed by Hargreaves Associates, with architecture by Page — that do rise to the occasion more successfully than others.
If a public space is advertised as a gathering place for a whole city, the data should back up that claim. A recent research project conducted by this writer at The University of Texas at Austin gathered sample data of visitor demographics at four of Texas’ most-lauded recent public spaces, including Klyde Warren Park and Discovery Green. Visual counts of visitors were taken at various locations in each park, broadly categorized by race/ethnicity and age. These data (with sample sizes of 584 at Klyde Warren and 509 at Discovery Green) were then compared with census data for the county in which each is located (Dallas and Harris counties, respectively).
The results show that Discovery Green attracts a much more diverse group of visitors than does Klyde Warren, despite the similar racial and ethnic diversity of each county. In particular, the observed sample proportion of Latino visitors to Discovery Green (44 percent) is more than twice that at Klyde Warren (19 percent). Both Dallas and Harris counties’ census proportions for Latino residents are around 40 percent. Conversely, the observed sample proportion of white visitors to Klyde Warren (50 percent) is about 1.5 times that of Discovery Green’s 34 percent, a much closer figure to the 31 percent of both counties’ populations estimated to be white.
What’s going on?
I argue there’s something more than just pure coincidence at work here. For Discovery Green to achieve better success than Klyde Warren Park at attracting a more diverse cross-section of visitors — and, in doing so, to create a more democratic public space, a real gathering place for the whole metropolis, engendering more cross-cultural understanding and empathy — specific strategies have been employed.
Which Side’s Story?
Starting on the largest scale, the location of public spaces can be carefully chosen to ensure that certain populations are not disproportionately excluded by virtue of more difficult access. Because minority and lower-income citizens often rely more heavily on public transportation, proximity to bus and rail lines is critical. But, more than merely being served by transit, a venue’s placement can acknowledge that the space is dedicated to generally underserved communities. Stating that “Downtown is for everyone” does not do the trick.
Discovery Green is located on the eastern edge of Houston’s downtown, a block away from the first downtown stop on the Green and Purple light-rail lines, which connect to the minority communities on the east side of Houston. Klyde Warren Park is also located on the edge of its city’s downtown, but it instead bridges the culturally elite Arts District and the chic Uptown neighborhood. Its placement on the north makes it appear to be the domain of the wealthy white communities of North Dallas, and this translates into a less diverse, whiter visitor population.
Dallas’ Downtown Parks Plan calls for new parks throughout the urban core, with several located near the lower-income and minority neighborhoods to the south and east. The high pedestrian volume in Uptown and the visitors drawn to the Arts District also contribute to the active success of Klyde Warren. But the creation of the first new landmark public space in that location sends a different message about the priorities of the city than does Discovery Green.
Discovery Green and Klyde Warren Park are both effective at presenting a legible story through the division of space: a story of different component parts interacting in a harmonious way. Like many contemporary public spaces, Discovery Green and Klyde Warren feature a clear network of texturally distinguished paths that allow ease of circulation, enclose program cells, and direct visitors from entrances to important nodes. I argue diverse visitors can project themselves onto this experienced spatial harmony, and so feel more comfortable being around people who are different from them.
Paths are usually stone or wood, while program cells include plantings, grass, rubber, gravel, or water features. Discovery Green has an advantage, in that its larger size (12 acres vs. Klyde Warren’s 5) allows for more and larger spaces — though not too large, and always contained within the clear structure of program cells — that various types of people can claim and make their own.
A certain amount of balanced asymmetry — a trend in contemporary urban design — can also create a sense of informality and comfort crucial to attracting diverse visitors. When more intense programming — playgrounds, food, water features — is concentrated in a section of the space, as in Discovery Green’s northwest corner, a lively hub of activity is created, and the remaining areas of the space are then opened up for nonprescribed uses: picnicking, portrait-taking, ball-playing, and so on. The tension between the two engenders interest and fluidity; it also allows various demographic groups (for example, young families as well as elderly couples) to claim areas of the park with enough room to avoid feeling encroached upon.
Finally, thoughtful design can ensure that outside nuisances do not intrude. The perimeter of trees surrounding Discovery Green and most of Klyde Warren do this well, creating a human-scaled respite from surrounding automobile-oriented urbanism. On the other hand, at Klyde Warren’s southwest and northeast ends, the noise and visual banality of the highway and bordering streets are overwhelming. And the park’s design in these locations does not create enough of a separation to allow visitors to feel quite comfortable. This gives rise to what urban activist Jane Jacobs called unattractive “border vacuums.” Especially in Klyde Warren, where space is at a premium, this is a missed opportunity to allow visitors maximum space in which to feel comfortable among their diverse fellow citizens.
Ennobling or Conforming?
Comfort extends to the general aesthetic of a space as engendered by its design characteristics: Is the space attempting to impose a certain class identity on visitors? At Klyde Warren Park, I find that this is the case. The design of Klyde Warren is upscale with refined details — the shimmering metal, all-glass curtain walls; the Parisian-style tables and chairs. It could be argued that these are an expression of Frederick Law Olmsted’s theory that public spaces can ennoble all classes of people by giving them open access to a beautiful place. But this idea of ennobling design assumes that there is a particular cultural mold synonymous with “nobility” — a mold that, in the U.S., has been white Anglo-American since the country’s inception. As a result, Klyde Warren’s glitz is an articulation of wealthy white culture that is pleasurable for some who enjoy a certain level of financial comfort, and yet it creates a psychological barrier to entry for those who do not. The park’s general aura of contemporary European-inspired urban design is one of delicacy and effervescence: As one Dallas resident remarked, it can feel like a “fake park” — not a real place for different types of real people, but a fantasy place for the well-off.
Discovery Green is much more successful in creating a warm, down-to-earth, democratic atmosphere. Its materials are plain and tactile: primarily unpolished wood, stone, and glass. It’s a kind of philosophical descendant of the modernist ideals of pragmatic design for all, minus the placelessness and lack of human scale that accompany many of the movement’s built works. Here, the designs of features — from sidewalks to benches to buildings — are basic and solid, not flamboyant. The outdoor furniture is less overtly elegant than that at Klyde Warren Park, eschewing colorful Parisian cafe tables and chairs in favor of simpler, black metal ones. These choices reflect a welcoming, timeless quality. Even the high-end restaurant does not attempt to outshine the other features of the park: Its simple architecture is fully harmonious with the other buildings. The emphasis on equity here is palpable.
Choices regarding art on display can also play a significant role in representing the diversity of cultures in the city and region, rather than showcasing one particular culture. Discovery Green is most successful in this, featuring a range of sculptures of varied style and cultural meaning. When such diverse artistic representations are absent — as in Klyde Warren Park, which lacks any prominent public art — many perspectives are excluded from view, and the rich and complex tapestry of Texas history is denied a full expression.
Landscape can also foster a sense of equitable, unique place. Klyde Warren Park features predominately native plants, including prairie grasses and Texas sage, but these do not feel like fully integrated elements of the overall design. In contrast, Discovery Green creates a range of developed micro-ecologies: The amphibious lake area, for instance, shaded by overhanging Montezuma cypress trees and framed by simple boardwalks, feels as though it belongs to the coastal ecology of southeast Texas; and the grove of loblolly pines evokes nearby East Texas. The humble, rooted, diverse landscape, art, and architectural details synthesize at Discovery Green to create a space that pays homage to the place and its past while welcoming many democratically forged futures.
Follow the Money
Both Discovery Green and Klyde Warren Park effectively inject commercial activity to bring life to the space, a touchstone of contemporary public space design: Each has both indoor and outdoor dining space and opportunities to purchase drinks and snacks. They differ, however, in the degree to which these options are of sufficiently varied price points (and varied in their branding’s target audiences). This, I argue, is key to attracting visitors at various socioeconomic levels. Klyde Warren Park’s most important design focal point is the high-end restaurant, Savor, a gesture that emphasizes the park’s deference to the well-off. Klyde Warren also includes a row of food trucks and a burger kiosk, but their sleek branding and higher prices appear mostly aimed at middle-class, foodie visitors.
Discovery Green has fewer food options, but they are of a wider variety. The Grove Restaurant is high-end and plays host to formal events, while the Lake House is a much more modest cafe, with inexpensive food and unstuffy branding. The Lake House is significantly more permeable in its design, with an outdoor terrace at grade with the adjacent lawn and promenade and a deck overlooking Kinder Lake to the north. The Grove, on the other hand, is vertically removed and surrounded by trees, giving it a treehouse quality. In contrast to Savor restaurant at Klyde Warren, the Grove is not given design prominence in the park, and it does not encroach on the Lake House’s expansive turf.
Discovery Green also allows snow cone and ice cream trucks to park in and pull up around it. Neither is remotely high-end. A Latino ice cream man said that the presence of “good people, family people” and a better sense of security had kept him doing business there for more than a year. In other interviews, visitors to Discovery Green indicated that the presence of food trucks would make those spaces more attractive to them, however, and they are an easily implemented opportunity to expand the range of food options. Management should ensure that food trucks’ prices and branding are varied: $1.50 slices of pizza and $12 Asian-Mexican fusion bowls should coexist.
Ownership paradigms are another financial matter that can support or hinder democracy in public space. The model of public-private partnership that characterizes both Discovery Green and Klyde Warren Park — and many contemporary urban parks and districts, such as the Central Park Conservancy in New York — benefits from having a focused organization that manages branding, programming, and operations. The two Texas parks are owned by their respective cities but operated by private nonprofit management entities: the Discovery Green Conservancy and the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation.
On the other hand, the capacity for a public space to be democratic diminishes with increasing private control. Both Discovery Green and Klyde Warren Park have posted rules that include certain prohibited activities: bringing glass containers, conducting commercial activity without a permit, or carrying weapons, to name a few. The amount of privatization should be limited, and the range of activities allowed to take place should be maximized, within reason. Otherwise, constriction of use begins to interfere with the ability for a truly public life to play out, with all its concomitant grit and beauty.
Diversity Versus Harmony
Diversity is at the core of Jane Jacobs’ urbanism theory: “We need all kinds of diversity, intricately mingled in mutual support.” The aim of planning, she writes, should be to cultivate “congenial places for this great range of unofficial plans, ideas, and opportunities to flourish.” Diversity yields diversity, in Texas cities just like anywhere else. We should expect our public spaces to include diverse, locally relevant program, texture, use, transportation access, and landscape, so that they can speak to and attract as many kinds of visitors as possible. These must be calibrated, of course: A lack of balance among uses for old and young, rich and poor, and a lack of careful placement — to encourage both
turf-claiming by various groups as well as interaction among them in neutral zones — may render a space less successful.
This also presents us with questions: How much diversity can a place handle? How much continuity do we need? Discovery Green is a good example of a public space in which uses are highly diverse, and the experience of the park does not suffer from that mixture but is, rather, enhanced by it. The number of responses by interviewed visitors at Discovery Green saying diversity was an element attracting them there — as well as the relative ease that this researcher experienced in approaching visitors — are significant factors.
This research, then, points to a need to foster as much diversity as possible, within a legible framework. Discovery Green is, again, a paradigm, in terms of both harmonious spatial structure and design character. The Carpenter Plaza redesign in Dallas has an opportunity to overcome some of the oversights of Klyde Warren Park in this sphere, but only if a concerted effort is made to do so. The strength of Texas’ state identity was born not out of a single culture or economy but out of the profusion of overlapping cultures and economies butting heads at this peculiar junction in the world. To avoid sacrificing that spirit and history, and to ensure a thriving democratic future, public spaces and their designers must embrace this reality with humility and resolve.
Note: This article has been adapted from the author’s urban studies and Plan II Honors undergraduate thesis, “Gathering Texas: Evaluating the Socio-Cultural Performance of Urban Public Spaces in the Lone Star State,” completed at The University of Texas at Austin in 2017.
Gabe Colombo is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin.
Well done Gabe. Your style and subsequent writing is a clear reflection of your analytical mind and your artistic soul. I look forward to seeing your architectural imprint on the hearts of Texans and the landscape of the future.
This is great information. As we build more public space in our Texas cities, it is critical that we understand how those spaces function and who their design impacts the end user. Looking forward to seeing more of your work!
I have been to both parks and noticed the difference in feel/vibe without really knowing why. This article lays it all out for me to say Oh, yea! Thanks.