From Streams, to Creeks, to a River

As a boy growing up in Garland in the sixties and seventies, I spent a lot of my free time roaming the streams and small creeks in my neighborhood. I was fortunate to have easy access to these urban streams. It gave me an opportunity to have a sense of discovery, observe and learn from nature. Streams and creeks were like visits to wonderland for myself and many other kids, but from an adult’s perspective they seemed to me that they were ignored, overlooked and undervalued, noticed only during floods and often avoided due to their isolation. As the years have passed, I’ve come to realize that an appreciation for nature is really only limited to one’s own perception. If given the opportunity, your eyes open up and you begin to understand the beauty and process involved. Those of us involved in the design of places must create environments that provide these opportunities, or that disconnection between urban and natural systems will only widen with each new generation.

Duck Creek in Garland, Texas

Duck Creek in Garland, Texas

I have learned through project experience just how disconnected cities can be from their natural environment. Cities with a mutual respect between their environment and the functionality of the built environment tend to last for centuries, but in places where this relationship is not embraced, the disconnect tends to compound itself over generations. Unfortunately, many communities have embraced a development process where the built environment negatively impacts the unbuilt environment, when natural systems have been designed and engineered as “utilitarian corridors” or even removed completely in favor of underground storm sewer systems. The message to the general public seems to be that these corridors are ‘off limits’, access is discouraged and consequential environmental impacts are downplayed in favor of growth and economic development. Directing untreated storm water runoff specifically from street sewer systems straight to our urban streams has become a socially acceptable way of civic dumping, not only for high storm water volumes, but as a way for trash and runoff pollutants to be conveyed as well.  This type of development has significant impacts on water quality and ecosystems, but it also has fiscal implications as well. For lack of a better word, continuing to develop this way is not sustainable.

It is important to understand the definition of “green infrastructure” when discussing how to find a balance that is both environmentally and fiscally sustainable. A green infrastructure based philosophy presumes that natural systems are just as critical to life and to our wellbeing as any other type of infrastructure is. Once you understand that there is a relationship between grey infrastructure and green infrastructure, you begin to appreciate how a balance of both systems is critical to the long-term fiscal and environmental health of our neighborhoods, communities and regions.

I have been thinking about this challenge since childhood. It motivated me to pursue a career in landscape architecture and urban design, and several years ago, I had the opportunity with my former firm to pursue a contract to work on the design guidelines for the Trinity River Corridor in Dallas. I have always believed the Trinity River Corridor traversing the DFW region is by far the best opportunity to define green infrastructure in the United States, if fully realized. It is located at the center of all urban systems, and if seen through this new perspective, it would be of considerable significance locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

When the project was announced, I knew who I wanted to team with and what strategy I wanted our team to pursue.  I believed strongly that the project needed to be focused on viewing the river from the inside out – working between the levees first, and then out from there. I said from day one, “if we can’t sell the water we can’t sell the project”, because we would need to reverse generational associations. Even more challenging, residents are so removed from the river that they had not a poor relationship, but no relationship at all with the river.  No one alive today remembers that the original Trinity River used to flow with clear water over white rock shoals. That was how it was discovered.  So no matter what how great the design was, there was still the need to address the larger disconnect between the city and its’ river.  I came to realize that the Trinity River was not a problem at all. The real challenge was the denial and abandonment surrounding the river. It didn’t help that urban systems were allowed to negatively impact the river at will, and that there were no plans for a broader mitigation strategy. Over time, it had become convenient to keep it in a constant state of isolation, subject to further impacts of upstream development and only revered when it flooded for post card photos. These ideas resonated with city leaders, staff and stakeholders and our team ultimately won the project.

Conceptual Rendering of Eco Machines at Natural Lake for Trinity River Corridor in Dallas, Texas

Conceptual Rendering of Eco Machines at Natural Lake for Trinity River Corridor in Dallas, Texas

When the project kicked off, I emphasized that a symbiotic relationship needed to be established. We needed to create a culture where people would be always aware of the river, have a sense of ownership and environmental stewardship, and develop an association that extended miles away from the river itself. I saw a need to develop an identity and a way-finding system to start developing the access. Additionally, we pushed to repurpose the streets surrounding the corridor as complete and green streets that were more in line with the functionality of the future park and shifting the land use framework from the existing industrial to mixed use/residential. Replacing urban roadways with complete and green street features would make them more suitable to the desired land use and development, but also reinforce the relationship to the river.  Rain harvesting, in particular would add “demonstrative” value – again establishing a precedent and a relationship (in the public realm) of promoting environmental stewardship.

Rendering of Trinity Lakes Design (illustration prepared by Wallace, Roberts and Todd)

Rendering of Trinity Lakes Design (illustration prepared by Wallace, Roberts and Todd)

The vision and guidelines our team created has been implemented on a variety of projects, several of which I have been involved with as the landscape and urban design lead. Riverfront Blvd. was designed as an arterial that introduced bio-swales into the medians and offered terraced rain gardens and opportunities to connect to the river. With the Beckley/Commerce intersection, a major access point to the Trinity, our team was able to work with the Oak Cliff community to develop a pilot project for the first combined complete and green street in Dallas, featuring rain gardens, safe pedestrian crosswalks, buffered bike lanes and gateway access features for the Trinity. Finally, the repurposing of Continental Bridge, which will open in June, is a transformation of an existing bridge utility into a pedestrian, cyclist and event orientated amenity. Many more projects are in the planning, design or construction phase as part of the overarching Trinity Corridor Project.

All of these are examples of how traditional infrastructure projects were transformed with the underlying concepts of increasing access to, and appreciation for the Trinity River. Over time, as more projects in the area are designed to balance the natural perspective with the urban systems, water quality will improve, land use will change, and the experience surrounding the Trinity River will evolve. Projects and approaches like this are still the exception, but there are opportunities all around us that are being missed by traditional planners and engineers. I joined VERDUNITY last year because they are a team of engineers and planners who share this same vision. Together, we are helping communities throughout Texas identify and implement places and projects that balance urban and natural systems, and improve quality of life and fiscal productivity in the process. We call it the VERDUNITY Model. In future posts, we’ll be sharing ideas and examples where and how we’re doing it. 

~ Don