Carol Coletta’s Remarks to Downtown Dallas, Inc.

(Our friend and colleague Carol Coletta delivered the keynote address to the annual meeting of Downtown Dallas, Inc. on March 5. While her remarks are focused on Dallas, we think the themes presented (promoting diverse forms of mobility in cities, building complete neighborhoods, and encouraging placemaking) are of widespread interest. Her is an edited version of her remarks as prepared for delivery – ed.)

I never fully appreciated the Dallas you see from a car. It was only a when a colleague and I walked miles on your streets at all hours of the day and night a couple of years ago that I realized how much I like this downtown.

Klyde Warren Park, the Arts District, the Katy Trail… These places are all nationally noteworthy and a joy to experience. What an exciting place you are building.

And what a smart future you are planning.

A complete and connected city center. That’s the vision of the Dallas 360 Plan.

Your plan makes big bets on three transformative strategies:

  • Advancing urban mobility
  • Building complete neighborhoods
  • Promoting great placemaking

I like the bets you’ve made.

Advancing Urban Mobility

Making it pleasant to get in, out, and through Downtown Dallas is critically important. Every U.S. city seems to face a traffic problem. The sense is traffic is getting worse, not better. And the smart ones have figured out that building more lanes and parking will not solve the problem. That simply induces more demand. Plus, in a downtown area, it destroys the urban fabric that makes non-motorized modes of transportation – and downtown itself — appealing.

Creating a downtown that is the best place in the region for using a full range of transportation options and favoring walking, biking and transit is the smart play – both now and in the future.

I know you have big plans for transit, and I look forward to seeing those plans come to fruition. You’ve already made big gains.

Downtown Dallas is big, even for avid walkers like me, and a convenient assist from transit and cycling will be essential to achieve your vision of a connected city center.

When you consider that adjacent neighborhoods outside the expressway loop are now defined as part of Downtown Dallas, making convenient and pleasant travel options other than cars, especially for people living so close, is imperative.

And good for you for including these adjacent neighborhoods within your boundaries. It not only changes the mental map in important ways, but it also redefines what a downtown can be.

One more word about your vision of advanced mobility….

Some of you may have been at last Fall’s ULI meeting in Los Angeles. I was surprised to learn that even in LA, the city’s largest developers are making big bets that the need for parking will be dramatically reduced. and they are capitalizing on that to build a lot less parking and get a lot more value from the land they own in downtown LA.

Building Complete Neighborhoods

Your second transformative strategy to deliver a complete and connected city center is to build complete neighborhoods.

The days of downtowns being business centers that close at 6 o’clock are finally in the rearview mirror, growing more distant by the day. It’s hard to find a downtown in any city of any significant size that isn’t seeing the growth of its residential market. Even cities that aren’t experiencing overall growth are seeing their downtown population exploding. Increasingly, people want to live close to their daily destinations, and they’re willing to pay more for housing that lets them do that.

It’s clear there is premium for city living. Incomes of people living near Central Business Districts across America have been rising since 1980.

Young adults led the return to the city. College-educated 25-34 year-olds are now 126% more likely than other Americans to live within a 3-mile radius of the CBD. Because they are delaying marriage and children, they are staying longer. (In fact, a lot of parents are finding downtown to be a great place – even a preferred place – to raise children. I’ve raised three downtown.)

And now young adults are being followed downtown by their empty nester parents who no longer need all those rooms and all that yard to take care of.

Your embrace of adjacent neighborhoods as part of downtown Dallas gives your downtown residents a lot more choices about where and how to live downtown.

Along with housing, dining and entertainment options are growing in most downtowns. It’s easy to understand why when you realize that 2016 was the first year on record that out-of-home food consumption exceeded in-home food consumption. In other words, we are eating out more often, and downtown is in a good position to capture more than its fair share of that business.

What’s been most surprising, though, is the turnaround in the fortunes of downtown in its historic role as an employment center. Since the recession of 2008, essentially all the jobs growth in the nation’s largest cities has been in city centers. That is a complete reversal from prior to the recession.

Trends are moving strongly in favor of downtown. I’m glad to see you taking advantage of the moment.

Promoting Great Placemaking

Great placemaking manifests in hundreds of obvious ways. Walking and cycling around downtown this weekend, I’ve seen so many examples of that, especially with the introduction of downtown parks, lighting, and some of the really fine street crossings and signalization.

Yesterday, I was on the Katy Trail when I saw a young man and woman enter the trail. It was clear it was her first time there, and he was excited to show it to her. She stepped onto the trail, looked left and broke into the biggest smile.

I love seeing people respond to places that deliver delight.

But great placemaking is not just what what can be seen. It’s also about the who, the how and the why.

As impressive as Downtown Dallas is today and as smart as your plans are for the future, I want to challenge you to ask yourselves:

  • Who are we building downtown for?
  • And to what end?

You know this: We are living in angry times. Everyone, it seems, has a grievance and every grievance will be aired on Facebook, on Twitter, on cable news.

We are living in a time of great economic dislocation and growing inequality.

We are living in communities with more economic segregation. Almost a third of us live in neighborhoods where either everyone is rich or everyone is poor. No wonder we’ve lost our ability to understand and empathize with others. The number of urban poor people living in neighborhoods where the poverty level is greater than 40% has doubled – doubled! – since 2000.

We are living at a time when trust is in freefall. People don’t trust government, they don’t trust the church, they don’t trust the media, they don’t trust each other.

Only a third of Americans believe “Most people can be trusted.”  Sixty-two percent of us believe, “You can’t be too careful in dealing with people.”

Think about that. You are trying to build a place – a downtown — where people happily encounter a whole lot of other people, most of whom are strangers, at the same time general distrust of people is rising.

One of the reasons for that distrust is that we barely know our neighbors. Only 20% of Americans report spending time regularly with neighbors. And a third of us say we spend no time at all with neighbors.

But we need that loose web of social connections and the trust it enables to combat rising rates of isolation, political polarization, and increasing economic segregation in our cities.

If we want to tackle the big challenges our communities face – resilience, smart growth, equity, poverty, drug addiction – pick an issue! – we have to begin with simple acts of bringing strangers together, not online, not digitally, but in place.

That’s what a great downtown can do. Especially now, we need great downtowns that become the entire city’s neighborhood.

The research is clear:

  • We are becoming more, not less, economically segregated.
  • Economic segregation kills opportunity for upward mobility.
  • Segregation of every kind contributes to a lack of trust.
  • A lack of trust undercuts our ability to build happy, strong and equitable communities.
  • And the best way to build trust is to have places – and lots of them – where people of different economic status, different political views, different ages, different ethnicity will, in the course of their normal day, encounter each other, gain familiarity and then interact in some way.

 Promoting great placemaking means sidewalk cafes and beautiful parks and fun pop-ups and dogs. But don’t stop there! Be intentional about who uses these places and why.

Mix it up. Go high/low. Tolerate the unexpected. With your design, management and programming, invite strangers to mix with one another. Create safe space where people can conveniently and pleasantly be in the company of strangers… space that does not require us as individuals to be well intentioned or “progressive” to be with people unlike ourselves.

Architect David Adjaye calls it “beauty without the tyranny of elitism”.

As you consider how to pursue your third transformative strategy — promoting great placemaking – I challenge you to think of Downtown Dallas as your city’s civic commons where trust is actively being rebuilt and economic opportunity is intentionally created by bringing people together across social and economic divides.

There is a reason trust is plunging. It’s not just a “fake news” problem. It’s not just a Russia problem. It’s not just a social media problem, or a cable news problem. Those are amplifiers.

But trust starts in community. It starts with making places all of us want to occupy.

In his book, Triumph of the City, Ed Glaeser wrote:

“Our ability to connect with each other is the defining characteristic of our species. It is through these connections that regions prosper. Internal connections among residents and firms and connections with the global economy are essential for a city’s prosperity and vitality.”

That is fundamentally what the 360 Plan attempts to deliver with advanced mobility, complete neighborhoods and great placemaking. It’s all about connecting people, a connected downtown and a connected city.

Downtowns are meant to have special powers. They are meant to matter to entire cities, to entire regions. Clearly, Downtown Dallas Inc. intends to claim those powers for this downtown. With your commitment here today — and every day — you are making this a very special place. Thank you for setting an example for us all.