Trinity River Park in Dallas will be the largest urban park in USA

Dallas, Texas, is an American city that faces expected annual flooding, but it also has to deal with unpredictable and dangerous 3-year and 10-year flooding events. The city must maintain a protective floodplain to avoid catastrophe, which leaves a large, undeveloped area dividing the wealthy north from the poorer south, and blocking access to the riverbank.

Thanks to a large private donation, however, the city is realizing its longstanding dream of redeveloping the Trinity River floodplain into one of the USA’s largest urban parks with the hope of connecting the two halves of the city much more harmoniously – unless critics of the project prove correct…

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Published on 24.01.2017

A water and nature refuge to unify Dallas

Most North American cities already utilize practically all of their available land, so it may come as a surprise that Dallas has found the space for a 10,000 acre park (roughly 40.5 km2) running right through the center of town. To put that into perspective, the new “Trinity River Park” would be the largest urban park in the USA and over 10 times the size of NYC’s Central Park.

So where did they find all this space? Dallas has long been subject to the unpredictable waters of the Trinity River and built up large levees to hold back potentially catastrophic 10-year floods. The existing floodplain also plays an important role in protecting the city, yet it divides the North from South, and blocks pedestrian access to the river. Now, Dallas is ready to fix that.

A philanthropic hand plants the seeds for a greener Dallas

The first step in moving forward with such a monumental project was securing the funds to get it started. Similar to Toronto’s Bentway, Dallas has a wealthy citizen to thank.

Annette Simmons – in the largest private donation ever given to the city – gave $50 million of the required $250 million needed to remake the large, underutilized space. The donation was inspired in part after the city had unveiled its new plan.

The idea for a park along the Trinity River floodplain had been tossed around for decades, but bureaucratic in-fighting, false starts, and a lack of consensus held up progress. Now with a plan which meets many, if not all, residents’ and politicians’ expectations, and with the funds lined up – it’s a green light for a big new nature park in Dallas.

Down by the river – a place of refuge for Dallas residents

New proposal makes the park a reality

Not only has the floodplain divided the city, but ideas for transforming the space have also caused rifts, hindering progress, and potentially making investors wary. In the past, the city focused too much on visions of pristine lawns and lakes, golf courses – and even attempted a whitewater rapids concept.

The new plan for Trinity River Park, from Michael Van Valkenburg Associates, literally brings it all back down to earth – finding inspiration in the local ecology. While it will continue to be a civic space with playgrounds and other attractions, the park will also live in harmony with the river via naturalistic trails, meadows and ponds that help restore the ecological balance.

The two-part scheme combines stepped riverine ecology with overlook parks on the levee walls, yet still protects the city against flooding. Michael Van Valkenburg Associates has worked closely with government engineers to maintain the infrastructural soundness of the floodplain and levees. The plans even suggest the park can be used during a flood, with the park’s character changing depending on the relative level of flooding.

The new natural district in Dallas
The new natural district in Dallas

The highs and lows of a park in the floodplain

While the donation of $50 million seems to have offered a kind of seal of approval, some city officials still call for closer scrutiny of the plans, which may turns heads on paper, but could come up short on the ground. Frequently, conflicts arise when the city and the engineering corps have different priorities.

While supporters say no plan is perfect, critics find that the park’s promise of openness leaves much to be desired. Access to the overlook parks is potentially inadequate from the downtown side, due to road crossings and a long overpass. However, the most considerable barrier remains the proposed toll road.

With fears that this huge highway will detract from the park and its primary intention of unifying the city, some call for a return to a park design that was approved by the federal government in 2015 after a 12-year study. Yet, with overwhelming support from other corners and private funds supporting a new plan, the city is confident that its plans will succeed and benefit all citizens.

Down by the river – a place of refuge for Dallas residents

A park as a test for future leaders of philanthropy and green cities

Money fuels ideas, but also turns heads. Critics suggest that large donations can influence government decision-making and overpower grass-roots initiatives. No matter where the funds come from, however, projects like the Trinity River Park, which focus on inclusion and making connections, have proven to achieve lasting success.

The park is set to be complete by 2021 – and will perhaps still answer to calls for a better access road, rather than a highway. And the city still needs more private funding to complete the park. Time will tell if this combination of philanthropy and city park planning pays off.

There are certainly many success stories – and even one nearby in Houston. The plans for the Dallas floodplain park bear resemblance to the Buffalo Bayou Park with its layered sidewalks based on flooding levels and sensitive integration of playgrounds and attractions within nature.

However, if the plans pan out, Dallas is certainly a step closer to a better-connected city where residents can use and enjoy a riverside park.