Hon. AIA Dallas
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Dialogue: A Walk in the Parks
Nate Eudaly, Hon. AIA Dallas, member of the Columns Committee and executive director of the Dallas Architecture Forum, moderated a panel on “Safety in Public Spaces” with four Dallas leaders on parks, trails, and public spaces, especially in the wake of COVID-19. Although the session took place April 9, 2020, the Q&A has been updated as well as edited for brevity and clarity.
Bud Melton of Halff Associates, an expert on bicycle and pedestrian trails and a member of the Product Council of the Urban Land Institute.
Chuck McDaniel, FASLA managing principal and lead designer of the SWA Group, designers of the Katy Trail and Pacific Plaza.
Dustin Bullard, ASLA of Downtown Dallas Inc., who oversees park planning and public space management for the central city.
Emily Henry, ASLA a principal with Studio Outside Landscape Architects who focuses on people and community.
NATE: What is the balance between leaving public spaces in their natural condition versus inserting programmatic design that improves the safety of people using those spaces?
CHUCK: Well, I’ll start with the Katy Trail. It traverses through an actual space that grew up around the rails over the decades, and it is very unprogrammed space, or at least it was until the development boom that went on adjacent to the trails. I’m not for programming the Katy Trail too much. I think it ought to have all the public access points that we need for ADA accessibility, but I’m advocating for fewer bicycles on the Katy Trail. And I’m also advocating strongly for a revegetation of that corridor to let that urban forest regenerate.
EMILY: There are a lot of benefits of being immersed in nature for us in Dallas. Since we are in an urban environment, having those small areas in which we can engage with nature is very important. We’re lucky to have the Trinity River and the Trinity River Basin to really allow people to engage more in those natural environments. It is super important to allow it to be raw and unprogrammed because the immersion in nature is so important to the health of human beings. And I think a lot of times we view humans and nature as separate, but we need to remember that we’re not, and it’s important to have those spaces of respite where it is natural, untouched, and unprogrammed.
BUD: I think programming the trail for formal group activities is problematic in terms of conflicts with other users and adjacent property owners. Over the years I’ve had numerous discussions with the Katy Trail Friends Group about access, and they’ve wanted to limit the access and I’ve said it needs to be as permeable as possible. So Chuck, I agree with you that more is better as to the accessibility of the space and would help relieve some of the bottleneck conditions that occur. There should probably be more signage and understanding of how to use the space.
DUSTIN: What’s great about an urban park system throughout the city is that you have a mix of spaces, and you have some spaces that are highly programmed and highly designed for a variety of uses. But having these more natural spaces is really important to the overall park system, to relate back to nature for our citizens. We must push that every space does not have to be a highly programmed urban park. There are a lot of spaces where we should tread lightly, within minimal programming, and I think it’s healthy for the community. And we’ve seen great success in that. I think COVID has shown us that a lot of the parks people are flocking to are places like Katy Trail and White Rock Lake. We’re not seeing people flocking to the more programmed spaces like Klyde Warren or Pacific Plaza.
EMILY: It’s definitely an advantage that we have many spaces in Dallas that are still very much untouched. Some people don’t feel like they have the invitation to go into the Trinity River Basin or the Trinity River Forest, which is the largest hardwood forest in the country. But for some it is an issue of safety and a bit of fear of the unknown to explore them because of their vast size and lack of safety features.
NATE: Let’s talk about lighting. There’s a consensus that we want to preserve the natural environment while incorporating basic concepts of safety. What responsibilities do you think developers, planners, designers, and municipalities have to install lighting?
BUD: Traditionally, the park department has resisted putting much lighting on the trails. We’re at a point now with light technology where there’s an opportunity to step back and revisit how we put lighting into civic space. I’ve coined a phrase: “Taming the shadows” in civic space, which maybe gets away from the uniform building code requirements of lighting but instead looks at how you do an aesthetic that eliminates the dark shadows and makes it possible to feel comfortable.
CHUCK: I like the fact that the Katy Trail is strategically illuminated because it’s got such other depth and other interest at night. We have to illuminate things, but I don’t think it has to be bright. There needs to be a certain amount of light to be able to recognize people, and you also want to let wildlife and foliage be seen. So there’s a lot of merit for proper lighting. EMILY: Lighting obviously is the biggest thing we can do to eliminate the fear factor of public space at night.
NATE: What’s your view about security cameras and facial ID? There’s a lot of technology, much of it expensive, but how does that play into safety versus invasion of privacy. Should it be incorporated into public spaces?
CHUCK: I’m really torn on this. I don’t like Big Brother looking over our shoulder. But in conversations on every park I’ve ever done, if you have a camera, you’re giving the user the impression that somebody’s watching. We decided not to do cameras on the Katy Trail and in Pacific Plaza simply because of the expense of monitoring and providing safety. But Pacific Plaza has opened with ambient light that meets all the Dallas lighting codes. I think a part of society will get into mischief in parks if they feel like no one is going to be held accountable. But I really wish we could get to some way to provide immediate, tangible observation of our public spaces.
EMILY: And you wonder if people felt ownership — you know, this is my Dallas park — there’d be a sense of pride. I think use of cameras is a tricky topic because you don’t want an intrusion of privacy. Especially as technology is advancing, and you’re starting to see programs that track people’s faces. It’s kind of scary where some of this is going. But it does provide, again, that sense of safety so it’s a balance.
DUSTIN: With cameras it’s a double-edged sword. I’m more of a big government guy in that I don’t have as many concerns about people watching public space through the cameras. We have a robust camera network in downtown that our organization was the lead champion for 10 to 15 years ago, and we funded additional cameras at Civic Garden and Pegasus Plaza and Main Street Garden. All city camera networks, all monitored by the Dallas police fusion center. That’s part of a citywide network. More than anything, they’re a deterrent to mischief. I think if someone sees the camera, they think, oh, I might get caught. There has to be an acknowledgment and some level of risk that we all take in public space. Cameras are amazing when we have a protest or large events at the parks. We can actually reduce the number of police officers in a given space because we can better monitor that from a remote location by camera. It’s very helpful for DPD to be able to remotely monitor the situation on the ground and maybe stage their assets, police, behind the corner. And it looks better, and it functions better for those folks exercising the First Amendment.
NATE: Let’s talk about scale. If someone goes to one of the downtown parks, it’s more tightly programmed to maintain a sense of safety than the Katy Trail or White Rock Lake, and even less so when you go to the Trinity River Forest. Do you think scale and maybe urban versus rural has different ramifications and expectations?
EMILY: You’re always going to look at the context of the site to design it in a way that’s most comfortable and creates the best outcome for the user. That is going to change in an urban setting versus a rural setting. Depending on where you are, there’s a lot of different factors you take into account when you’re looking at programming and safety. Some of the gold standards are visible means of entry and exit and elimination of hiding spaces, the Jane Jacobs theory of eyes on the street. Those steps help keep people safe or at least create the perception of safety. But it really will depend on where you are, what your goals are, to fine-tune what safety for that space means.
DUSTIN: Bryant Park [in New York City] obviously is one of the models always bantered about on this topic. Inviting people into space and having programmed activities or a reason to linger in a deliberate fashion is probably the biggest thing, post-design, that can be done for the success of an urban space. That includes a physical safety presence. The more people, whether it’s safety or porters or ambassadors with a physical presence in the park, creates safety. There is safety in numbers. Also important is the concept of ownership by park users — this is my space. We’ve seen at Main Street Garden and Civic Garden and now at Pacific Plaza — the more that we can interject these social activities, the less issues there are. This concept is sometimes lost in the design process. Because as architects, we turn it over after construction and hope it works. There’s a missing piece and a missing component in the programmatic piece. And engaging landscape architects, such as Chuck and now Christy Ten Eyck working on Harwood Park in this process, is important. How is this space ultimately going to be used? And how can I make sure that people feel comfortable in it and want to be there for 30 minutes as opposed to five minutes?
CHUCK: I’m excited about the fact that there is such an emerging community of people living in the urban core as we develop this walkable connection between Civic Garden and Main Street Garden and Pacific Plaza and Carpenter Park and Harwood Garden and Klyde Warren Park and all the other little intermediate green spaces. That’s going to make our city safer and makes it more of a community of people who take ownership of the spaces; this community becomes the de facto “police” to help keep things going. Also, as these parks are completed, the real estate becomes more valuable and the community grows.
BUD: When Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York City, he implemented the “broken windows” theory, which is one of the most important components of programming of space. Anytime there needs to be an intervention, you need to get it programmed right away: to fix the graffiti, the broken stuff, repair the damage and make it very well known that this place is monitored. They started a concept called CPTED, for crime prevention through environmental design. You try to make your design as bulletproof to vandalism as possible, but with aesthetic design elements included. Keep nature included in the equation. It is probably one of the better safeguards to prevent vandalism to the programmatic elements of the design, while keep costs to a minimum.
NATE: Let’s talk about COVID-19. The necessity of maintaining social distancing while being outside has been essential. Let’s talk first about existing public spaces, parks and trails and how COVID has impacted them. Should we look at retrofitting or installation of safety guidelines, measures for public spaces?
EMILY: I envision massive innovation when it comes to cleanliness of public spaces. We will put pressure on our cities to provide those measures and some sort of public notice so that we know that those measures are in place. We will probably also use personal devices such as cellphone programs that monitor to make sure the spaces we use are clean. I think about that with my children when they’re hopping on a swing or when they’re climbing a jungle gym or we’re boarding a plane. We want to spend time together. But I think that we’re going to have higher standards as to how we interact with each other.
CHUCK: I hope we don’t have to start metering people’s entrances into parks. Every time the signal turns green, another person can go into the park, so you must line up and wait. Our Shanghai office reports that after the initial COVID-19 crisis in China, people were so pent up to get out to the parks that they had to make reservations to go into the parks in Beijing and Shanghai. I hope that we all have a more self- awareness. I have a much more heightened awareness of handwashing and cleanliness and how germs and infections move.
BUD: Some immediate interventions include parks like Klyde Warren defining specific spaces for activities like yoga, so that someone would be able to exit that space and walk out to the clear zone without intruding into another space, even if that were just temporarily marked with chalk.
DUSTIN: As park managers become responsible for the public health, we sometimes have to make very difficult decisions to protect the greater good of people because I don’t think everyone can be trusted to take care of themselves. That’s a hard reality. We look out for each other from a long-term perspective. The types of materials we use and specify, especially in the playground, will probably change with some longer-term impact. We’re already evaluating things like where people put their dog waste. Can we make a modification to allow a “no-touch environment?”
NATE: We’ve seen that people really want to be out in nature, that they want to experience the landscape and the sky, and they also want to share those spaces with other people. We need to figure out long term how to balance all these issues so that people can enjoy the parks, public spaces, and trails.
Discussion moderated by Nate Eudaly, Hon. AIA Dallas, executive director of the Dallas Architecture Forum.