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Why Dallas Is No Longer 'The Butt of Everyone's F*cking Joke'

“Welcome to Dallas, please stay here, it’s great!”

The other day I saw a poster on a friend’s Facebook that said “Welcome to Austin. Please don’t move here. I hear Dallas is great!” The accompanying description read: “My city is the butt of everyone’s f*cking joke.”

That sentiment really gets at the root of how people view Dallas. It’s not an Austin or Portland or Seattle. It doesn’t have that flavor and urban lifestyle where you can walk, bike, and ride public transportation easily, where there’s a diverse city life and robust population density. Interestingly, all three of the aforementioned cities lay claim to the “Keep [your city] Weird” slogan.

When it comes to urbanism, Dallas is suited for cars, not people. The formation of the Dallas Auto Club in 1904 led to the demise of the street car in 1956 and the rise of toll roads and major highways. Automotive transportation has driven our growth and promoted an urban sprawl lifestyle where proximity is measured in gallons of gasoline rather than strides in tennis shoes. It’s no wonder people leave Dallas and go to the “weird” cities. At least they did before.

I’m reminded of another friend’s Facebook status which read, “Want to be a part of something? Try going somewhere where you can create something, not just move to it. Be an agent for change; less a beneficiary of change.” He was talking about the people who’ve stayed in Dallas, and are creating the city we want here. There’s been a shift.

In 2010, Dallas based organization, Team Better Block, started doing pop-up streetscaping projects to demonstrate how to change the character of the street. Typically they’d plan a “Better Block” on a weekend, re-configure a street by putting up homemade planters, tables and chairs, and other placemaking elements to create a street where the pedestrians were the priority, they’d invite everyone out to enjoy it. This Do-It-Yourself type of urbanism caught the attention of city officials and started resonating with Dallas communities proving you don’t have to wait for a multi-million dollar project to change the infrastructure of the street. All you need is an idea and a permit.

In August of 2011, I moved back to Dallas, right as the DIY urbanism movement was taking shape here. I had just graduated from the University of Michigan with a Master’s in Urban Planning and started an internship at the City of Dallas, January 2012. I volunteered to work on a project called Living Plaza, initiated by Team Better Block and some folks at City Hall, to activate the dead City Hall plaza. Amanda Popken—now my nonprofit business partner—was one of the folks who I started collaborating with on programming of the plaza.

Typically for a “Living Plaza,” held every month during lunchtime, we’d invite food trucks, bring out tables and chairs and invite musicians and performers to join us. The plaza went from a dead concrete jungle to an active people-place where city-hallers could break away from the monotony of their cubicles.

But the second season of Living Plaza was not welcomed with open arms. Having seen the toll that it took on the organizers the year before, the offices that Amanda and I worked for thought of it as a gloried office-picnic and prohibited us from spending too much “real” work time on it. So we started meeting up after hours and meeting during lunch where we’d plan and envision a better City Hall plaza.

Every month we were faced with the same problem, 30-days to permit, arrange food trucks, performers, make fliers, promote, coordinate tables and chairs, moveable plants, security, and lots of odd and ends. These quick, light, fast bursts of programming at such a high-octane pace became our model for activating public spaces. What mattered was the task at hand, not the politics or bureaucracy that usually accompanies city hall decision making. We just did!

By organizing the Living Plaza events, we had learned more about the city, had creative freedom, and were having more fun than all the manager-directed projects we were tasked to do at City Hall. These events created meaning and provided us with ownership of city. We were utilizing our skills and talents as urban planners and we felt like we were contributing. But, it had become clear that our passion for this project wasn’t understood and the nurturing that we needed was going to be more of a struggle than support. We created a friends group for public spaces called Friends of Living Plaza and we launched the nonprofit Revolutionary Pants, which will expand our efforts.

Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

We’ve now hosted 11 placemaking events and participated in 3 community events all over the city. We’re taking what we learned from creating these lightning-fast projects, knowledge about how to navigate the permitting systems, understanding the philosophy of City Hall and the barriers that go with it, finding the urban policies that don’t make sense and poking sticks at them, and we’re open sourcing everything. We want people to know how to take control of the city processes.

Our model focuses on Do-ing, supporting, highlighting and promoting others who are also Do-ing and collaborating with people making the city better in order to build a consciousness about DIY urbanism that strengthens community and inspires people to take ownership of our city. With this knowledge, we’re planning a Neighborday event on April 27 to celebrate the city and its creatives.

Urbanism in Dallas is now being defined by our citizens. There’s a whole slew of us that have lived in the “weird” cities, around the world, we have seen what Dallas is missing, and we’re creating it here. We know how the city works and we’re not afraid to break some rules to promote a better quality of life. In the past couple of years, we’ve seen citizens advocate and lead the charge for the addition of bike lanes, to bring back the trolley, the addition of new outdoor markets, and we keep finding more and more people who are practicing DIY urbanism, and pushing the envelope forward to create change.

We’re proud of our city and what we’re creating here! And we’re looking forward to our Neighborday celebration to showcase that spirit. Our poster reads: “Welcome to Dallas, please stay here, it’s great!” we hope you’ll think so too.

Patrick McDonnell is the Creative Director of Revolutionary Pants, a nonprofit dedicated to creating communities and reimagining the human habitat in Dallas, Texas.

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