I attended a city council meeting today along with Patrick Kennedy from Walkable DFW to observe a vote taking place on a new development in West Dallas that’s been getting a lot of press recently. The development promises a new organic grocery store, apartments, shops and more. The problem is that what was being requested at the council meeting was a change to the PD (Planned Development) zoning to strip away elements that promote walkability. Arguments became heated from two sides as various neighborhood activists spoke passionately about the need for economic revitalization in the area and the lack of choices for the community. Ironically, both sides of the debate were very pro-development, and actually excited about everything being offered by the property owner. The single point of contention came down to one solitary issue: form.
At one point, the founder of the Fort Worth Avenue Development group stood up and said, “We never cared about form when the organization was started!”, another activist in favor of changing the PD spoke of the need to approve the amendments as an act of “social justice”. Patrick and I were taken aback by that line of reasoning, given that stripping away walkability mandates from the development would actually raise the need for people with low income to own a vehicle and expose them to greater poverty.
So why is this so important? Simply put, all great retail streets, whether they were built 1,000 years ago in Europe, or 150 years ago in the Wild West, are nearly identical in one respect: form. Though the street widths may vary, the buildings are all built to the sidewalk and connected forming a natural wall, primary doorways all face the street, the majority of storefronts are between 15 and 20 feet wide, the facades are filled with details, contiguous sidewalks exist (the wider the street, the wider the sidewalk), and all blocks connect to each other seamlessly maintaining sightlines that invite you to continue strolling. These features are what makes it possible to walk from SoHo to Midtown without really noticing the distance. You can find this consistently whether you’re in San Francisco, or Oslo. For instance:
To counter point this, most post-war development in the US became formless with buildings separated by hundreds of feet, large parking lots creating moats in front of stores, and facades oriented at varying distances from the street without any regard to adjacency. If you take the 300 foot block in Bishop Arts and compare it to a larger block in the below image, you’ll also note that far more businesses exist in the form-based area. Another point for argument is that when adjacency is disregarded, nothing compels neighboring developments to maintain consistency and walkability. This leaves the city and street broken into a series of fragments, making walkability uncomfortable, unsafe, and left to a minority who are unable to afford regular auto-ownership.
The reality is that the natural, walkable form is considered a “timeless way of building”, and is most advantageous because its buildings can constantly be re-used for small entrepreneurs, its pedestrian prioritization makes it safe for children, seniors, and multiple modes of transit, and the same streets make up the places that we all know and love within our own communities. Whether it’s West Village in Dallas, or King’s Street in London. They’re the places we vacation, the places we stroll and linger in, the places we want to retire to, and the places we sit outside and people watch…and sadly, many of us have forgotten why they’re worth fighting for.