It could happen. This guy definitely wants it to happen, and he scores a few good points.
They’re not panacea, however. Like most urban planners, the author has a real problem — how to get from “here” (DFW as a non-walkable entity) to “there” (DFW, an area roughly the size of Connecticut, completely walkable). Some of that is relatively easy, if the political vultures were to make the right choices — such as dismantling some of the decrepit and blight-inducing freeway interchanges on the eastern side of downtown Dallas.
Others, for instance, are not so easy. Urban Heat Island and localized climate problems are definitely an issue, and while technological fixes are neat, they’re not ready for prime-time, usually failing horribly on economic grounds. Underground heat-exchangers sitting beneath asphalt? Great! Underground heat exchangers that happen to be pipes… under anything… on Dallas’ heaving and buckling clay soils? Not so great. Notice I’m talking about local climate. If Anthropogenic Global Warming is real, then it’s also inevitable. Ironically, the only nation to meet the Kyoto Protocol targets was the United States, which refused to sign them. Right now, sitting between 396-399ppm of carbon hasn’t seemed all that catastrophic to little old me; my roses and I would be fine with, say, 3-5,000 ppm. In Dallas, what we need is exactly the same thing they needed at the turn of the 1900s. Dallas wants for water and shade. Give DFW water and shade, and this becomes a very comfortable place to be. My front yard is a blighted deathzone in August when it’s 105 out, because it’s full sun. My back yard in the same circumstances? Hot but comfortable.
So what to do if you need shade, in aggregate and lots, more than, say, a yuppie designer patio?
Let’s start with the shade. The answer, unfortunately, ISN’T painting all of our roofs white. I thought that was a good idea for a while, but it turns out that when you paint your roof a light color, you’re actually heating the air above your town and making rain LESS likely. Sure, you’re reflecting away the light/heat, but that heat has to go somewhere. And as any Texan will tell you, making rain less likely to happen is somewhere on the list of Things People Would Kick You to Death for.
We have lots of warehouse space, and lots of yard and highway space, all of it with crappy brush grass that’s prone to burn, does little or nothing to reduce heat, needs massive irrigation, and if not carefully tended, becomes an eyesore. The urban design people want to see lots and lots of downtown canyons. That’s okay, if you have lots and lots of demand that will pay for it, and can do what pretty much all urban planners suck at, which is making an uptown or downtown which people who have children and are actually perpetuating the species want to live in. Urban canyons have plenty of shade…but they’re loud and dehumanizing. All that sound has to go somewhere, and having worked and lived downtown, I can tell you where it usually goes — straight into my blood-pressure readout. Add heat-island effects destroying any hope of a breeze to that, and what you get is “polluted hell.” (Remember, boys and girls, cars may pollute, but construction vehicles and machines you need to build these huge cities, pollute a LOT).
So, urban canyons and hives. Not really likely unless urban planners rule the world, in which case we all get to run and hide from the bulldozers. On the other hand, trees need a LOT of water, and they have problems. They take a lot of water to get going. They take a lot of TIME to get going, and until they do, they throw really marginal shade — at best. And when there’s a storm, they tend to fall on things and break them. While that’s not really a big deal in a pocket-park where the hip and childless are playing, for the rest of us, storm damage is a real thing. They also can’t really be planted right next to sidewalks or building foundations, unless you want to lose your sidewalk or foundation.
Compounding this, the elephant in the room is that it’s not the tenants driving this process. For most of the big commercial structures (office buildings, warehouses, etcetera), the actual physical building is owned by big property management companies, and the people in them are simply leasing out space.
So you can write and pontificate and blog away, but until you can sell your ideas to the Property Management Mafia, you ain’t getting nowhere.
Bamboo could help some, though, as could Crape Myrtles if used correctly. Crape Myrtles are already everywhere, but can be unpopular because ever summer they dump a carpet of beautiful purple blossoms all over the ground (perversely but perhaps predictably, this is why we at Chez Happycrow like them). Planted two-to-a-greenspace, they’re useless, but they can be planted as a checkerboard and allow for dense, consistent shade. Of course, there’s still that “storm damage issue.”
Bamboo has a bad reputation because their roots/rhizomes spread (but so do normal trees), but they’re actually easy to control once you know what you’re doing, and plants like them have some real advantages: so long as you’re taking care of your foundation and sidewalks, as any commercial property ought to be (CAM = Common Area Maintenance, aka, what the property appraisor had better not see you deferring until later), you can plant them right next to your building, no problem. They start off a little thirsty, but nothing compared to normal trees — your regular property-maintenance sprinkers are plenty, and are plenty even if run only a couple times a week. That’s much better than what office buildings spend to keep their grass green. Meanwhile, they throw shade. They throw serious shade.
They also don’t drop branches on your head during a windstorm. Depending on what species you plant, they grow either loosely or densely (and thus are GREAT for noise mitigation). You can plant them in a tiny little dollop of green in your parking lot, or all the way around a building if you want to stick soft, relaxing indirect lighting on your windows, while also not running the chiller (read: industrial-strength A/C ) on your roof quite so hard. Once established, unlike either grass or “normal” trees, they are also self-mulching, throw down leaves as they grow, rather than in the fall, choking off brush and crap which you otherwise have to pay guys to go out and trim. And they love hot weather: if you want a shady, relaxing building whose tenants just love to renew their leases, bamboo lets you take that greenspace and turn it into relaxing, nigh-maintenance-free suburban forest for less money and less water than you spend to keep “basic, sun-parched grass” green and weed-free.
Which brings us to water. Which isn’t quite the same thing when it comes to making a city walkable so much as it is making a city liveable. The population of North Texas is exploding, and there’s absolutely no sign that it’s going to slow down until the Rust Belt and Left Coast recover from their nearly-religious attachment to the Blue Governance Model, and embrace a liberalism which actually looks towards the future rather than desperately clings to the 20th century (something we at Chez Happycrow have commented upon, oh, once or twice). That means we need to stop pretending that we’re emerald-green Wisconsin, and start actually making our zoning laws work for the local climate.
Unlike Minnesota, we are not a land of 10,000 lakes, and the way we waste water just to keep grass green in the summer is criminal. Even more so because half the time, the only reason we do it is to keep the local zoning ordinances and HOA-Nazis off our backs. Homeowners and property owners need the ability to let grass or ground cover be longer, because eight inches of traditional grass simply doesn’t hold enough moisture in the soil when it’s 105 outside for two weeks straight. During a drought, it’s even worse — two years ago, I had cracks in my front hard that were 30 inches deep. And I was by no means the only one. We need the freedom to plant taller groundcovers on a widespread basis, if we’re going to keep moisture in the soil, use less water, and not get into giant political dogfights with all our neighbors, because we’re wasting water while trying to get theirs. Not to give an excuse to the “car on cinderblocks, lawn looks like crap” crowd, but simply to be sustainable. After all, the first step towards a truly walkable city (let alone gigantic regional metroplex), is to first have a city you’d actually want to take a walk in.