Brent Brown on ‘The self-destruction of diversity’ in Dallas

Before getting to this week’s reading, I want to first thank the Centre for City Ecology and Creative Urban Projects for creating the City Builder Book Club. We are following along from Dallas and I cannot think of a more appropriate book as the first reading than Jane Jacob’s classic. The past month has shown it’s relevance after fifty years. I remember as a student of architecture being blown away by it’s clarity and truth about the practice of design and city making. I was 23 and the book was older than me. It was one of my favorite teachers. Today, as director of a city studio and a public design practice, my work engages and empowers people to shape their city. Thank you CCE and CUP for inviting me to write this post.

Chapter 13 begins Part 3 of the book, Forces of Decline and Regeneration and Jacobs sums up her writing so far with the declaration, “we need all types of diversity” in our cities. She goes on to state the main responsibility of planning and design is to help develop congenial places for diversity to thrive. This is where I take my cue.

Dallas in 1935 by ‘coltera’

Here in Dallas, we have been working hard publicly and privately to make our city more livable and we are doing a lot of the right things. Jacob reminds us that we have to be aware of how cities evolve and the inherent threat they are to themselves. We know this well.

Our downtown exemplifies the kind of place where the potential highest and most profitable uses undermined a diverse existing fabric. Over forty years ago the market moved to tear down whole blocks of pre-1940s development, making room for commercial office towers connected by underground tunnels.


With few exceptions, zoning continues to allow for unlimited heights, encouraging the blocks made vacant to remain empty. After decades of speculation, the north side land values demand higher income luxury development and the southern side sits disconnected due to a fractured street network and an overabundance of public buildings. Where opportunity for diversity exists there continues to be a lack of openness.

Dallas today

Recently, a development has offered a promising example in the form of newly constructed urban townhomes. While not well-received by the area’s landowners due to an interest in larger development, this re-discovered type of housing has been selling in the toughest of markets. The one block where this has occurred had been under single ownership for many years.  Now more than 100 units will increase ownership in downtown, adding voices to its development debate.

Jane Jacobs offered three potential diversions from diversity’s self-destruction. I have reflected on how we do not differ from most of America. We have done an equally poor job of deploying zoning for diversity in our downtown. That aside, we are boldly pursuing the most important: competition.

In 2009, we created a new office in the City of Dallas, the Dallas citydesign studio. Here we actively deploy community engagement and urban design to shape the core of our city. In partnership with residents, landowners, businesses, developers and all our fellow city offices, we are working to steward quality of life through the development of urban frameworks. This work does not happen in a vacuum. The individuals affected by change and those working to make change are integral to the crafting of the strategies that have and will be adopted as local policy.

citydesign studio session

Just beyond the downtown loop with emphasis on the historically neglected south and west areas, the effort is fostering incremental development, protection of sitting neighborhoods, and encouragement of new communities. In our West Dallas work the combination of these has been joined together realizing we need all three to steward a “congenial place” where diversity has the opportunity to self-generate. Together we are building a series of visions and regulatory structures enabling each area to compete equally while understanding adjacent successes are good for the area.

While we are acutely aware the work never stops, Jacobs helps to reinforce how the spreading of diversity is as key to obtaining it as it is to preserving it.

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