What Can Dallas Do for Sustainable Land Use?

What Can Dallas Do for Sustainable Land Use?

One of America’s most populous cities, Dallas now ranks third in Texas and ninth in the US in terms of size. As the fourth largest metropolitan area and employment center in the nation, the D/FW metroplex provides more than three million non-farm jobs, and large corporations continue to relocate to the region on an annual basis. Such tremendous growth may be good for the North Texas economy, but it’s hard on the environment. With a long history of focusing on commerce, the system has not been designed with sustainability in mind.

As rates of urban heat and inequality climb, D/FW residents will find themselves wrestling with economic and health-related stresses alike. How this thriving metropolitan area approaches economic development will either detract from or increase well-being for residents and visitors. Adopting sustainable land management practices can help D/FW planners, policymakers, and community leaders meet the requirements of a rapidly growing population.

Land use involves the management and modification of natural environment or wilderness into built environment, which may include settlements and semi-natural habitats such as arable fields, pastures, and managed woods. In Dallas, where residents rely heavily on their cars for transportation and often gravitate toward suburban sprawl, land use remains more traditional than forward-looking. Over time, improper land management can lead to land degradation and a significant reduction in the productive and service functions of watersheds and landscapes.

By contrast, sustainable land management considers productivity of agriculture and forestry with respect to demographic growth. For this reason, sustainable land use practice now takes center stage for urban planners everywhere. Sustainable land management, as defined by the World Bank, is a knowledge-based procedure that helps integrate land, water, biodiversity, and environmental management (including input and output externalities) to meet rising food and fiber demands while sustaining ecosystem services and livelihoods.

Sustainable zoning practices can help address environmental, economic, and social equity factors by incorporating both performance and form-based zoning tools, and responds to regional climate, ecology, and culture. According to the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG), planned unit development (PUD) zoning is prevalent in various fast-growing communities to allow grouping of compatible land uses with various public amenities.

The NCTCOG promotes green initiatives that include the planning and construction of green or sustainable infrastructure in the region to aid in the reduction of carbon emissions, urban heat Islands, and storm-water runoff. The use of green infrastructure components and techniques can increase sustainable connectivity between compatible land uses and reduce the ecological footprint of development in the region. However, the municipalities that make up D/FW are still working to embed these concepts into the culture.

Dallas rose to prominence due in large part to its historical importance as a center for the oil and cotton industries, and its position along numerous railroad lines. Today, Dallas’ thriving and diversified economy is primarily focused on banking, commerce, telecommunications, technology, energy, healthcare and medical research, and transportation and logistics. As home to the third-largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the nation, the D/FW metroplex wields tremendous influence. How its private sector and citizens direct this economic might to drive growth will impact the well-being of the entire region.

Texas’ extraordinary size brings with it an equal scope of both opportunity and challenge: The state is particularly well supplied with raw materials for the production of petrochemical and chemical goods, but exploiting these natural resources creates environmental impacts. The imposition of environmental regulation can curb and restrain production, so lawmakers must at least appear not to favor one interest group over the other. This is where the private sector and community groups can make a substantial contribution to the cause.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has a mandate of providing Texas lawmakers with credible information that ensures the health and well-being of Texas inhabitants. Unfortunately, it is often more expensive for companies to simply pay a fine and continue with operations than it is to clean up problems incurred by polluting air and water. Of course, this situation is hardly unique to Texas.

Another issue concerns the disappearance of ranchland. Private farms, ranches, and forests make up approximately 83 percent of the land in Dallas and this is increasingly being destroyed by suburbanization, rural development and land fragmentation due to rapid population growth. According to Blair Fitzsimons, chief operating officer for the Texas Agricultural Land Trust (TALT), “farms, ranches and forests in Texas are undergoing crucial changes…there are lots of land in Texas, but we are losing it at a faster rate than most other states in the country, and that loss is having profound impacts on our agricultural base, our water resources, and our native wildlife habitat.”

What can Dallas do for sustainable land use? That was the question and the animating force behind my graduate work in North Texas this summer. Basic research into this issue reveals the same challenges that many growing metropolitan face around the world, which range from unsustainable city planning to a car-based culture. With three million new homes being built by 2020 in Dallas, improper planning and design decisions made now will affect the shape of communities, sustainability, and public health for decades to come.

Increasing urban density and drastically improving the public transportation system are well-known solutions to experts who study land management issues. A less understood solution, and one with substantial cultural value, lies in urban farming. This practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a village, town, or city has become a modern phenomenon. Examining some hopeful examples of best practices in urban agriculture, which can not only address failures in land management but also improve the quality of life (especially for low-income residents), is the purpose for my internship with EarthPeople Media this summer.

Watch this space for my follow-up article on the urban garden movement, a promising intervention for a more sustainable Dallas and healthier, happier citizens.

Aerial view of Dallas from NCTCOG

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