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The Trinity River Corridor Project in Dallas, Texas: Enhancing an Urban Ecosystem and Reviving River and Floodplain Open Space to Create Future Sustainable Development Opportunities

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Leveraging sustainable economic development through the Trinity River floodplain restoration is one of five key elements of the City of Dallas' “A Balanced Vision Plan for the Trinity River Corridor.” This plan, completed in 2004, set out to utilize the Trinity River and its floodplain to balance sustainable economic development with undiminished flood protection, environmental management and restoration, recreational amenities, and regional transportation goals.

Project Setting and History

The Trinity River is a meandering, blackland prairie river that flows some 710 miles from its origin near Wichita Falls, Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico at Galveston Bay. It drains a watershed of approximately 6000 square miles at the City of Dallas, and is the longest river draining a watershed entirely within the State of Texas. The Trinity River is comprised of four forks: the East Fork, the West Fork, the Elm Fork and the Clear Fork. The Elm Fork and West Fork of the Trinity River flow together approximately four miles northwest of downtown Dallas, and then flow through a nine-mile long, man-made river and floodplain that bisects Downtown and North Dallas from West Dallas and Oak Cliff.

The river was moved from its natural location approximately half a mile to the east of the current floodway in response to the Great Flood of 1908, which inundated the City of Dallas, caused five fatalities, forced thousands to evacuate, and caused extensive property damage. In 1932, the Trinity River levees were first constructed, and extended to their current height of approximately 32 feet in the ensuing years.

The Role of the Trinity River in Suburban Sprawl and Unsustainable Development

The Trinity River and its floodplain currently create a barrier between the northern areas of Downtown, Uptown and North Dallas, and the southern areas of West Dallas and Oak Cliff. Over the years, development and wealth migrated north of the river while the poorer areas to the South suffered from neglect. The City also uses the Trinity floodplain as a utility corridor, which includes significant above- and below- ground infrastructure, and further isolates the north from the south. And as the City of Dallas is a nexus of air, rail, and vehicular transportation, with heavy emphasis on automobile and truck traffic, major roadways were built that created additional barriers to the joining of north and south.

Downtown Dallas has become primarily a place of business, but not residence, as Dallasites figuratively turned their backs on the river and fled to the suburbs to the north. Over time, the Trinity River and its floodplain have become a single-purpose system that limits not only its ecological potential, but its potential as a multi-use open space for the residents of Dallas as well.

The Trinity River Corridor Program: Urban River Restoration to Jump Start Sustainable Development

In the 1990s, the City began to look at the Trinity River in a different light, viewing it not as a “back alley,” but as a “front yard” of enormous potential. Studies showed that this river corridor was a unique amenity that could be used to attract high density development, create infrastructure for sustainable communities focused around the river, and turn downtown into a waterfront destination with a plethora of live, work, and play opportunities. Currently, the floodplain is a single-purpose, engineered system: a grassed strip, approximately 9 miles long and 2000 feet wide that conveys floodwaters through downtown Dallas while protecting properties on either side. The development patterns on both sides of the river show an unplanned mix of industrial facilities, correctional facilities, liquor stores and bail-bond shops. There are scant accommodations for pedestrian or bike traffic, and citizens' views of the corridor are largely shaped by what they glimpse when they cross one of the bridges that span the river.

The Balanced Vision Plan calls for a more natural alignment and geometry for the Trinity River inside the existing floodway, creation of three large man-made lakes (two of which will be filled with treated effluent from a City wastewater treatment plant), a mile-long promenade, and many softscape and play areas within the floodplain. This paper highlights renewable energy, recycled wastewater, and multi-use features of the Trinity River Corridor project designed to maximize sustainability, as well as features of the restored river channel and riparian areas designed to create as sustainable a system as possible in a heavily impacted urban watershed. In addition, this paper describes the sustainable development that is expected to occur along the banks of this project as the City leverages the new riverfront and its amenities into hundreds of acres of thriving, walkable, transit-oriented communities. Finally, this paper illustrates the many ways that the Trinity River Corridor project will transform a currently neglected and degraded landscape into a revived urban ecosystem capable of sustainably providing a wide variety of services to current and future residents of and visitors to Dallas.
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Keywords: Constructed Wetlands; Dallas; Energy; Mass Transit; Mixed-Use; Photovoltaic; Recycled Water; Riparian; Riverine; Sustainability; Sustainable Development; Trinity River; Wind Turbines

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 January 2010

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