In March 2013, Kevin Sloan, founder of Dallas-based landscape architecture and urban planning firm Kevin Sloan Studio, attended a lecture at the Dallas Museum of Art at which professor Kenneth Frampton, of Columbia University, recited a phrase that had been illicitly written in the 1980s on a rendering of a 1950s utopian city displayed at the New York Museum of Modern Art:
There are no cities anymore.
We are incapable of making cities anymore.
The machine is incapable of making cities anymore.
We’ll have to get used to living in the jungle.
Sloan is working on the Branch Waters Network. The concept is to make use of the waterway system in Dallas–Fort Worth (DFW) as a guideline for a new metropolitan urbanism. Back in 2013, he recognized Frampton’s use of the word “jungle” as more than just a metaphor (although DFW is one of the largest cities in the United States for the trapping, banding, and study of urban wildcats). He interpreted it as a hint that the landscape and waterways could dovetail into the urban framework of a city.
Sloan wants to make use of DFW’s “water branches,” which span approximately 65 miles east to west and 45 miles north to south. He has outlined more than 300 potential miles of waterway that are primed for development. Sloan points out that more than 90 percent of natural drainage ways in Dallas County are currently intact and untapped. So far, his plan has been well received: According to Sloan, a current Dallas council member called it the “most sustainable concept he’s yet seen for the Dallas Trinity River.”
Successful examples of his water branch concept in practice can be seen at Turtle Creek Parkway, White Rock Lake, and the ongoing Trinity River Project. Part of city planner George Kessler’s 1911 “City Plan for Dallas,” the seven-mile-long Turtle Creek Parkway is, in Sloan’s eyes, “a 100-year demonstration that nature can attract density in accordance with the edges of shaded and serene waterway.
“What is astonishing is that, in Texas, luxury and the good life are typically imagined to unfold on an expansive ranch or noble estate,” continued Sloan. “Turtle Creek Parkway produced high-rise apartments and condominiums, as early as the 1960s, that gathered along the edge and are supported by nodes and enclaves of shopping and residential neighborhoods such as the Park Cities.”
For his Branch Waters Network concept to work, Sloan argues that Americans’ preconceptions of planning and notions of “nature” need to be challenged. He advocates replacing the “cultural preference for an Anglican landscape of irrigated turf grass, clipped hedge, and parterres—where all live like squires on a patch of England” with a “re-wilding nature project along the waterways and attendant areas. The forest is out one door. The avenue and the culture of the city are out the other.”
“Whether ‘nature’ means living on a golf course, along a river, or in the mountainous environs of, say, Boulder, Colorado, one can draw a straight line between environments of natural beauty and economic value,” he continued.
Sloan also calls for an alternative to Daniel Burnham’s “Make no little plans.” “What is a plausible strategy to guide an orderly restructuring of millions of acres of unplanned growth?” Sloan asked.
He and his studio have seen two projects realized that align with the Branch Waters concept. Located in Addison, north of Dallas, spring-fed Vitruvian Park—which occupies 17 acres, as part of an 112-acre master plan, also done by Sloan—lies on Farmers Branch Creek. So far, during its eight-year existence, the project has been what many consider a success, establishing a dense, urban pocket without the daunting qualities of a downtown center.
Another project, the Dallas Urban Reserve, is also doing well. A stone’s throw away from White Rock Creek Trail, the 10.5-acre modern housing development made use of a site that was used for years as an illegal dumping ground. The site slopes asymmetrically to allow stormwater to enter a system of repetitive filtration beds, planted with bald cypress, pond cypress, and horsetail reeds. Only three of the original 50 housing lots that went up are still available, and, in 2011, the project won the ASLA Award of Excellence.
However, Sloan wants the Branch Waters Network to go further. “By using the entire waterway network as a natural attraction to form density, transit, and linkages, perhaps the anxiety and opposition to conventional planning, regulatory devices, and legislative actions can be circumvented,” he said.
“The possibilities of the Branch Waters Network challenge architecture conventions. Chance operation replaces totalizing planning concepts and designs. In lieu of regulating plans and inflexible determinism, urbanism becomes a game, and the game is to aggregate along the branches.”
This article was part of our Oct. 12 issue which focused on how water is shaping today’s landscape architecture and urbanism. Communities face deluges and droughts—for some, the stakes can be survival itself, but others see opportunities for decadence. To explore these stories from around the U.S. and the world, click here.