Texas Green Report

Unpaving Paradise: Returning nature to a Dallas medical district using high-tech design

February 23, 2023 Green Source DFW Season 5 Episode 1
Texas Green Report
Unpaving Paradise: Returning nature to a Dallas medical district using high-tech design
Show Notes Transcript

Outside the doors in a busy medical district near downtown Dallas lies a harsh, unhealthy landscape. Marshall Hinsley talks to the planners who aim to green up the Southwestern Medical District — an area originally developed in the 1940s to move freight. Plans are underway to incorporate biophilic design  to breathe new life into the district, which serves 3 million patients and visitors a year.  

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Marshall Hinsley: Transforming a harsh, industrial section of a city by bringing back nature, in this episode of the Texas Green Report, a production of Green Source D.F.W. and the Memnosyne Institute.

I'm Marshall Hinsley. 

Near Downtown Dallas, an area that consists of about 1,000 acres known as the Southwestern Medical District is the site of a medical complex consisting of world renowned healthcare facilities on the cutting edge of medical research and treatment.

Children's Medical Center and Parkland Hospital are located in the district, as are Clements University Hospital, Texas Women's University Institute of Health Sciences and the U.T. Southwestern Medical District Center's research labs, hospitals, and clinics, along with dozens of smaller support facilities and businesses.

The district attracts close to three million patients and visitors every year. For them, the medical complex is the site of life-saving and life-changing healthcare.

For the 70,000 people who live, work or own businesses in the area, though, the district is a harsh, industrial environment that's especially unbearable in the summer months, much worse than the average city block. 

Pavement is plentiful, and trees are scarce in the district. Because of this, summertime conditions reach life-threateningly high temperatures. People waiting at bus stops during the day sit in sweltering heat. Buildings, roadways, and parking lots bake in the unshaded sunlight and release heat after the sun goes down, making nighttime temperatures only slightly lower than the daytime highs.

And as for Harry Hines Boulevard, the main thoroughfare that runs through the middle of the district and that could link together the facilities within walking distance of each other:

Rose Jones: If you walk along Harry Hines, there's no sidewalks to even walk on.

Marshall Hinsley: Says Rose Jones, who spent more than 20 years of her medical professional career in Southwestern Medical District. The facilities themselves have well maintained grounds Jones ads, but anyone walking to a parking lot or a bus stop must venture into the surrounding city streets and public spaces that form an inhospitable concrete- and asphalt-laden terrain, lacking the natural elements that create a healthy environment for both the body and the mind.

And that was by design Jones says. The area was never meant to be a medical district, but a large, industrial sector. From the mid 1800s through most of the 20th Century, city leaders and investors envisioned the city as a regional center for heavy industry and planned to make Dallas into an inland harbor by dredging up the Trinity River and turning it into a barge canal that would link the city to the Gulf of Mexico.

Lack of public support eventually forced the city to abandon this vision in the 1970s. But by then, much of the roadways and properties around the downtown area had already been built up over the preceding decades in anticipation of the need to move and store machinery and cargo.

The hospitals, clinics and research labs that had taken root in the area and that grew into the medical district inherited this industrial legacy.

Rose Jones: It was developed in 1940, this area, and it was developed to be a -- it was the periphery of Dallas — it was designed to be a freight area for moving cargo, if you will.

That's why there's all this industry back here with the warehouses as well. That's why it's all concrete. There's no trees. 

Marshall Hinsley: But that's about to change. Jones is now the urban green health researcher and strategist for the Texas Trees Foundation, a Texas-based nonprofit that advocates for green space in the urban environment. The organization is currently bringing together public and private support to transform the medical district with green space.

The project is the first in the state, first in the nation, and maybe even the first in the world that will use specific, evidence-based design in creating a thorough transformation of a heavily industrialized landscape into a healthier place to live, work, and visit — a landscape more befitting the world-class medical complex that the Southwestern Medical District is. 

Under an umbrella master plan called the Southwestern Medical District Transformation Project, the Texas Trees Foundation is installing sensors on top of bus stop shelters, clinic rooftops, and other locations that will collect meteorological data from the area which will be used to tailor landscaping designs to the district's various terrain challenges.

Although using climate data is nothing new to landscape architects, the information is usually collected over broad regions, often from satellites.

This project, though, will use micro-climate data that can vary from street to street. The decisions made by the landscape designers will therefore more reliably reduce summertime temperatures in hotspots, alleviate the heat island effect, and improve air quality throughout.

First on the agenda is a 10-acre park along Harry Hines Boulevard that will form an open green space for subsequent projects to branch out from.

Rose Jones: It emanates from work that was done by Texas Trees in 2017, which was to produce a study on urban heat island effect. And what they found was that Dallas is — has the second worst heat effect index in the entire country, and that U.T. Southwest in the Southwest Medical District area is pretty much ground zero.

The area has about a 7 percent tree canopy, and experts agree that we need at least 40 percent to be able to address issues of extreme heat and air quality, et cetera. So that's how Texas Trees became involved in this project. So what we're doing is extraordinarily innovative — we're not just going to pull up the street and put in a bunch of trees because it's much more complicated than that. What we're in the process of doing is we're going to be collecting micro-climatic data — so real data in real time in the actual research site along Harry Hines and throughout off the streetscape to understand better what temperature looks like, what humidity looks like, so that we address thermal impact: How does it feel to be in this area? And that data is going to be used to inform the design of the transformation, the streetscape and the park.

So we'll use that data to better understand what's an optimal position to plant a tree, what type of trees or cluster of trees would be most optimal for addressing air pollution.

We know, for example, that pollution from cars and as you know it's a main thoroughfare, is most problematic at intersections. So, is there a way for us to use that information to effectively create, redesign the space so that it will be optimal for human health and comfort? 

Marshall Hinsley: The sensors will collect data every 20 minutes and capture snapshots of the temperature, humidity, wind speed, and wind direct, precipitation and light levels at key points in the district, that will be processed with air quality data. 

The data will then be used to create computer simulations of the climate conditions in the district, which will in turn inform the decisions that the landscape architects make in their designs 

Rather than following general rules like placing a single species of trees equal distances from each other in a row, the designers may learn from the evidence that clustering trees of differing species is a better approach, or that maybe putting trees in a specific spot will cut off much needed prevailing breezes to another area downwind.

Altogether says Texas Trees Foundation project manager Lannie McClellan, the landscape architects using the data will be better able to know how their designs will affect the way people feel as they live and work within the newly designed landscape. 

Lannie McClellan: We typically have seen streets that are very mirrored from one side to the other. And you've got street trees that are typically placed 25- to 30-foot on center as they march down the road. And that's all well and good.

And sometimes there's things outside of our control, like city ordinances or where the utilities are that really make that placement happen, but sometimes not. And sometimes we just do it because that's what we think we need to do. And so we want to really turn that on its head for this project.

And we want to say, you know, programming and that's meaning like different uses along the street — they don't have to mirror each other up and down the street  like one side of the street may look different than the other side of the street. That's okay. It doesn't have to be this perfect allée of street trees marching down.

And let's think about it from the user's point of view, not simply from the aesthetic point of view. Aesthetics are important, don't get me wrong, but let's do it for both. Let's make it beautiful and yet, cater to the comfort of the pedestrian.

Marshall Hinsley: Implemented in phases over the course of the next several decades. The Southwestern Medical District Transformation Project is a vision for a regional asset that will be funded through private and public partnerships, including funds and support from the City of Dallas, Dallas County, the North Central Texas Council of Governments and private donors.

University and corporate collaborations are filling in the gaps where the foundation depends on professional expertise. The physics department at U.T. Dallas has aided with sensor calibration and technical assistance. 

 Hyphae Design Labs, an elite ecological engineering firm out of California, is helping with sensor deployment.

Phoenix-based Semarchy is contributing data management services — just to name a few.

Kicking off funding in 2019, Lyda Hill Philanthropies contributed a $2.5 million challenge grant to reach a total of $5 million for the Southwestern Medical District's streetscape design of Harry Hines Boulevard. 

McClellan says that although many improvements brought about by the project as a whole will be easy to assess, such as reduced ambient temperatures and better air quality, there are countless improvements that come from resurrecting nature in an urban environment that are just as important to human health, but are more difficult to measure.

Lannie McClellan: It's really interesting. There's a term, I don't know if you've heard it, called biophilic design. We actually have a firm on our team that — this is what they do. They do biophilic design. And so biophilia basically says we all have within us this innate desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves, typically nature.

And so this company has come up with 15 patterns of biophilic design. You can't incorporate all 15 patterns into your design, but knowing the user, you could think about how, which patterns to include. And we have found, they have found, that when you do these biophilic patterns and you do them right, it increases our cognitive wellness; it decreases stress.

It allows us basically to go, 'ah, I feel so much better.'  And you may not even know that. And one of those is through bird song. It's just this biophilic element that naturally, you just let your guard down. If you think about our ancestors like walking through a forest, and that would be what would alert them: 'Oh, danger's coming. The birds are gone. The birds are fled. I'm in danger.'  And so innately we still carry that within us. 

Marshall Hinsley: McClellan also says that studies show that people feel safer when they're walking under a canopy of leaves and branches. When people feel safe, they're less stressed and less at risk of the mental and physical complications that come from a chronic stress response.

Lannie McClellan: Of course water is a great biophilic add — just the sound of water, just hearing the rippling and the splash of water just makes us feel better about ourselves and about where we are in life.

And so we're thinking about the users of the medical district now, many that may have a loved one there and they need to get out and take a walk or, you know, perhaps they were just diagnosed with something and they're walking to their car, and so how can we help them feel better? How can we help them relieve that sense of stress that they have.

And not only for the patients and the visitors, but also thinking about this is home to 43,000 students and people, staff who work here every single day, and how do we make their lives better? Many are in high burnout positions. We also want to retain our top docs and our top staff.

And so by providing an aesthetically pleasing, nice place, we can help accommodate  — it's better for us if we do that, better for the citizens of Dallas and the region to have this great healthcare that attracts and relieves stress from those that work there.

Marshall Hinsley: For the Texas Green Report, I'm Marshall Hinsley. 

You can find out more about plans to increase the tree canopy in cities in Texas, and how biophilic design, rewilding and prairie restoration efforts are keeping Texas beautiful and livable by visiting TexasGreenReport.org


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