Outside, in a busy medical district near downtown Dallas, lies a harsh, unhealthy landscape. How plans are underway to breathe new life into the area by bringing back nature. Rendering courtesy of Texas Trees Foundation.
Jan. 27, 2023
Stretching out over more than 1,000 acres of city blocks and thoroughfares near Downtown Dallas is the Southwestern Medical District. Within the district’s borders, between Stemmons Freeway and Maple Avenue, are world renowned medical facilities such as Children’s Health System of Texas, Parkland Hospital, Clements University Hospital, Texas Women’s University Institute of Health Sciences and the UT Southwestern Medical Center hospitals and clinics.
For the three million patients and their families who seek care from these medical resources each year, Southwestern Medical District offers life-saving and life-changing treatment on the cutting edge of medical research.
But for the more than 70,000 people who work in the district at clinics, hospitals and research campuses or live in nearby housing, it’s a barren urban landscape.
Venturing too far outside these medical facilities lands them straight into a hot, inhospitable concrete and asphalt laden terrain with poor air quality and none of the natural elements that create a healthy environment for both the body and mind.
This flat, industrial landscape was by design, says Rose Jones who spent 20 years of her medical professional career in the Southwestern Medical District.
“It was developed in 1940, this area – it was the periphery of Dallas – it was designed to be a freight area for moving cargo. That's why there's all this industry back here with the warehouse as well. That's why it's all concrete. There's no trees,” Jones says.
Harry Hines Boulevard, the main thoroughfare that bisects UT Southwestern’s North medical campus from its South campus, doesn’t even have sidewalks linking the campuses, she adds.
But that’s about to change.
Jones is now the urban green health researcher and strategist for the Texas Trees Foundation, a Texas-based non profit that advocates for green space in the urban environment. The nonprofit is currently enlisting public and private support to bring nature back into the medical district.
An overview of the Southwestern Medical District. Courtesy of Texas Trees Foundation.
The project is the first in the state, first in the nation, and maybe even first in the world, that will use 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.
University and corporate collaborations are filling in the gaps where the foundation depends on professional expertise: the physics department at UT Dallas has assisted 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.
“Understanding how critical good data governance is to achieving business outcomes, we saw this project as an opportunity to donate our core expertise to a leading entity that is pioneering solutions to mitigate urban heat,” said Brett Hansen, chief growth officer at Semarchy. “Trees are the answer, but where and what species to plant and other variables determine whether those plantings will succeed. We are honored to do our part to further data governance to help urban forests flourish.”
Through a series of smaller projects under an umbrella master plan called the Southwestern Medical District Transformation Project, the Texas Trees Foundation is currently organizing the installation of innovative sensors on top of bus stop shelters, clinic rooftops and other locations that will collect the 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, however, will use microclimate data that can vary from street to street. The technology will help landscape designers more reliably alleviate the so-called heat island effect — where concrete and buildings literally “bake” in unshaded sunlight. The data will also assist in improving air quality throughout.
MITIGATING HEAT ISLANDS
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.
“It emanates from work that was done by Texas trees in 2017, which was to produce a study on urban heat island effect," Jones says. "And what they found was that Dallas has the second worst heat effect index in the entire country, and that UT Southwestern, 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 like extreme heat and air quality, etc.”
“What we're doing is extraordinarily innovative. We're not just going to pull up the street and put 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 to understand better what temperature looks like, what humidity looks like, so that we can 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 trees would be most optimal for addressing air pollution. We know for example that pollution from cars 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.”
The sensors will collect data every 20 minutes and capture snapshots of the temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction, precipitation and light levels at key points in the district and will be processed with air quality data.
The data then will be used to create computer simulations of the climatic 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 in 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 a much-needed prevailing breeze to another area downwind.
Altogether, says Texas Trees Foundation project manager Lannie McClelen, 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.
“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 mark 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," she said.
“And so we want to really turn that on its head for this project, and we want to say 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 in rows. 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,” McClelen says.
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.
Kicking off the 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 Streetscape design of Harry Hines Boulevard. The design should be complete in late 2024, with bulldozers moving ground sometime afterward.
McClelen says that although many improvements brought about by the project 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 difficult to measure.
This aspect of landscape architecture is an emerging discipline that looks at the way that we’re all tied to the natural world: how the smell of wildflowers, the sound of birds, or the rustling of wind through the leaves of trees improves both our mood and our health.
“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," said McClelen. "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, and you can't incorporate all 15 patterns into your design.
“But, knowing the user, you could think about which patterns to best include, and they have found that when you do these biophilic patterns and you do them right, it increases our cognitive wellness. It decreases stress that allows us basically to go, ah, I feel so much better. And you may not even know that, and one of those is through birdsong. It’s just as biophilic element that just naturally, you just let your guard down.
“If you think about our ancestors, like walking through a forest, that would be what would alert them: oh, danger is coming – the birds are gone – the birds are fled – I'm in danger. And so innately, we still carry that within us. And so we're looking at that."
McClelen 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.
“Of course, water is a great biophilic add – just the sound of water, 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, many that may have a loved one there, and they need to get out and take a walk. Or 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?” she says.
“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 life better — many are in high burnout positions. We also want to retain our top docs and our top staff, and so 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 health care that attracts and relieve stress for those that work there.”
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