Brent Brown, founder of bcWorkshop, will receive the Green Source DFW’s 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award on Nov. 9 at the Dallas Arboretum.
Nov. 3, 2017
City designer. Urban planner. Public architect. Sustainability expert. Community advocate. Brent A. Brown, AIA, LEED AP, is a man of many titles. On Nov. 9, he will be recognized with one more distinction as the recipient of the 2017 Green Source DFW Lifetime Achievement Award.
For those who know his groundbreaking work in participatory urban design, Brown is a Dallas institution. "The People’s Architect" we might call him. But even those who have not directly benefited from his creative work have likely been touched by it, or soon will be.
In January 2017, Brown accepted the position of interim president with the Trinity Park Conservancy and is presently working to deliver to the people of Dallas the new 200-acre plus Trinity River Park, which will be approximately 11 times larger than Central Park in New York City. His charge is to restore Trinity River to its rightful role as an integrated feature of city life, one that is both accessible and welcoming to all citizens.
Brown has devoted his career to revisioning how we live, work and play. The work that he began in Dallas in 2005 with his non-profit “buildingcommunity WORKSHOP” has since been replicated in cities across the nation, as well as in Europe. Brown’s projects have ranged in scale from designing a modest sustainable single family home to redesigning our national disaster recovery system.
bcWorkshop's Congo Street Initiative transformed a blighted east Dallas street into a model of small-scale sustainable urban development.
Garrett Boone, chairman emeritus and cofounder of The Container Store, vice chair of the Board of Directors for the Trinity Park Conservancy and principal investor in the eco-friendly home improvement store TreeHouse, considers Brown an innovator in sustainable public projects in Dallas.
“With the founding of bcWORKSHOP through the generous funding help of Deedie and Rusty Rose, Brent pioneered urban design and planning for Dallas,” said Boone. “Now Brent has turned those same visionary talents toward helping plan and execute the Harold Simmons Park between the Calatrava bridges on the Trinity River.”
“bcWORKSHOP continues to be instrumental in helping to plan and design a better, more thoughtful, and more sustainable future for Dallas,” said Boone.
The ripple effects of Brown’s early efforts to translate the will of the people into public design already extend well beyond the two-block radius of the neighborhood that he helped to develop. For example, where others saw only blight on a forgotten city block near Fair Park, Brown envisioned the Congo Street Initiative, which ultimately transformed a remnant of our segregated history into a model for small-scale sustainable urban development.
Through the cooperation of an innovative public-private partnership that included hundreds of volunteers as well as the families that live there, the Congo Street Initiative is one among many successful examples of “justice through engagement,” a hallmark philosophy of Brown’s work. Building on the transformative story of a street, Brown now aims to build on the story of a river.
“This is our city, this is Dallas. It didn’t happen overnight. We’ve shaped it. We’ve built buildings…we moved a river,” Brown told an audience in a 2011 TEDxSMU talk. “We’ve done a really good job in Dallas of making Dallas bigger, but let’s make it better.”
I recently caught up with Brent for an update on how we can help make Dallas better. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation:
GS: How do you intend to use your role as interim director of the Trinity Park Conservancy to bring more citizens into the urban design process?
BB: I believe the Trinity offers our next urban design framework for the city. If we can center our city on the Trinity – a promise of over 100 years – we can build a more equitable city. The space and the wonderful opportunity to engage in nature and parks all along the Trinity is an opportunity for our city to have a great gathering place, to feel welcome and to find things they enjoy.
At 200 acres, the Harold Simmons Park [a portion of the Trinity River Park] is a way to offer people both an urban experience and a naturalized experience. It’s the first in a series of parks up and down the river, which is essentially a big piece of flood-control infrastructure. In this case, we’re going to work to build public spaces, somewhere between a renaturalized river and an urban park. It doesn’t have to be one or the other; maybe it can be both. We need to be open.
"In this case, we’re going to work to build public spaces, somewhere between a re-naturalized river and an urban park. It doesn’t have to be one or the other; maybe it can be both."
GS: What are some of the methods that you use to enable public participation in exploring a project’s potential?
BB: A lot of people don’t like to talk about process because it can sound abstract. But process matters because the way the methods are applied can influence the outcome. At [bc], we developed a series of methodologies, things like data and storytelling. But the answer is also in design itself. When we draw things we bring clarity. You don’t listen and design and then you’re done. You engage, you learn, you produce and repeat again.
Essentially, the public has interests, and there are a lot of them, often at odds but with a healthy tension. Too often we start to separate and inventory those in order to deliver an idea versus harnessing the power within those ideas and then proposing new ways to get to an answer. When you start the project you can get an idea of a different range but you don’t know what it will become. For example, with Hickory Crossing, we didn’t know if it would be one unit or 50 units. Instead, we learned about individual identity within these and then took it from there.
If I could explain our method in three steps, it would look like this:
1. Be open, not too prescriptive. Be restrained. Don't start designing too fast.
2. Be honest about where our power lies. Communities have limited resources so how do you work with this so they are less challenged? Ensure that people have a common ground of understanding. Don’t present, but create a dialogue.
3. Be diligent. You have to be diligent and honest in how you capture information and document it. Also, it’s okay to have different views of something. So often today we’re tormented by the inability to reason and accept a dissenting opinion, but in criticism lies a lot of good clarity.
GS: What are some of your early achievements in participatory design that you are most proud of and how have they created a positive impact for Dallas residents?
BB: Working in small ways can have a huge impact. We started Congo Street 10 years ago by focusing on one street, one house at a time, with a small group of residents. We amplified their interests and helped to raise the importance of working situationally in places across the city to solve physical challenges. Who would have thought that it would have amplified to a level where bcWORKSHOP would have an impact across the state and the country?
As an architect I think being restrained in our work has helped. We don’t overpower the question with an answer. We don’t prescribe the solution but rather we work a process. There’s no universal one-size-fits-all. It takes time, patience and an open mind. It also takes us all to see that there are many solutions; we just need to give them the space to let those solutions come forward.
GS: What should the top 2-3 priorities be for citizens who are interested in making their voices heard in urban design?
BB: It’s an old cliché but you’ve got to be involved. Citizens need to participate in organizations that help people champion this. Show up at City Hall. Share via social media. I think people need to get informed but it can also be hard to get to the facts. We’re going to launch a new website that I think will offer some opportunities there. Of course, I don’t want anyone to get all of their information from one source, but we’ve got to find ways to make information gathering easier.
GS: What are some concluding thoughts for Dallasites interested in advocating for smart growth and other strategies to enhance livability in our city?
BB: We need to keep asking ourselves, ‘How do we harness the power of the million we already have?’ We have to grow the city for the people that live here, and that often means growing ourselves. If you’re really interested in getting involved, you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone. Too many stay within their own geographies. You need to explore the city both intellectually and experientially, and need to not be afraid.
We shouldn’t live in cities to be segregated. If you want to be self-reliant in the country, you can do that. But if you’re living in a city, the opportunities and advantages are in the differences among us. Pursuing those is the best way long-term to build a city.
Green Source DFW Sustainable Leadership Awards
About: Sixth annual awards, hosted by the Memnosyne Institute, Green Source DFW’s parent organization. The event honors outstanding green advocates, businesses, nonprofits and volunteers in North Texas. Brent A. Brown will receive this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Here are the finalists.
When: Nov. 9, 2017, 5-5:45 p.m. Pre-awards reception & Wine Tasting. 5:45 p.m. dinner and awards.
Where: Dallas Arboretum, 8525 Garland Rd, Dallas