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As DFW's Population Explodes, Urban Planners Have Their Work Cut Out For Them

Rapid population growth spurred by corporate relocations to North Texas is fueling a new stream of investment, good news for the development community. But, there are many drawbacks to rapid people and business growth, and Dallas-Fort Worth cities and counties are starting to see these growing pains firsthand. 


The estimated population of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is somewhere over 7.5 million today, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Projections suggest DFW will have a population of roughly 9 million by 2030, according to an analysis by Cushman & Wakefield published in Dallas Culture Map

So how can urban planners deal with this population influx to ensure effective housing and infrastructure is in place before more people arrive?

The biggest thing urban planners can do is to admit there is no longer one all-important downtown and that land use goals are now of utmost importance even though DFW still has a critical stock of empty land, experts say.

As urban sprawl pushes out to the furthermost suburbs, more North Texans are insisting on living in 20-minute cities where their homes, grocery stores, entertainment districts and offices are within 20 minutes of each other. This trend is a major disrupter when it comes to the big city, small suburb mentality of traditional development. 

"For us to sustain growth in North Texas the way it is coming, we will have to build our cities as a series of urban metros," Gensler Studio Director and principal Barry Hand said. "There was a time when everybody worked Downtown, but there are not enough roads and infrastructure to have one central business district anymore. So what you see in North Texas is a series of urban nodes."

That 20-minute city model of scattered nodes also will require more investment in green space, he said.

"In the future, there is going to be an increased demand for housing within walking distance to employment and that's going to require a series of linear parks and open spaces that people can use not just for health and wellness but to transfer back and forth to either lifestyle amenities or employment," Hand said.  

But many challenges remain in getting North Texas set up as an interlinked hybrid metro that has the energy, water, infrastructure and affordable housing capacity to accommodate the millions of new people arriving in the next decade.

"To accommodate those people, we need more space," said professor Khan Rahaman, an adjunct faculty member with St. Mary's University who has studied the environmental impact of growth and development. 

Rahaman said because rapid growth generally results in suburban and urban sprawl, it can have a devastating impact on residents. 

"The most significant negative consequences could be on the local environment and the social environment ... and weather and air pollution," Rahaman said. 

He also points to traffic congestion, which causes more air pollution and can lead to added traffic fatalities as people are forced to travel longer distances to get to work and home.

Rahaman said urban sprawl generally leads to poor urban planning and lower-density development, which in turn creates a higher risk of long-term environmental and structural issues. The professor said he recommends the placement of an actual urban boundary around any growing area to stipulate that sprawl will eventually not be allowed beyond a certain point.

Hand said newer housing stock in DFW that utilizes less land is needed to combat excessive sprawl and its impact on the area's infrastructure and quality of life. 

"The single-family neighborhood is alive and well in America," Hand said. "Going forward, we will, however, need to reorganize many of our current zoning ordinances to allow a greater diversity of uses and housing typologies that are currently not permitted. Embedded retail/dining and this ‘missing middle’ type housing can bring a richness of experience to residential neighborhoods."

DART rail

The Dallas suburb of Plano, which is almost built out to capacity, also recognizes the need for more housing types beyond apartments and standard single-family homes.

"The other side of the equation is we definitely need to have more single-family ownership options: smaller lot sizes, more townhomes and backyard cottages," Plano Comprehensive Planning Manager Mike Bell said. 

Transportation solutions connecting DFW counties and cities are another major component of growing North Texas the right way. 

Denton County, which is experiencing rapid industrial and residential growth along Interstate 35, has its county judge and commissioners searching for ways to fund transportation and infrastructure projects. 

"We are just over 900,000 and growing at a faster pace than projected five years ago," Denton County Director of Economic Development Michael Talley said. 

"Projections in 2016 showed us passing the 1 million mark in 2030. That’s much more likely to happen by 2025 now."

The Office of the State Demographer updated its projections in 2019, forecasting Denton will reach 2.3 million residents by 2050, Talley added. 

As growth continues, the need to effectively connect DFW counties to each other through infrastructure while also setting up roads, water, sewer services for residential and commercial projects is critical to keeping the region's growth on the right path, according to Talley. 

Plano also is looking to improve public transportation options from the light rail to the local busing system. The need for more busing shows Plano is now a well-established city that's starting to deal with the increased demands of a larger metro.

"I think the DART System is looking at a redesign of the bus system right now," Bell said. "In the DART service area, Plano has greater usage of the on-demand GoLink service than cities like Garland, Irving and Richardson, and some of the other established suburbs."

What all the urban planning experts studying DFW agree on is the need for more innovation and dense development to tackle North Texas' next wave of explosive growth. It's a sea change the entire CRE chain — from financing to construction — needs to get behind. 

"Many current financing and underwriting models for development can discourage tighter densities and vertical mixes of uses," Hand said. "In order to bring the highest utilization of land, financing models will need to adapt, and cities will need to participate in incentivizing tighter densities built around a mix of uses which then require smaller quantities of redundant parking and the need to travel so much."