Sorry, Dallas, but boring works here
Let me say this: after the past four years, not to mention last month, I am excited not to be excited. Boredom sounds like the most attractive state right now, more like a privilege than a curse.
There is a reason for boredom, beyond exhaustion with the opposite. The subject has been studied with academic rigor recently, with the subject taking on new relevance in this final year of quarantine. For example, you might read James Danckert and John Eastwood’s Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom (Harvard, 2020) about what boredom means to the brain, or if you are more inclined to a social study of the phenomenon, Peter Toohey’s Boredom: One living history (Yale, 2012).
I will not withhold it from you if you find the academic discourse on boredom boring, but boredom itself, in its broadest sense, has its virtues. With this in mind, think of the letter from WG Sebald. In his idiosyncratic works – Austerlitz, Rings des Saturn, The Emigrants – individual sentences can continue page by page, with one excursus merging into another and then doubling itself. Is Sebald boring? Some think so, and I wouldn’t argue. But in his measured, ancient form, Sebald achieves a kind of intoxicating sublime.
A similar onscreen sensitivity shows up in the HBO series How to with John Wilson, in which a nebulous documentary filmmaker explores New York City with a handheld camera on missions of personal discovery. The strongest episode is a meandering examination of the history and purpose of scaffolding. A documentation about scaffolding? That sounds boring. And yet the essential worldliness of its presentation turns it into a profound meditation not only on temporary urban design, but also on our personal weaknesses.
Bored is also a useful idea for thinking about cities. The architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock did not advocate boring architecture per se, but instead distinguished in a seminal essay between the architecture of genius and the architecture of bureaucracy. The architecture of genius was the work of a select few great minds, the leaders of the trade, and perhaps best suited to places of great civic importance: museums, concert halls, government places. The architecture of bureaucracy – let’s call it boring – was the stuffing building of everyday life, made on a large scale. the quotidian architecture of housing and commerce.
Some of the best architectures in Dallas are bureaucratic. The M-Street Bungalow Home in Old East Dallas is qualified in this regard; These neighborhoods are “boring” as their regular streets and conventional houses of similar size stand side by side. But that’s boring in the best sense of the word.
Unfortunately, Dallas lacks boring architecture, especially in the downtown area, not least due to the wanton demolition of its built history. For more than half a century, Dallas has stripped of its bureaucratic edifice. The result is a city with above-ground parking spaces and urban developments.
In neighborhoods like Uptown and West Dallas, the city has replaced its bureaucratic building with a bad one, and the two are certainly not the same. Those chunky beige block apartment complexes, cheaply built and no pedestrian accommodation? There is no redemption of these projects.
We can find a root of the problem in the idea that boring building – or anything boring – is an abomination to the Dallas “big things happen here” ethos. That’s why those in power at Klyde Warren Park have set up a dazzling $ 10 million fountain that will shoot a choreographed water show into the sky. Why a simple water game for kids when you can blow up choreographed streams thirty meters?
I’m not excited about this excitement, but I’m cautiously optimistic about a new town hall initiative that is certainly boring. I am referring to Connect Dallas, the new strategic mobility plan released by the Department of Transportation earlier this month. An urban planning document is practically boring by definition, and this one is no exception: 106 bureaucratic pages. It has policy frameworks, action plans, performance dashboards, graphs and tables in Wazoo, all presented in a 1996 obsolete PowerPoint format. Snooze!
And that’s not even about the content: Mobility, which is itself a bit of sleep-promoting urban planning terminology, but is still crucial for our lives and includes everything from road design to development policy.
One of the priorities of the report is the adoption of an “Action Plan” to achieve the Vision Zero targets adopted by the City Council in 2019. That vision is to eradicate pedestrian deaths by 2030. This is an increasingly pressing issue as pedestrian safety in Dallas is catastrophically poor and, according to the report, it is getting worse, not better. Statistics (inherently boring) illustrate this problem: According to nonprofit Smart Growth America, Dallas had a Pedestrian Hazard Index of 124.2 in 2019, more than double the national average of 55.3, and a jump from the city’s 2016 value of 110.4.
It would be safer to walk in Dallas if the condition of the city’s sidewalks weren’t so dire. According to the report, Dallas has 4,400 miles of sidewalk, only 1,200 miles of which are free or undamaged, with a total of 2,100 miles missing. That’s right: almost half of the city’s sidewalks – the most basic building blocks of mobility – are functionally non-existent.
The report provides a strategy for correcting this situation, with a focus on areas of need and links to public transport. Honestly, it could do a lot more, but it’s a start.
There are many other worthy initiatives outlined here, including 885 new miles of bike lanes and infrastructure, plus some 200 miles of improved bus connections and a redesign of city parking requirements that are stifling growth and privileging cars over people. These ideas reflect the collective will of the city. Contributions to the headline goals and strategies were solicited at more than two dozen public events. I’m sure they were consistently boring, but no less productive.
Noteworthy in its absence in this report is any mention of bourgeois beauty. Perhaps that was seen as too exciting or irrelevant to his technocratic goals. A report that looks at mobility broadly to encompass development and housing strategies (as it does) could also recognize that the places we travel should be attractive: well designed, sustainable and with lots of trees, with Dallas being a heat island. I can’t think of a more critical destination for Dallas than creating roads that are safe and attractive.
And so I propose a new bourgeois mantra: Let’s make boring things happen here.