Left: Dallas’ most well-known park, Fair Park, is the site of the State Fair of Texas each year, in addition to the Cotton Bowl, museums and the Music Hall at Fair Park. Right: The Dallas skyline is mirrored in the Sammons Park reflecting pool at the Winspear Opera House. (File Photo/Staff)


Our places to play do serious work
At a time of isolation, parks can help knit our democracy back together

Sure, parks are places to play. And studies have shown that parks can be an important part of efforts to drive regional economic development, which we’ve seen here in Dallas.

But what if we also viewed parks as an important lever for strengthening our democracy?

We are living in a time where our social fabric has been weakened, and we’ve been more disconnected than ever because of the pandemic. For a time last year, my neighbors were even afraid to venture beyond their own front porches to say hello.

Sadly, this fear and uncertainty exacerbated the effects of economic and racial segregation in our city and served as an important reminder that the well-being of our communities relies on our ability to connect with people outside of our family units.

That’s where parks come in. Parks are truly equitable spaces. Spaces where we engage with one another regardless of background or socioeconomic status.

We tend to live our lives within familiar circles, but parks can be true melting pots. They can reflect the cultural fabric of our city. Parks showcase the wonderful diversity of our community while, at the same time, they are a simple reminder of how much we have in common.

As a mom of two active boys, I can attest to the timeless and universal love children have for swings. Higher, faster, jump!

According to the organization Reimagining the Civic Commons, well-designed, managed and programmed civic spaces such as parks and libraries connect Americans in ways that build measurable trust and increase social capital, which in turn creates the civically engaged residents we need for democracy to flourish. And civic engagement isn’t just beneficial to communities; it’s also an indicator of our collective health and well-being.

I experienced this firsthand as a child growing up in a large, global city: Toronto. I learned a lot about people from different walks of life, people who didn’t necessarily look like me or sound like me or worship like me, because they were my neighbors. We attended school together; we shopped at the same grocery stores; and we played in parks together. We were the proverbial village.

We built trust through our everyday interactions, a trust that comes from meeting someone face-to-face who is very different from you, and yet your shared experiences bind you in ways you can’t even imagine.

At Southern Gateway Park, we’re intentionally investing in infrastructure that will provide these same opportunities for connectedness. But it’s so much more than that. Southern Gateway is a park with a purpose.

Our mission is to not only address the physical divide that Interstate 35E created when it tore through Oak Cliff in the 1950s, but also to bring people together and bridge the societal divide that continues to persist in our city.

The communities surrounding the park feel the impact of systemic inequities every day.

But this is Oak Cliff and, like my neighbors, I’m proud to call Oak Cliff home. In one of the most economically and racially segregated cities in the country, the residents of Oak Cliff are intentionally figuring out how to embrace and celebrate the diversity of our neighbors, while at the same time acknowledging the truth of our history, good or bad.

And it’s the perfect place for Southern Gateway Park. When the park opens in 2023, it will be that connective tissue our city so desperately needs. It will be a safe and welcoming place where people play, gather and connect.

It will spark conversation and create new friendships. It will revitalize neighborhoods and renew spirits. And maybe, just maybe (or if we’re lucky), it will be the catalyst for Dallas’ next great chapter and a valuable legacy for our children of which we can all be proud.

Meet you on the swings!

April Allen is president and chief operating officer of Southern Gateway Public Green Foundation. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.