Diane Fullingim, program chair of the Addison Rotary Club, needed a speaker for the business organization’s weekly Friday breakfast. 

She has 45 spots to fill for her term and peruses the event schedules of other groups for ideas. That’s how she stumbled on the name of Patrick Kennedy, a young urban planner who had recently presented to the Rotary Club of Park Cities. Over the past year, Kennedy has been busily making the rounds, speaking to civic groups large and small all over North Texas. 

So into the wood-paneled, white-tableclothed confines of Lawry’s restaurant—located on the service road of the Dallas North Tollway and famous for its tableside presentation of prime rib on silver carts—walks Kennedy. The 36-year-old has brown, wavy hair slathered in gel, a pointed nose, and stubble framing his jaw. He typically wears a corduroy sport coat over a well-pressed shirt with an extra button undone from the neck—professorial in a scruffy, beleaguered way. Someone once remarked to me that Kennedy always looks a little sweaty, which may have been a joke about how he first came to public attention as the guy who lived in Dallas without a car.

Kennedy enters with his computer bag slung over his shoulder and gets to work. The computer contains hundreds of PowerPoint slides that he projects in rapid succession to deliver his civic sermon. Don’t believe the headlines about Dallas’ economic rebound after the 2007 recession. Dallas, he says, is not doing well. While the North Texas region may be booming, if you look closely at the numbers, the city of Dallas isn’t. Between 2000 and 2010, while the region grew by 23.4 percent, Dallas only grew by 0.8 percent, adding 9,236 people, the fewest of any decade since 1890. The population of downtown has yet to reach projections, and the number of jobs has shrunk. Between 2001 and 2012, Dallas County was the third-worst performing county in the country for job creation and wage increases. During that period, the poor were the fastest-growing segment of the population, increasing 41 percent. And 38 percent of children in Dallas live in poverty, the highest rate among cities with more than 1 million residents.

Forget about the studies that rank the region among the world’s boom towns. Kennedy compares the city itself to the poster child of urban decay: Detroit. 

He keeps his head bent over his script, racing through it occasionally in an effort to cram all the information into his allotted time. The slides have a steady stream of history, theory, and data: census information, job numbers, traffic counts, population and cost projections, street maps, road grid renderings, and more. He’s learned that his presentations can’t contain too much information. The more data he provides, the more people he converts.

His gospel is hard to swallow at first, but Kennedy has seen neighborhood gadflies and billionaire businessmen alike slowly adjust to the light once the scales have fallen from their eyes. This man is essentially preaching that, since World War II, all of our policy decisions about the city and transportation infrastructure have been based on bad data and faulty assumptions. It’s a scary thing to admit, but more and more, Dallas’ business leaders are coming to grips with it.

“I have seen his presentation a number of times,” says Bob Meckfessel, an architect and president of the Dallas-based DSGN Associates. “And I’ve seen developers and traffic engineers—people who would normally be skeptics—be completely persuaded by what he is saying.”

The timing of all this is significant. A City Council election with six open seats looms in May. For the first time in more than a generation, transportation, urbanization, walkability, sustainability, and livability have gone from fringe topics to central issues of campaigns. Kennedy has a lot to do with why these ideas are suddenly front and center.

“I think there has been a cultural shift in the last seven years,” says former council member Angela Hunt, who led a referendum effort to kill the Trinity toll road in 2007. “In 2007, the idea that it is not good to build major highways in the heart of the city was not considered a powerful argument at the time. I think we are smarter about transportation. We have a different vision. And Patrick has played an important part of that.”

Kennedy’s story intersects with a broader cultural shift that is changing the way the city thinks about itself. His acceptance in Dallas is unlikely. In the decade or so since he moved to town for a job, this Yankee with no connections to Dallas has gained access to the halls of power and become an agent of social change. He’s done it with nothing more than data, PowerPoint slides, and shoe leather. 

•••

When Kennedy was 15 years old, he watched a golf tournament on TV and decided to give the sport a try—which, given his temperament, meant he obsessed over it. After midnight, he would sneak onto a course near his parents’ house in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and drop a bag of balls in a sand trap off the 18th green, practicing in the dim light from the nearby clubhouse. Some mornings he would get to the course at 6 and play two or three rounds, sometimes with multiple balls. Eventually, he got good enough to play No. 2 on his high school team. He joined a regional junior tour for the summer. He was good, if hot-tempered. He once broke a 7-iron over his knee in a tournament after he kept coming up short on approach shots. 

“I was wild and inconsistent,” he says. “But the wildness gave me a lot of practice getting out of trouble, imagining crazy shots and trying to pull them off.”

“I would look at that highway and all the derelict land around it and think, ‘What else could it be?’ ”

When he enrolled at Penn State University in 1997, he decided to major in landscape architecture so he could design golf courses. Then, just a year into his studies, he quit golf almost entirely. After a semester living in Rome and studying urban morphology—the way cities change over time—Kennedy had found a new obsession: the way cities work. He immersed himself, just as he had with golf. He took every urban planning course he could. During the summers, he found internships with some of the best traffic engineers in the country, people like Walter Kulash and Ian Lockwood.

In the world of traffic engineering, Kulash and Lockwood are famed iconoclasts. They are both pioneers of “livable traffic design,” which argues that the traffic engineering establishment has prioritized the efficiency of roads to the detriment of the communities those roads serve. “It was a monopoly on people’s minds,” Lockwood says of the cars-first mentality that dominated American traffic engineers’ thinking for decades. The two have been instrumental in reclaiming public space, shrinking streets, and creating designs that accommodate pedestrians, bikes, and other modes of transportation. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, Lockwood managed the impossible, helping to convince the city to remove a highway that ran between downtown and the river. 

Lockwood remembers his young intern as someone with a “sponge-like” ability to learn new ideas. Paul Shaw, Kennedy’s first boss at the architecture firm RTKL in Dallas, says he could recognize in a teleconference interview that Kennedy was “smart, not clever” and possessed strong “moral values” about the planning and design profession.

“The pitfall of a lot of people in the design industries is that they become self-justified based on design principles,” Shaw says. “For Patrick, design is an outcome of looking at a larger societal need.”

When Kennedy finished school, he had to decide where to ply his craft. Many of his friends went to the “design capitals,” cities like Chicago, Seattle, D.C., and San Francisco, places noted for their vibrant street life and communities of designers and architects. But Kennedy wanted something else. Having seen how Lockwood had transformed places like Chattanooga and West Palm Beach, Florida, Kennedy wanted a place where he could make a big impact. He had two requirements for a city: it had to be warm, and it had to be car-centric. 

“I wanted to go to the most sprawling place I could find,” he says. “Where is better than Dallas?”

In 2002, Kennedy moved to the city without ever having visited it. He crossed the Texas border in his Toyota Corolla and watched empty fields give way to miles and miles of subdivisions, strip malls, and interstate interchanges. He found an apartment on Gaston Avenue and walked every day to RTKL’s offices in downtown. His route took him along skinny, cracked sidewalks and had him traversing dangerous streets that were widened in the 1970s and 1980s to speed traffic past vacant lots and empty storefronts. And every day he passed beneath the barren underbelly of I-345, an elevated section of highway on the eastern side of downtown that connects I-45 and Central Expressway.

“Every single day, I would look at that highway and look at all the derelict land around it and think, ‘What else could it be?’ ” Kennedy says. 

When he first arrived, RTKL was working on some of the area’s more progressive re-urbanization projects, including Addison Circle and The Shops at Legacy. But after the recession, the firm began sourcing work overseas, in the Middle East and China, projects Shaw now refers to as “pleasure domes for Kubla Khans.”

“I had an interest on my part to work on local and regional projects,” Kennedy says. “I thought, ‘Well, all that stuff is going to crash, and I won’t have a client base.’ I wanted to change Dallas, not build the next glamour project in Dubai.”

In 2009, Kennedy left the firm and founded Space Between Design Studio with Shaw and Karen Koerth, a landscape architect from RTKL. The previous year, he had totaled his Corolla. But rather than replace it, he used the insurance check to rent and furnish a downtown loft. During that first year with Space Between, the fledgling company didn’t have many clients, and Kennedy was more or less working part-time. So he poured himself into the blog he had started after the accident, which he called Car Free in Big D. It became a “brain dump,” a place where he could work out ideas about urban problems that weren’t being engaged by his day job. 

Kennedy says he was also responding to a void he perceived in the conversation in Dallas about urbanism. It’s not that he was the only person thinking about these issues. In 2005, architect Brent Brown founded his nonprofit community design firm, bcWorkshop. And in 2010 Jason Roberts would start Better Block, a grassroots movement that temporarily reconfigures streets as a demonstration of community frustration and desire. But the Dallas Morning News didn’t have a full-time architecture critic after David Dillon retired in 2006. And the local blogs were still in their infancy.

“There was no dialogue about some of these issues,” Kennedy says. “And you could sense it in the comments of local blogs that there was so much distrust—snarkiness and lashing out—but also wondering about why nobody is questioning or asking what is the other side of this story, from a professional or technical perspective.”

Kennedy began asking those questions, and his blog got noticed. The Dallas Morning News and Texas Observer wrote about him, and eventually D Magazine offered him a regular column. (Disclosure: D has since incorporated Kennedy’s blog into its website, though Kennedy operates it independently and is not paid by D for his online writing. And D’s publisher, Wick Allison, is working with Kennedy through an organization called the Coalition for a New Dallas. The PAC is pushing to replace I-345, redo I-30, and turn I-45 into a boulevard. It supports candidates for local and state office who have the same vision.)

That’s when Kennedy appeared on the radar of people like Andy Stern. Stern, a former staff assistant for President Gerald Ford, was the first public relations agency executive to become a member of the Dallas Citizens Council. He’s been involved in Dallas affairs and politics for more than 30 years. Stern represented two clients—a shopping center in Allen and the Victory development—that Kennedy slammed in the pages of this magazine.

“Whether you agreed or disagreed with him, you could see his potential influence, and I put him on my list to watch,” Stern says. “That alone is not enough, but what happened with Patrick was related to the change in Dallas and the change in the world: the phenomenon of social media, the rise of the millennials who have a different view of their lifestyle. This confluence happens, and Patrick was out in front of it.”

Kennedy’s profile really began to rise when he returned to the question that first occurred to him on those walks to his RTKL office downtown. What else could be done with all that dead space under and around I-345? He and a collaborator, Brandon Hancock, launched A New Dallas in March of last year. Their radical idea, laid out on a website dedicated to it: tear down the elevated highway and turn it into an at-grade boulevard that could promote dense urban development, the sort that would reconnect downtown with East Dallas. They estimate that redevelopment of the unused land around I-345 could result in $4 billion in private investment and draw 25,000 new residents to downtown. 

The idea intrigued many and frightened others. The American edition of London’s Guardian newspaper asked him to write about his efforts. Noted urban thinkers like Jeff Speck and Richard Florida became followers of his effort. The Congress for the New Urbanism added I-345 to its list of roads it believes should be torn down, and Kennedy is now the president of the North Texas Chapter of the CNU; the organization will hold its annual national meeting in Dallas next month. The Dallas establishment also began to take Kennedy seriously. In January, he flew to Aspen for  the Sundance Film Festival on a private jet owned by a real estate magnate.

“Half the billionaires in this city love me,” Kennedy says. “Half of them hate me.”

•••

On January 22, the Morning News reported more good news for Dallas. “Study Puts Dallas in Top Tier of World’s Fastest-Growing Economies,” read the headline. Beneath it, the paper ran a photo of the city’s shimmering skyline, its towering glass buildings twinkling in the late afternoon sun. 

These kinds of reports rankle Kennedy. Over lunch at Savor, the restaurant in Klyde Warren Park, he holds forth about the detrimental impact these macroeconomic reports have on popular perception. Cities are places of economic and social exchange, and dense urban environments support these functions most efficiently. A strong Dallas is vital for a strong region. Despite the region’s success, to continue to grow as we have is fundamentally unsustainable. 

“When he first started his blog, we all thought he was nuts,” Larry Good says. “But his
presentations are provocative in the way you want them to be. It gets people thinking.”

But it’s not just the big-picture stuff that occupies his mind. Kennedy travels around Dallas with a hand-held weather station and a radar gun, ready to collect field data whenever the opportunity arises. Earlier in the week, he was tracking the speed of cars on Scyene Road, in southeast Dallas. He routinely monitors traffic speeds to collect data that show there is a disparity between regulation and behavior, that the best way to control speed is not with speed limits but through street design. On his way to our lunch, he tweeted about the temperature difference between his office in State-Thomas and Klyde Warren, attributing the pleasantness of the streets of State-Thomas on a cold winter’s day to the environmental efficiency of compact urban forms. 

It is Kennedy’s ability to collect and wield data—from census reports, engineering studies, his own observations—that has made him convincing not only to urban advocates, but to the city’s business elite. “When you come from the East Coast, you think the ideas are enough,” he says. “I think that is a fundamental failing of the planning and design industry, not understanding the business side of it. You have to take those good ideas and prove them up.”

The point Kennedy tries to drive home in all of his presentations is this: for the past 60 years, we have grown the region in a way that has rotted the core of the city. In his PowerPoint slides, he systematically walks through the evidence, citing erroneous population growth and traffic projections made by the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG), the municipal planning organization for the region. Perhaps Kennedy’s strongest business argument is that bad planning represents opportunity cost. The central core should have the highest tax base; it should produce a surplus of revenue, helping to support the maintenance and revitalization of surrounding neighborhoods.  

“In that sense, he’s the one-man local COG,” says Dallas city council member Scott Griggs. “The COG is putting out all this data on the region, and the city just adopts it. When the region has good news, we don’t check to see that the city has good news. We’re now realizing the underlying flaw in regionalism.”

After speaking with dozens of people who have either seen Kennedy’s presentation or who follow his work—politicians, property developers, architects, planners, and other civic leaders—I heard the same story over and over. Initial skepticism gives way to eventual acceptance of Kennedy’s argument. 

Ted Hamilton, the president of the development company Hamilton Properties, saw Kennedy’s presentation to Downtown Dallas Inc. “We never talked about these issues before Patrick did his presentation,” he says. “For someone to challenge TxDOT and their traffic studies, it is a valiant effort. During and after, it was pretty obvious that the majority of folks agreed with his position.” 

“When he first started his Car Free in Big D blog, we all thought he was nuts,” says Larry Good, an architect and principal with Good Fulton & Farrell who has been involved in many major planning projects in Dallas. “But his dialogue has helped. His presentations are provocative in the way you want them to be. It gets people thinking.”

Naturally, not everyone who hears Kennedy’s message becomes a convert. One Dallas developer was skeptical and pointed to his hometown of Chicago, where urbanism and walkability are paired with constantly congested highways that make moving around the city by car difficult. Even Good, who praises Kennedy for helping to make density and transit alternatives not part of some “esoteric conversation,” says that he’s not convinced the I-345 plan is “as simple as he makes it out.” But Kennedy doesn’t expect to make everyone a true believer. 

“What you hear the most is, ‘I came in skeptical, and I still don’t totally believe it.’ But at least you are starting to move the needle,” Kennedy says. “And if you are questioning their initial assumptions, then there is going to be more of that dialogue.”

Besides the data, what has perhaps helped Kennedy’s message more than anything are the examples already on the ground. Nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned Klyde Warren Park. It’s a place where you can see Kennedy’s ideas about vibrancy, pedestrian congestion, and urban connectivity come to life. Then there are Bishop Arts and areas of Uptown, but also places in the suburbs like the ones Kennedy worked on while at RTKL, Addison Circle and The Shops at Legacy. In fact, even as Kennedy tries to win converts to his vision of an urban Dallas, the real estate community may already be filing into the pews. 

“There has been a huge shift in the development world,” he says. “Ten years ago, people were still afraid of the word ‘density’ and the word ‘apartment.’ Now there are enough examples on the ground. It used to be that Richardson would shut down anything that was apartment-density, but now they are all about the State Farm development and are touting it as their Legacy. So there has been a huge shift that way, and I don’t think I have had anything to do with it. That’s a national thing.”

•••

There’s always a point in a Patrick Kennedy presentation when it all starts to feel a bit like Animal Farm. Slide after slide shows how the forces of regionalism have stripped the city bare, and you think: Is this coercion? Willful ignorance? Conspiracy? Surely our policy makers can’t be this out of touch?

Mayor Mike Rawlings has said that he believes Dallas is just a neighborhood in the larger city of DFW. But depending on whom you talk to at the city, many people will tell you that, for years, they have been well aware of the data and ideas in Kennedy’s PowerPoint. Karl Zavitkovsky, who heads the Dallas Office of Economic Development, says that for nearly 20 years they have recognized that the old model of growing the city’s tax base—new development in green fields—was no longer viable. 

“What we recognized in the late 1990s was that we’re not going to expand anymore, and so we have to do a better job with what we’ve got,” Zavitkovsky says. “That ties in to a more sustainable development policy.”

Kourtny Garrett, executive vice president for Downtown Dallas Inc., says that a lot of the ideas Kennedy talks about have been floating around in planning circles for years, things like road diets and traffic calming. What’s different now is that more people are engaged, and social media have given people a voice and helped changed the planning world.

That’s not an insignificant development, she adds. Garrett says that, politically speaking, Dallas’ approach to urban planning—stretching all the way back to the Kessler Plan—has also been the product of the private sector motivating the public sector. Now she sees a shift toward more community involvement.

“In that sense, I think [Kennedy] is a disrupter in the best sense of the term,” she says. “In a lot of different areas in Dallas, we are beginning to open to things that are disruptive. Look at new things coming online in the art world. I think in the planning world, Patrick is that. He is bringing things to light that intuitively a lot of people feel, but he has the expertise and the data that make it very persuasive.”

Planner Robert Prejean has another term for Patrick: an “activist planner.” “As opposed to the comprehensive planner or the bureaucratic planner,” Prejean says.

BcWorkshop’s Brent Brown says that what Kennedy is doing is essentially building on a foundation that had been laid by people like Gail Thomas at The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, who brought Jane Jacobs to Dallas 29 years ago. The difference is that he is pushing these ideas into a new form of public dialogue. 

“The culture of the South is not to air your dirty laundry,” Brown says. “What is incredible now is the sophistication of this dialogue. All the right questions are being asked. What are the answers? We all have our biases. But Patrick’s work is coming from a position, and he is making space for that conversation, which is important.”

Perhaps more significant, Brown believes, some of the initiatives and ideas that Kennedy pushes are driving at a deeper, more existential question that Dallas has never been able to tackle head-on. After all, the urban center of Dallas—the part of the city that was once served by the old streetcar system that stretched from Lakewood to Oak Cliff, Highland Park to the Dallas Zoo—comprises only 15 percent of the total population of the city.

“The confusion is that we don’t really know what kind of city we want to be,” Brown says. “What does it mean to have an urban center and a suburban majority? What about the other 1.1 million? What do they want? How do you behave, how do you function?”

It’s that disconnect—between the suburban and urban conflicts within Dallas, not the region—that makes the politics of urban planning particularly difficult in this city. Kennedy readily admits that learning to negotiate political issues has been harder for him than figuring out the business world. Some have argued that turning I-345 into an at-grade boulevard would make things worse for South Dallas commuters. 

“I’m such a racist, trying to separate children from their mothers, chain people to bicycles,” he jokes. “Those perceptions are still something that I’m trying to navigate.”

For now, Kennedy will take any win he can get, even the small ones. In mid-January, he snapped a photo with his phone and tweeted the image of a random intersection in the State-Thomas district. Two new stop signs had been installed, and the timing coincided with a report he produced as part of a master plan that his firm has been hired to complete for Uptown Dallas, identifying “quick wins” for improving safety and pedestrian walkability in the area, including converting intersections from two-way to four-way stops.

This here. This is what he is talking about. Residents, recognizing how the two-way stop had encouraged speedy traffic through one of Dallas’ most walkable neighborhoods, had petitioned for a four-way stop. The new stop signs were a real, tangible victory. They represented an alignment between the desires of a community and Kennedy’s vision of a safer, more pedestrian Dallas. They were a tiny indicator that Dallas is inching its way toward its new, best self. 

“I’m so happy about these new stop signs,” Kennedy tweeted. “I can’t even explain.”