Community Benefit Projects: How the Oak Cliff Community is Impacting Change
November 19, 2020

Community Benefit Projects: How the Oak Cliff Community is Impacting Change

The story of how South Oak Cliff Principal Dr. Willie Johnson recruited the Trust for Public Land to address the “park desert”

In July 2018 Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that creates parks and protects land in order to ensure healthy, livable communities for generations to come, was completing a tree planting project in South Oak Cliff. That’s when South Oak Cliff High School Principal Dr. Willie Johnson called TPL, and invited them to a meeting with high school alumni and community stakeholders.

At the meeting, residents shared how the school’s campus is a point of pride, but the overgrown creek and vacant lot next door were blights attracting criminal activity and affecting student safety. Dr. Johnson said, “What should be a beautiful place of nature is instead polluted, littered, and an eyesore.”

Community members shared their hope for the vacant lot to become an educational and recreational resource for students and a place where residents could enjoy safe, healthy activities – no matter their abilities or age.

So TPL went to work and started a process to bring the dream of a park to life.

A Park for the Community, Designed by the Community

Throughout 2019 and 2020, TPL led a coalition of community and nonprofit partners to engage hundreds of residents and students in all aspects of acquiring, designing and developing the Alice Branch Creek Greenbelt. During that time, TPL acquired the 1.8-acre vacant lot next to South Oak Cliff High School, and conducted an environmental site assessment, among other due diligence, to ensure the site was suitable for use as a park.

Community members coming together for a tree planting project, which sparked TPL’s involvement with the Alice Branch Creek Project (Photo Credit: Trust for Public Land website).

TPL hosted a “pop-up park” event to initiate a six-month community engagement process to gather public input on the park’s design and amenities. Part of that community engagement included four public workshops/design charrettes.

After gathering input from the community, the Five Mile Creek Greenbelt Master Plan – an ambitious vision to build 22 miles of trail along the Alice Branch Creek, and add four new parks to southern Dallas – was revealed.
On June 30, 2020, Trust for Public Land hosted a virtual groundbreaking ceremony for the new park.

The process of creating this greenway with The Trust for Public Land been a success because the community has been involved every step of the way, and we’ve been making decisions about what this place can be. So it will be a place that’s representative of our community,” said Taylor Toynes in a TPL blog.

Toynes is a life-long resident of Oak Cliff and the founder of For Oak Cliff, a community organization with a mission to liberate Oak Cliff from systemic oppression through a culture of education, social mobility, and social capital. For Oak Cliff is one of several community organizations that TPL is working with to build new parks throughout the neighborhood, including the greenway along Alice Branch Creek.

Not Just A Park

For decades, neighborhood revitalization efforts and community improvement projects have enhanced the lives of the Dallasites residing in the impacted neighborhoods. But for decades, those projects have overlooked southern Dallas, which is home to thousands of acres of beautiful green space but has fallen victim to junk, pollution and years of neglect.

The new Alice Branch Creek Park will provide families with access to the creek where they can play or just enjoy the view (Photo Credit: TPL Website).

But residents of Oak Cliff are not strangers to advocacy. After a student walk-out in 2015 that garnered national media attention, leadership finally invested $55 million in a major renovation of South Oak Cliff High School.

“The roof leaked, asbestos was everywhere, drinking water came in lead pipes, the heating and air conditioning didn’t work,” said Derrick Battie, head of the South Oak Cliff alumni association, in a blog by TPL. “Our students knew that their facilities didn’t even come close to schools in the suburbs.”

After the school’s radical transformation, the neighborhood agreed that there was still one big issue to address… the Alice Branch Creek. Battie said, “[The creek is] a dirty, nasty, smelly eyesore, full of skunks, possums, and snakes—right next to where our marching band and our championship football team practices.”

South Oak Cliff High School Principal Dr. Johnson agreed. But his vision didn’t stop at just the creek.

“South Oak Cliff has the highest crime rates in Dallas, highest rates of diabetes and those type of ailments,” said Dr. Johnson in a TPL blog. “We just don’t have the green space that could help address that.”

Dr. Johnson envisioned a thriving community centered around beautiful parks and outdoor spaces that would benefit every member of the community.

A park might seem like an odd place to start, but few large-scale interventions affect communities like parks. Parks are proven to help increase activity levels, promote active learning, reduce stress and depression, and improve cognition and sleep quality. They also strengthen social ties among neighbors and reduce neighborhood crime. Place-based solutions like quality urban design, more trees, and access to quality parks drive healthier outcomes for everyone.

The park is the first element of the Five Mile Creek Greenbelt Master Plan to be built, and according to Battie, the neighborhood is excited. “As we’ve been presenting these plans and getting more input from the neighbors, the number one thing we’re hearing from our community is: ‘it’s about time!’”

Once the park is complete, it will be conveyed to the City of Dallas and will become an official park within the city’s park system. The Park and Recreation Department is committed to providing ongoing operating support, care, and maintenance of the park. TPL is committed to South Oak Cliff and will remain involved in the project.

To seed a culture of ongoing community stewardship, TPL established a “friends of” group, and will continue to engage student and community volunteers and provide early-stage park programming.

Foundation Involvement

In October of 2020 The Rees-Jones Foundation issued a grant to Trust for Public Land for the all-abilities play and fitness elements for the Alice Branch Creek Park Project in South Oak Cliff.
“The TPL’s Alice Branch Creek Greenbelt Project is a community benefit project that will enhance the quality of life for South Oak Cliff residents, providing a sense of community pride and ownership,” said Trey Hill, senior program officer at The Rees-Jones Foundation. “The overall impact of parks like these serve to improve health and reduce crime in areas where they are built.”

About Trust for Public Land

For nearly five decades, The Trust for Public Land has been committed to acquiring, building and protecting land for people. During that time, TPL has protected and put into public ownership nearly 5,000 places and more than 3.7 million acres, from neighborhood parks to national parks. They have created nearly 500 parks, playgrounds, and gardens, developed more than 2,000 miles of public trails, and they have helped generate more than $75 billion in new public funds for parks and conservation.

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