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Can Fort Worth keep from paving paradise? Fort Worth mayor says new initiative will help

October 6,2023


See full Fort Worth Report article by Rachel Behrndt here.

When Mayor Mattie Parker thinks about open space in Fort Worth, one of her mother’s favorite songs comes to mind. The lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” hit home: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. They paved paradise, put up a parking lot.”

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to pave paradise,” Parker said during her Oct. 6 “State of the City” address hosted by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. “I believe we have to meet this moment.” 

As she enters her second term, the challenges facing Fort Worth’s parks system have become evident to Parker. Only 62% of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park, putting Fort Worth behind most major U.S. cities in terms of park access. Thanks to rapid population growth, Fort Worth is also losing about 50 acres of open space to development each week.

Those realities drove the city to adopt an open space preservation strategy and pursue $15 million in bond funding to purchase properties. Through her new greenspace initiative, Good Natured, Parker hopes to set the city’s aims even higher by bringing more private dollars into the parks system to preserve at least 10,000 acres of open space over the next five years. 

“We started that with a $15 million bond, but frankly, it's kind of a drop in the bucket as quickly as we're growing,” Parker said in an interview. 

Electric utility company Oncor has infused $1 million into the effort, while City Manager David Cooke has appointed Mark McDaniel to serve as the city’s first Greenspace Champion. McDaniel previously led the city’s newly revamped planning and data analytics department. Streams & Valleys, a nonprofit that works closely with the Tarrant Regional Water District, will disburse the $1 million grant. 

Parker has also brought in community environmentalist Elaine Petrus, Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation leader Merrill Gregg, former DFW Airport board chair Bill Meadows and state parks activist George Bristol to establish a nonprofit conservancy focused on open space preservation. 

Over the next three to six months, Parker expects Good Natured to establish a set of short- and long-term goals that will guide the initiative moving forward. She sees opportunities for the city to create more successful public-private partnerships like the Fort Worth Zoo, work more closely with the Tarrant Regional Water District and improve the nearly 300 parks in the city’s system. 

“We have a real opportunity, a responsibility and frankly an urgency right now to protect our natural areas and to preserve critical watersheds, our Trinity River and our green spaces,” Parker told the audience.

Richard Perez, leader of Northside Fort Worth Air, speaks to a group of activists on Oct. 6 outside of the Fort Worth Convention Center, 1201 Houston St., before the Mayor’s “State of the City” speech. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Parker responds to protest over environmental concerns

The city’s natural environment was also on the minds of activists who stood outside the Fort Worth Convention Center before Parker’s speech. Several local organizations have formed a new coalition, the Fort Worth Environmental Coalition of Communities, to protest the placement of industrial facilities near homes in majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

The group, which includes members of the Echo Heights & Stop Six Environmental Coalition, the Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club, Downwinders at Risk, Tarrant4Change and Sunrise Tarrant County, aims to shape conversations around Fort Worth’s comprehensive plan. The plan, which guides zoning decisions across the city, will be significantly revamped next year for the first time since 2000, according to previous Fort Worth Report coverage.

Richard Perez, leader of Northside Fort Worth Air, said the coalition wants city leaders to put more funding toward air quality monitoring and actively search for marginalized communities suffering because of pollution.

“This is localized pollution that’s affecting these fragile communities,” Perez said. “But when it comes to environmental issues, when we fix these issues, we fix them for everybody. It’s about everybody.” 

After her speech, Parker said she respects the coalition’s position and has heard from members of the Echo Heights area at several public meetings. City staff will meet with them again in October before City Council members vote on changes to the comprehensive plan Nov. 14. 

Officials must undertake citywide responses to environmental challenges, she said, citing the new Good Natured initiative as an example. 

“My focus is on the future and recognizing that some of the grievances that a neighborhood like Echo Heights, in particular, has, we can prevent these types of things from happening,” Parker said. “We need barriers within our residences and any industrial use, and we're responding to that.”

Letitia Wilbourn, a leader of the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition, speaks during a protest organized by the new Fort Worth Environmental Coalition of Communities on Oct. 6, 2023. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Economic development underway in Fort Worth, mayor says

Preserving open space goes hand in hand with economic development, Parker said. 

The city has renewed its focus on economic and workforce development, pointing to several higher education institutions expanding their offerings in Fort Worth. The city and the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce are also expanding its efforts to attract companies to the city, she said. 

In a panel discussion, Robert Allen, president and CEO of Fort Worth Economic Development Partnership, and Robert Sturns, economic development director with the city, attributed the city’s business growth to promoting the city to a national audience and seeking to grow the city’s workforce through projects like the Texas A&M downtown campus expansion. 

Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker delivers her "State of the City" speech at the Fort Worth Convention Center on Oct. 6, 2023. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

“We now have a focused strategy on attracting new companies that want to contribute to our local economy and fit the fabric of our quality of life here,” Parker said. 

As the mayor’s second term begins, the Mayor’s Council on Education and Workforce enters its second year, she said. The group’s goal is to increase enrollment in early college and dual credit programs by 10%. 

“The future of Fort Worth and our region depends on building a workforce and talent pipeline to support our growing economy,” Parker said.

Parker promotes city budget priorities 

Parker also highlighted the city’s investments in public safety, economic development and education. The city’s 2024 budget included additional funding for more police officers, housing stability and neighborhood improvements. 

These investments have led to rapid growth, Parker said. 

The city’s 2024 budget created 106 new police department positions and 76 new fire department positions. Despite the new positions, the city has struggled to fill open positions. The department is also making investments in recruitment to reduce vacancies. Parker announced that Assistant Chief Julie Swearingin, who oversees recruitment, received the Mayor’s Unsung Hero Service Award. She will be recognized at an upcoming City Council meeting. 

The city’s budget will address Fort Worth’s most pressing needs, Parker said. She spent time defending the city’s tax rate even against her fellow council members, including District 10 representative Alan Blaylock who motioned to further reduce the tax rate. The adopted tax rate was lower than previous years but will still cause resident’s tax bills to increase. The trade-off was necessary, Parker said, to set the city up for future success. 

City manager David Cooke presents the proposed fiscal year 2024 budget to council members Aug. 8.
City manager David Cooke presents the proposed fiscal year 2024 budget to council members Aug. 8. (Emily Wolf | Fort Worth Report)

“It's not a stick in the eye by anybody. I understand other people's positions and we did lower the tax rate by a historic amount,” Parker said. “The things that would have been cut were not on the table for me.” 

The budget balances all of the priorities of council districts, Parker said, including the two new council districts created by redistricting. Facilitating conversation and agreement among more council members will be an ongoing challenge in her second term, Parker said. 

“My job is to work with my colleagues and really understand what their perspective and priorities are, and balance those out on behalf of the residents,” Parker said. “I feel pretty confident in my ability to really sell my priorities as well.”  

Disclosure: Bill Meadows is co-chairman of the Fort Worth Report board of directors. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. 

This article first appeared on Fort Worth Report and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


Location Mentioned: Texas A&M Fort Worth