City Planning Pioneer Built Conference

Gail Thomas
Gail Thomas

To many around town, Gail Thomas is known as a dynamo and a pioneer of community development and urban planning.

She is the president and CEO of The Trinity Trust and the director of the Dallas Institute’s Center for the City. A graduate of SMU, she received the university’s J. Erik Jonsson Ethics Award earlier this year and is an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects. She has authored three books.

But one of her most prized projects is the “What Makes a City” conference, which she started in 1982. Its 32nd installation took place at the Latino Cultural Center on Oct. 23.

“Since the first ‘What Makes a City?’ conference that Dr. Gail Thomas started in 1982, the Dallas Institute has focused much of its work on studying cities by drawing on the experiences of planning and urban experts,” executive director Larry Allums said. “We attempt to imagine Dallas from a fresh perspective, setting aside our sworn allegiances for a brief moment in order to consider new ideas, whatever they might be.”

Thomas sat down to discuss the community benefits of this long-standing tradition:

How did you start the “What Makes a City” conference?
When we started the Dallas Institute in 1980, we knew that one of our concerns was to think about the city and what makes a good city. To think about it not only in economic and development terms, but what is the soul of the city? What are those underlying elements that make us feel at home in a city? We really wanted to be able to convey in the title that there’s more to making a good city than the bones.

What was your motivation for starting it?
To allow the opportunity for Dallas citizens to think in a much deeper way about what makes a good city than just development and economics. Getting a job, getting a good education, having a good place to live, having access to transportation … all those are sort of the standard things, but we were concerned with deeper, underlying values.

What do you look for in presenters?
We look for presenters who are willing to take the time and effort to be very thoughtful about values, and so much of our culture is weighted by economic consideration.

How are they chosen?
We ask people who are involved in the community and try to get a diverse range to represent the diversity of our city from different ethnic cultures and ages and backgrounds so that we have scholars, poets, developers, and planners represented.

What do you look forward to each year?
I love these “What Makes a City” conferences. I love for people to gather together and connect with each other at the heart level and talk from a level of real yearning for our city to be the very best it can be.

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