Building a Foundation for Improving Infrastructure Equity in Dallas Neighborhoods

SMU Lyle researchers and computer science students built an Infrastructure Dashboard Prototype to identify 62 infrastructure deserts in Dallas, then brought together experts to foster dialogue and take action

Dr Minsker
Dr. Minsker (right), along with Ph.D student Zheng Li and a team of students and researchers at SMU, built data science tools to assess Dallas neighborhood infrastructure inequities.

When Dallas County launched a major public COVID-19 vaccination site at Fair Park in 2021, thousands of people a day were inoculated against the virus fueling the deadly pandemic.

But residents living just two blocks away from the site couldn’t take advantage of the service. They didn’t have internet access to sign up.

Like residents of 61 other Dallas neighborhoods, they live in an infrastructure desert – low-income areas lacking safe intersections and walking routes to schools, adequate water and sewer services, and basic services like healthcare, grocery stores and internet.

“Internet access is the biggest deficiency our community could address to help us grow and do things as efficiently as other communities,” said Sherri Mixon, Executive Director at T.R. Hoover Community Development Center. “While there are many deficiencies that we need to address, this is one that would be transformative for every area in the southern Dallas community.”

Mixon was among 35 Dallas community experts from government, nonprofit, and commercial organizations who gathered at SMU Lyle on Dec. 1 to discuss challenges of neighborhood infrastructure and identify policy, research and technology needed to overcome the barriers.

Dr. Barbara Minsker, Bobby B. Lyle Endowed Professor of Leadership and Global Entrepreneurship and a nationally recognized expert in environmental and infrastructure systems analysis, led the discussion. Janille Smith-Colin, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Eric Larson, associate professor of Computer Science, were co-organizers for the event.

“The goal is to foster dialogue and address these challenges through a collaborative voice,” Dr. Minsker said. “We want to make progress together and determine what is needed, whether it’s policies, data, technology, or all of the above.”

Using data science to reveal community need

Dr. Minsker began clicking through a giant map of Dallas on the presentation screen. The interactive map revealed visual details, down to the street level, on which neighborhoods are deficient in 12 key areas of infrastructure that create a safe and functional area to live.

The infrastructure equity analyses and prototype dashboard were developed by a team of SMU researchers and computer science students with support from a six-year $638,000 National Science Foundation grant. The tool allows the team to display analyses and data from a wide variety of sources that can help scientists, policymakers and residents improve their neighborhoods. 

The study revealed that 62 Dallas neighborhoods were deficient in eight or more categories that include streets, sidewalks, pavements, crosswalks, noise walls, street tree canopy, bike and pedestrian trails and community gathering places as well as access to public transportation, hospital or medical services, banks and financial services and food. Each neighborhood’s infrastructure was given a rating of excellent, good, moderate, deficient, or highly deficient.

“We looked at three other cities – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. And Dallas has the worst infrastructure of all of them, and the most inequity in terms of low income versus high income,” Dr. Minsker said.

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A history of disinvestment in South Dallas

Jay Taylor, founder of Juxta Developments and community-oriented real estate developer, was ready to break ground on building a large, beautiful home in the 10th Street Historic District. It took him a year to get through the design and approval process.

But just before breaking ground, to his surprise, builders discovered the lot had no water or sewer line. It would cost $60,000 to add one, which made the project too expensive to continue. 

“In South Dallas, there are large stretches of substandard lines that are 40 or more years old,” he shared with the group. “Some are placed in alleyways, some run right through lots, and some are disconnected altogether from vacant lots, like the one I planned to build on.”

The lack of infrastructure progress can be traced back to the 1930s, when the practice of redlining designated some neighborhoods as unsafe for investments by banks. In Dallas, those red-lined neighborhoods were typically inhabited by minorities. Redlining kept them from receiving the investments the rest of the city benefitted from over the years. 

While redlining was outlawed years ago, its impact is still felt today. The analysis shows that predominantly Black neighborhoods in historically red-lined areas still have significantly worse infrastructure than neighborhoods in those same areas that are now predominantly White. 

“When looking at how we distribute infrastructure benefits, we should also consider the history of disenfranchisement,” Dr. Minsker said. “Overall, the data shows that predominantly Black neighborhoods are 2 to 5 times more likely to have deficient infrastructure.”

Making progress possible together

After thoughtful breakout discussions among attendees, Dr. Minsker closed out the event by leading the group in outlining next steps and ideas for how to move forward – including discussions with the City of Dallas, a possible consortium for developers and nonprofits, and research to expand the dashboard to a “crowd-sourced” smart infrastructure equity toolkit. Crowd sourcing would allow any resident to provide input on infrastructure needs and condition, request infrastructure investments, and rate input provided by others, which would then be analyzed with artificial intelligence to recommend investments to the city.

Dr. Minsker plans to host another event in the spring to keep progress moving forward.

“I’ve been talking with each of these people individually and thought it would be powerful to get them together to discuss these issues as a group,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see it happen.”


About the Bobby Lyle School of Engineering
SMU's Lyle School of Engineering thrives on innovation that transcends traditional boundaries. We strongly believe in the power of externally funded, industry-supported research to drive progress and provide exceptional students with valuable industry insights. Our mission is to lead the way in digital transformation within engineering education, all while ensuring that every student graduates as a confident leader. Founded in 1925, SMU Lyle is one of the oldest engineering schools in the Southwest, offering undergraduate and graduate programs, including master’s and doctoral degrees.

About SMU
SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, community and the world.