Photo by Danny Fulgencio

The Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, which opens in March, is a $115 million work of art from world-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava. Like it or not, the bridge is sure to become a symbol for Dallas.

The Trinity Trust is a nonprofit whose mission is to raise funds for the Trinity River project, imagined as a $2.2 billion effort to improve the Trinity River corridor, including two Calatrava bridges, two lakes, a central island, a whitewater course, amphitheaters, ballfields, hike-and-bike trails and the Trinity River Audubon Center.

Oak Cliff resident Melanie Ferguson is director of outreach and development for the Trinity Trust. She grew up in Richardson and after college, lived in Los Angeles, where she worked in community relations for the Getty Museum for almost 11 years.

She returned to Dallas about two years ago after being offered a job at the Trinity Trust, and she is an energetic, optimistic booster for capitalizing on the 20 miles of green space that is the Trinity River corridor.

How does it feel to return to Dallas?
I think it’s an incredibly dynamic time to be in Dallas for reasons too numerous to count. There seems to be a synergy with a connection to nature, and it’s also no secret what’s happening in the Dallas Arts District — the deck park, the Perot museum — that corridor leads to the bridge and into West Dallas. The bridge is something in and of itself, but to me, it’s a demarcation of what’s beneath it. This is a time to think about the natural beauty of our city. And I think Oak Cliff is the center of the universe. I’ll probably get in trouble if you print that, but it is a creative vortex, that’s for sure.

What do you mean when you say the Calatrava bridge is “a demarcation of what’s beneath it”?
The bridge is not only a thing of beauty and great architecture and engineering, but it’s also a compass that draws us back to this river space. For 100 years, we’ve thought about [the Trinity River] as a drainage ditch, or a gray utility area, and it’s actually a green amenity. And the difference between those things is the attention we give it. My hope is that, as we have this significant demarcation icon with its feet planted in the river, Dallas, and especially those neighborhoods that live right up close to the levees, will realize what’s in our midst.

What, in your opinion, is so exciting about the Trinity River greenbelt?
We have three times as much space as Central Park right next to downtown Dallas. Whether you’re from Oklahoma or Japan or Helsinki, people feel that Central Park is theirs. It’s this public space that kind of belongs to the world. It may be hubristic to say this, but we are kind of hubristic in Dallas, that it will become this place that belongs to everyone, everywhere. You can play soccer or have a picnic or hike 16 miles through the Great Trinity Forest. I think I could be working on this project for the rest of my life, but that’s a good start.

So it could change the culture of the city and how others see us.
Also, this is 20 miles of outdoor classroom, or it could be. How do we plan for engaging kids and young people with the Great Trinity Forest? The way to engage kids’ minds with math and science is to take a really good look at a creek bed or get them really close to a horse, and then they can see how that relates to what’s in the text book. Their thinking begins to shift because of what they’ve seen outside the classroom. Kids develop better if they have time outside.

Tell us more about the Great Trinity Forest.
The Great Trinity Forest is almost 7,000 acres. It’s accessible now through the Grover C. Keeton Golf Course. It’s a big part of what we’re focusing fundraising on now. There need to be more trails to make it accessible, and another nonprofit, Groundwork Dallas, is working on that. Hopefully they will be able to connect a trail from the DART station near Fair Park to make it more accessible for folks. The projection is that twice as many people will live in North Texas by 2050 than we have now. We’re going to need green space, and the good thing is we have it. I think it’s going to be one of the things that drives people to Dallas. I hope we someday have new blues songs about the Trinity forest. There’s a sense that Dallas makes its own great music, and that we have this great pool of talent. But my secret hope is that the artists in our midst are engaging in conversations about what it means to be a great city. You can tell a great city by the talented people who choose to stay.

How can we use the Trinity River green space now?
The Trinity River Audubon Center is the gem of the forest right now. That’s five or 10 minutes from Oak Cliff. And then, I like to get in a canoe and be on the river itself. Charles Allen [of Trinity River Expeditions] offers canoe trips, and so does the Audubon center. The Trinity Wind Festival, at Crow Park, is May 12, and that’s a good opportunity for people to experience what’s between the levees.

Besides the bridge opening, what are you looking forward to this year?
As soon as the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge opens, the Continental Bridge will close and become a pedestrian bridge. With a little bit of patience, in a year and half or so, that will be a new destination. Oak Cliff is famous for its love of bicycles. That’ll be a destination point where people can have picnics, and there’ll be a fountain, and it’ll be the best place to gaze at the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. We’re also looking for ways to engage with temporary trails. You can’t do a lot within the corridor that won’t just float away. Whatever is built within the levee system has to be pretty secure. But we’re working with Jason Roberts [of Bike Friendly Oak Cliff], the Dallas Off-Road Bike Association, council members [Scott] Griggs and [Angela] Hunt, and Groundwork Dallas to see if there’s a way to connect Bishop Arts with the Katy Trail. We’re still working on that.