Robert Kent: The Trust for Public Land

Published September 22, 2021 at 8:26am
Story by Mary Martin. Photos courtesy of Robert Kent.

Robert Kent is from the Lake Highlands neighborhood of Dallas, but he is most at home in the outdoors. As a young Boy Scout, he adventured through Arkansas’ Ouachita Mountains, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Grand Canyon, eventually earning the rank of Eagle Scout. Those hikes led, not only to a love of nature, but a career in environmental activism and sustainable land development. “I went to Baylor for my undergrad thinking that I would probably be an attorney,” Robert says. “I started out double majoring in history and economics, but I took an environmental science course, just as an elective, and it rocked my worldview. The professor was so good at clearly laying out the challenges that our world faces, particularly around climate change and I realized that this was the most important issue facing our generation, and I wanted to dedicate myself to helping addresses it.”

Robert Kent.jpg

Thinking his career would be best spent helping the most economically challenged places in the world, Robert focused his education on renewable energy in developing nations, but first Robert went back to what he knew—hiking. “I took off about six months to backpack the entire Appalachian Trail,” Robert says. “It was one of those transformative experiences, having the opportunity and privilege to learn so much about myself, and learn about our country by walking across it. Hiking the Appalachian Trail gave me a connection with the land that makes up America.”

A scholarship from Rotary International made it possible for Robert to continue his education abroad, earning a masters degree in economic development from The University of Glasgow in Scotland. We he returned to the states, he came back to Dallas and began working on clean air policy with the North Texas Commission. “I took that job thinking, ‘I’m here for six months, maybe a year, and then I’ll go to London or D.C. or New York,’” Robert remembers. “But within just a few months of being in that job, I realized that Dallas was not the same place that it was when I was growing up here. There was a new type of optimism, a new energy, a new excitement in the city about the possibilities that could be. I was seeing the the city with adult eyes and I quickly realized that Dallas was exactly where I wanted to be.”

Now Robert serves as the Texas State Director at The Trust for Public Land (TPL), advocating for the preservation of open space and creating accessible parks. Nationally, the Trust for Public land is a nonprofit stretching from coast to coast. Its presence in Texas began in 1978, and the organization’s first project in Dallas was the Joppa Preserve, just south of Loop 12, which was founded in 1986.

Rendering of the new park being built across the street from South Oak Cliff High School.

Rendering of the new park being built across the street from South Oak Cliff High School.

“When I was recruited to help reestablish our office here in Dallas in 2014, I was a little skeptical at first, wondering what parks and public land have to do with the big issues I care about. But again, to my surprise, I realized that parks are one of these core building blocks of any thriving neighborhood,” Robert says. Like other stories of inequality in Dallas, parks and green space have seen decades of disinvestment as well. Robert is focused on how parks can improve health, mobility, connectivity, and community. “The most rewarding part of the job is when we are working with a neighborhood to help realize their goals for their park, and then seeing how, more than anything, people want a place to gather with their other neighbors,” Robert says. “And particularly over the last year and a half as we’ve gone through this pandemic crisis, parks are really one of the only safe places to get together with other folks who are outside of your bubble. And it’s been incredibly rewarding to work all across our city and make more of those places for people.”

The Trust for Public Land is currently championing a park in South Oak Cliff in the Marsalis Park neighborhood. A plot of land across the street from South Oak Cliff High School has sat vacant for generations, and served only as a dumping ground. Dr. W.F. Johnson, principal at the school reached out to Robert and proposed creating a park that would be a positive area for students to gather. Over the past three years the TPL team has attended neighborhood meetings and alumni association meetings, listening first to what neighbors want for the space. Then they raised private and public funds to purchase the vacant lot, and implemented a community driven design process that includes a landscape architect. With a master-plan in hand, TPL and the Marsalis Park neighbors broke ground on the new project during the summer of 2020, and the park is slated to open this November.

Construction taking place for the new park.

Construction taking place for the new park.

“This park is going to be beautiful,” Robert says. “Every single element has been driven by input and feedback we got from the neighborhood. The senior citizens in Marsalis Park said we need a place we can go walk and and that’s safe and well lit. So we’ve got solar powered lighting that’s being provided by the Sun Club Foundation, which is the philanthropic arm of Green Mountain Energy.” Other park features include stationary exercise equipment, and a rock climbing boulder wall provided by a partnership with The North Face.

If you are interested in supporting the Trust for Public Land here in Texas, you can give via their website or North Texas Giving Day page, where up to $40,000 in donations will be matched by their board of directors, but Robert also encourages every citizen to let you local leaders know why parks are important to you. “Parks are the hardest working piece of civic infrastructure that is also the easiest to overlook,” Robert says. “But anyone who’s got a young family knows how important parks are.” One of TPL’s goals is to ensure that everyone in Dallas has a park within a ten minute walk from home. Currently 73% of the city meets that goal, and at 80%, Dallas would have the highest park access in the state.

“When you have a park close to home you are more climate resilient, you are healthier, it is an indicator of equity and community. I can’t tell you the friends we’ve made just at the park, sitting on a bench, talking to someone who is different than us that we haven’t met before. Parks are one of the places that bring people together.”

This fall you’ll find Robert hanging out at his favorite local park, Casa Linda Park, hiking in the Kiest Park Conservation Area, or in his kitchen making artisan chocolate bonbons for his side-hustle, Kent Fine Chocolates.

More Good Stories