Change isn't usually that simple: The repatterning of Oklahoma City's Downtown Streetscape
The Congress for the New Urban's conference next year is in Oklahoma City, and in advance of this, the CNU's newsletter is running stories about various aspects of OKC's urbanism.
The most recent story, very good, is about how the city was sparked to act after a national survey said the Oklahoma City isn't particularly walkable and they used the construction of a new skyscraper as the fulcrum to drive through improvements to 50 blocks of Downtown ("How downtown Oklahoma City did a 180"). Also see "Oklahoma City showed how to transition to two-way streets downtown," Palm Beach Post.
It's a great accomplishment, no doubt.
But I don't think it's an easy example that advocates in other cities can export to try to bring about similar changes in their own communities.
In planning I joke about "Why can't we be like Portland?" when a citizen comes up to you at a meeting, talks/harangues about something in particular, and then at the end laments that our community isn't like Portland, Oregon.
But what they don't realize is that "Portland" isn't what they think it is, that the great initiatives that they've undertaken are the result of decades of hard, thoughtful, and visionary decision making that accretes -- it builds on and extends previous decisions and programs in a manner where the total is greater than the sum of the parts.
There are six cities in the US that consistently do multiple pretty amazing initiatives when it comes to urbanism:
- Charleston, South Carolina; where former Mayor Riley was one of the nation's leading proponents of urban design improvements (Riley speech on urban design)
- Hennepin County/Minneapolis; when the county realized they needed to invest in Minneapolis to staunch population outmigration to protect the county's revenue stream from property taxes. Later Minneapolis developed complementary programs, and light rail was added ("A County and Its Cities: the Impact of Hennepin Community Works," Journal of Urban Affairs 30:3, 2008).
- Oklahoma City
- Portland, Oregon; which starting with the decision to tear down a waterfront freeway in the late 1960s has taken many visionary steps and continues to be a pathbreaker ("A summary of my impressions of Portland, Oregon and planning," 2005; "Universities as elements of urban/downtown revitalization: the Portland State story and more," 2014).
- San Francisco ("Transit First Policy")
- Seattle (" 10 ways Seattle has blown past Portland in transportation moxie," Portland Oregonian)
-- "Economic restructuring success and failure: Detroit compared to Bilbao, Liverpool, and Pittsburgh," 2014
-- "European Garden Festivals as a model urban planning initiative for Detroit and other US cities," 2014
-- "There has to be a better way to spend $1.85 billion on "revitalization" just to demolish buildings: The US needs its own version of Germany's International Building Exhibition, let's start with Detroit," 2014
-- "'Social urbanism' experiment breathes new life into Colombia's Medellin Toronto Globe & Mail
-- "Medellín's 'social urbanism' a model for city transformation," Mail & Guardian
-- "Medellín slum gets giant outdoor escalator," Telegraph
-- "Medellín, Colombia offers an unlikely model for urban renaissance," Toronto Star
-- ""Utility" infrastructure as an opportunity for co-locating urban design and placemaking improvements," 2020
- A commitment to the development and production of a broad, comprehensive, visionary, and detailed revitalization plan/s (Bilbao, Hamburg, Liverpool);
- the creation of innovative and successful implementation organizations, with representatives from the public sector and private firms, to carry out the program. Typically, the organizations have some distance from the local government so that the plan and program aren't subject to the vicissitudes of changing political administrations, parties and representatives (Bilbao, Hamburg, Liverpool, Helsinki);
- strong accountability mechanisms that ensure that the critical distance provided by semi-independent implementation organizations isn't taken advantage of in terms of deleterious actions (for example Dublin's Temple Bar Cultural Trust was amazingly successful but over time became somewhat disconnected from local government and spent money somewhat injudiciously, even though they generated their own revenues--this came to a head during the economic downturn and the organization was widely criticized; in response the City Council decided to fold the TBCT and incorporate it into the city government structure, which may have negative ramifications for continued program effectiveness as its revenues get siphoned off and political priorities of elected officials shift elsewhere);
- funding to realize the plan, usually a combination of local, regional, state, and national sources, and in Europe, "structural adjustment" and other programmatic funding from the European Regional Development Fund and related programs is also available (Hamburg, as a city-state, has extra-normal access to funds beyond what may normally be available to the average city);
- integrated branding and marketing programs to support the realization of the plan (Hamburg, Vienna, Liverpool, Bilbao, Dublin);
- flexibility and a willingness to take advantage of serendipitous events and opportunities and integrate new projects into the overall planning and implementation framework (examples include Bilbao's "acquisition" of a branch of the Guggenheim Museum and the creation of a light rail system to complement its new subway system, Liverpool City Council's agreement with a developer to create the Liverpool One mixed use retail, office, and residential development in parallel to the regeneration plan and the hosting of the Capital of Culture program in 2008, and how multifaceted arts centers were developed in otherwise vacated properties rented out cheaply by their owners in Dublin, Helsinki, and Marseille).
Oklahoma City, which ranked dead last in Prevention Magazine’s 2008 assessment of sizable American cities for walkability, soon after commissioned a report on how to improve conditions for pedestrians downtown. An initial analysis by Speck & Associates found that Oklahoma City’s streets were wide enough to handle two to three times the volume of traffic they carried. Downtown streets were largely one-way speedways, and Speck’s plan showed that the city could better use the space to support pedestrians, bicyclists, businesses, and urban life.
The city launched Project 180, an effort to rebuild all 50 blocks of streets in their downtown core, funded by tax-increment financing from a major skyscraper development. The name came from a $180 million investment in the 180-acre core area, generating a 180-degree turn in how downtown was conceived. “By right-sizing streets to meet real demand, we were able to calm traffic, double the amount of on-street parking, add a ton of trees and great a robust cycling network. Ten years later this is the project that I am most proud of,” Speck said to a meeting of the US Conference of Mayors. At the same time, the plan converted one-way streets to two-way, rebuilt three parks and most underground utilities, and installed new architecturally designed fixtures and street furniture.
The "Transformational Projects Action Planning" approach makes multiple big projects possible. I don't think Oklahoma City would have done this project if it would have been their first urban design project and on such a scale, had they not already laid the ground work for "transformational projects action planning" and the undertaking of big infrastructure projects.
With the Downtown streetscape program, they had the catalyst of a new large construction project downtown to leverage.