If one listens to the panel of experts gathered for a “place-making” conference last week at the University of Oklahoma, the turnout of planners, civic leaders, young professionals and interested residents was unprecedented.
Several hundred gathered for the conference in which speaker after speaker told about how people in the younger generation want to be freed from automobiles, how they idealize urban living over the suburban lifestyle pursued by the baby boomers. The audience was told how making a city more walkable and friendly to community building is not just key to thriving in the 21st century, but also in combating the nation's growing health crisis.
Consider Oklahoma City's urban core an experimental laboratory in this sort of thinking — and indeed the embryo for an expanding chorus of voices seeking an end to the pursuit of a perfect grid of four-lane streets that can move motorists to any point in this 622-square-mile city within about 20 minutes.
If one reads the annual citizen surveys compiled by City Hall, one might conclude this experiment is not being embraced by the overall populace, which listed street maintenance and quick and easy traffic flow as top priorities.
Dig deeper into that survey and one sees no mention of the walkability issues — most notably the perceived scarcity of sidewalks and public transit — that have attracted hundreds of people to a series of community planning town hall meetings this past year.
Signs of progress
Oklahoma City in some ways is making progress when it comes to walkability and becoming the sort of place that might have a shot at keeping its young creative class. In the urban core, the Project 180 downtown makeover has introduced dedicated bike lanes (but not without some resistance from city engineers), electric vehicle charging stations, bicycle racks and more street furniture and landscaping.
Something must be catching the interest of residents far beyond the urban core. The city's survey shows a growing percentage — 85 percent in 2012 compared to 81 percent in 2011 — have visited downtown. Leisure, sporting and cultural events all led in reasons for such visits, with 71 percent of downtown visitors making it to the urban core at least five times a year, and with 23 percent saying they had come downtown more than 20 times a year.
So we know downtown Oklahoma City must be making some sort of impression on the overall population.