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.
Edmond, the city's growing, sprawling suburban neighbor to the north, is seen as leapfrogging the city when it comes to such efforts as drafting a “complete streets” plan that requires that all street projects be designed to accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and public transit.
The experts convened at OU insist such efforts are key to improving public health and economic development.
Christopher Leinberger, with the Brookings Institute, notes the industrial age peaked in the 1970s, and in that era, everything was built to accommodate vehicle transit. This was not a conspiracy, he said, but a response to demand.
In the mid-1990s, the trend shifted away from vehicular traffic, with younger generations indicating they wanted more walkable, urban communities with alternate transportation choices.
“Now look at what's going on with young people,” Leinberger said. “For people between ages 18 and 34, their driving peaked in 1991.” Overall miles driven peaked in 2004, he said, and the rate of driving among the younger generation is “falling off a cliff.”
Making a place
Ethan Kent, with Project for Public Spaces, advises that “place-making is taking a place you can't wait to get to into one you don't want to leave.” It's an effort, he said, that provides the link between urban excellence, economic development, sustainability and public health.
Not long ago, this emphasis on creating a city infrastructure that does anything other than carry vehicular traffic would have been dismissed at the city's public works department, which oversees these projects.
It was just a dozen years ago that I heard the late city engineer Paul Brum argue that “people don't like trees.” And it was just a few weeks ago that the current city engineer, Eric Wenger, attempted to “temporarily” remove a barely completed dedicated bicycle lane along Walker Avenue due to concerns about vehicular traffic (the lane was restored after the change was hit with protests).
As evidenced by downtown and Edmond, a change is coming as the younger generation demands an alteration in city design that was born with the baby boomers and may slowly fade with that same generation.