Oklahoma City needs a great street. Just one great street would do for now. A street with shopping and sidewalk cafes; a street to work on, to live on, or simply to visit for the afternoon; a street to stroll or simply sit and watch others stroll by; a street where life and community happens, day after day.
We have had such streets in the past. Downtown Oklahoma City before 1960 boasted more than one example, and we experience glimpses of what such a street might offer at special events like the annual Festival of the Arts. But a look around the metro reveals that we have very few ” if any ” examples of what such a street looks like. Perhaps the best offering is found on Campus Corner in Norman: Asp Avenue has a continuous line of shops, restaurants and bars that attract a steady stream of pedestrians throughout the day and night. Still, it is only a few blocks long, and with single-story buildings, it lacks the density and mixture of uses you would hope to find.
Within Oklahoma City, the candidates are few. The Paseo Arts District is charming and offers some of these features in small doses. Bricktown has yet to put all of the pieces together, offering restaurants and a few attractions, but very little in the form of street life. Midtown and the central business district, perhaps most disappointingly, still struggle to attract a critical mass of retail along any of their streets, even as office and housing users steadily increase.
A lack of such streets, or even a single example, is a primary reason so few people in Oklahoma City walk. There is nowhere to walk to, no streets worth walking along and, ultimately, every reason to drive instead. The effects of this are quite evident. In 2008, Prevention Magazine gave us the title of America’s “worst walking city.” This is, no doubt, in some way responsible for our current reputation as one of America’s fattest cities and our selection by Forbes in May 2010 as the “least fit” city in the country. This is a problem.
Our lack of great streets diminishes our quality of life, is harmful to our health and hinders our national image. While eventually we should hope to have a variety of such streets spread throughout the city, right now we should focus on successfully creating just one.
What needs to be done to make this happen? We should start by focusing our effort and attention on existing streets with the most potential: Broadway, Walker, Park and Sheridan in Bricktown. We also need an improved understanding of what a walkable street should be. It certainly doesn’t include surface parking lots, blank walls and reflective glass, drive-throughs, dead plazas and overgrown lots. These elements, where they exist, should be aggressively targeted for removal or modification.
Perhaps surprisingly, the construction of new sidewalks and more parks will do little to improve walkability. It is more important that we attract uses that provide interest and are proven to enhance walkability: shops with inviting storefronts, artist galleries, sidewalk vendors, musicians and cafés. We don’t need to hold out for national brands; instead we should move quickly to attract locally owned businesses that provide the benefits of a great street while keeping the dollars circulating within our community.
We have a problem, but it is one that can be fixed. Oklahoma City should make creating a great street a top priority.
Humphreys, an Oklahoma City resident, is a fellow of the Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma College of Architecture.