One of the fundamental roles of cities is to connect. Cities connect people to people, places to places, and goods to markets. Look around. The majority of our public infrastructure was built for this singular purpose. Streets and sidewalks, phone lines and antennas, highways and railroads — all of these things aim to connect us. However, an interesting irony of infrastructure is that which serves as a great connection can also serve as a significant barrier.
Oklahoma City’s first railroad is a great example. In 1887, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railway completed a north-south route that connected Texas to Kansas across Indian Territory and the Unassigned Lands. Along this line, just north of the North Canadian River, was Oklahoma Station, located on the site that would become Oklahoma City. This rail line connected the cattle and agricultural offerings of this region to Eastern markets, leading to increased settlement pressure and culminating in the Land Run of 1889. Within a few years of the rail’s completion, Oklahoma City was a burgeoning metropolis and key distribution center.
The connection the rail provided was invaluable to the city’s growth within the region. Yet, within the city itself, the rail right-of-way significantly hindered the east-west movement of local pedestrian and vehicular traffic. In fact, by 1930, the danger and difficulty of crossing the rail line had skewed the city’s development pattern with nearly 70 percent of the population living west of the tracks, even though the rail line was within blocks of the central business district.
In the early 1930s, to ameliorate the negative effects of this barrier, the line was raised to create the wall and allow the underpasses we see today between the CBD and Bricktown. While the line’s importance to Oklahoma City’s distribution network has diminished over time, future possibilities for commuter rail ensure that we will continue to tolerate the barrier in return for the strength of connections it provides. In the case of the Santa Fe rail line, the connection is worth the cost.
The same cannot necessarily be said of another infrastructure project currently on the drawing board.
When the new Interstate 40 alignment is opened in 2012, the current I-40 alignment is set to be replaced with a partially at-grade boulevard. The eastwest vehicular connection made by the boulevard bisects the heart of the Core to Shore plan’s primary north-south pedestrian connection, introducing a significant barrier between Oklahoma City’s newly renovated Myriad Gardens and what will be the new MAPS 3 downtown park.
From the beginning, the purpose of Core to Shore has been to enhance the north-south connections between down town and the revitalized river corridor.
And more recently, after being identified as one of the worst cities in the U.S. for pedestrians, there have been signs city leadership is ready for a more balanced approach to infrastructure.
So why is this east-west vehicular connection being given priority over the plans for the park and pedestrian safety? After spending more than $600 million to construct the new 10-lane I-40, is it really necessary to spend more than $80 million more to build six lanes of redundant asphalt? We would do better to commit to building a first-class park system and give priority to the north-south pedestrian connection.
Humphreys is a fellow at the Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma and an adjunct instructor in the OU College of Architecture.