James Howard Kunstler, the author and urban critic famous for his diatribes against America’s “sprawling” cities, suggested the way people use cities is changing. According to Kunstler, “The 20th century was about getting around. The 21st century will be about staying in a place worth staying in.”
With an abundance of roads and surface parking, some of the nation’s fastest commuting times, and a revered tradition of auto-dependence, it would be easy to conclude that Oklahoma City is still stuck in the mind-set of the 20th century. That is, unless you have been fortunate enough to visit the newly renovated Myriad Gardens — the most stunning example of OKC’s transformation into a 21st-century city.
The new Myriad Gardens is special.
It is a captivating mix of spaces and attractions that seem to offer something for everyone on every day, all year long. It gets right everything that the old Myriad Gardens got wrong, while being careful to retain everything that the old Myriad Gardens got right.
It starts with water. The new design incorporates a variety of water features: cascading waterfalls, trickling streams, interactive splash fountains and a truly ingenious wave pool fountain. These water features provide a host of benefits: The steady murmur of the rushing water muffles the clamor of construction activity taking place on the park’s edge and helps to cool the breeze, making even the hottest Oklahoma days bearable. More impressive is the designers’ commitment to letting users touch and engage the water through subtle features that invite a dipped toe or a splashing child. It is a very intentional rejection of barren spaces deprived of life in an effort to avoid liability. Instead, these spaces celebrate the human experience and communicate a basic level of trust with the people who use it.
In fact, the shift from rigid to flexible is something of a theme with a park now appropriately offering “myriad” attractions for a range of users. A restaurant will sit on the edge of a fun-natured plaza sure to host laughing children year-round. The plaza features a splash fountain during the summer that converts to a skating rink during the winter.
A new dog park will attract dogs and their owners — always a gregarious bunch. A large lawn and band shell will host events, celebrations and hopefully even a rally or two. After all, what would our democracy be without public spaces in which to gather? And a sprinkling of movable tables and chairs offer a place to sit for a spontaneous gathering of any size.
Kids may be the biggest winners with a new playground that seems a mostly blank canvas to be painted each day by the imaginative play of children. Soft mounds and dips are flanked by a maze of hedges and a fort that appears as if it were transported from Neverland.
We likely will have to wait a bit longer for the last and most important attraction to arrive. As our city falls in love with its new park and people begin using it on a regular basis, the best reason to visit will become clear: to see other people. As famed urbanist William Whyte pointed, “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.” The new Myriad Gardens gets this: It is a public space for people. Hopefully, it is just the beginning of our transformation into a city for people — a city worth staying in.
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.