Oklahoma City’s urban renaissance includes projects that address the coexistence of nature and the city.

Participants of the National Urban Ecosystems Forum will tour Myriad Botanical Gardens as an example of an urban development project that helps maintain a beautiful city for all species. (Gazette / file)

Participants of the National Urban Ecosystems Forum will tour Myriad Botanical Gardens as an example of an urban development project that helps maintain a beautiful city for all species. (Gazette / file)

A few months ago, when Oklahoma Citians gathered for the groundbreaking of a downtown public park, Mayor Mick Cornett recounted the history of a “long forgotten area that could perhaps become the centerpiece for the entire metro area.”

The first 40 acres of Scissortail Park, part of the capital improvement program of MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects) 3 currently under development, was once home to the Crosstown Expressway. More than a dozen years ago, during Cornett’s first term, when transportation officials committed to moving the 4.5-mile stretch of Interstate 40, the question around city hall was what to do with the land. The answer — revealed after the Core to Shore initiative and OKC’s involvement with the Mayors’ Institute on City Design — was an urban park.

This urban park is no ordinary park. Broken into two sections, Scissortail Park’s northern section will feature fields, picnic areas, a playground, an interactive fountain and a small lake north of Union Station, among many other amenities. There is much discussion about the park, from its role in citizens’ recreation and leisure to producing significant economic benefits. While those discussions are warranted, another is landscape sustainability as the park’s designer incorporated native plants into the design.

When Scissortail Park opens, it will be a place where natural resources are protected, the urban ecosystem is improved and visitors do not conflict with nature but enhance it. Scissortail Park is an urban development project that improves the quality of life for all species.

Later this month, about 30 professionals, ranging from city planners and architects to government leaders and ecologists, will gather in Oklahoma City to tour the site of Scissortail Park and others to engage in rich conversations about the opportunities and ongoing challenges for the coexistence of nature and the city. The American Architectural Foundation and Kirkpatrick Foundation host the inaugural National Urban Ecosystems Forum Sept. 28 and Sept. 29 in Oklahoma City.

It will show “national and international audiences what [Oklahoma City] is up to,” said Elizabeth Okeke-Von Batten, a director at the Center for Design & the City at the American Architectural Foundation in Washington, D.C.

“Within the region, Oklahoma City is leading the way in true proactive planning, community engagement and implementation of these projects,” Okeke-Von Batten told Oklahoma Gazette. “Nationally, Oklahoma City is certainly on the leading edge.”

Ecological impact

Over the last several decades, Oklahoma City has become an urban model with its beautiful riverfront, thriving downtown, vibrant arts and entertainment scene and unique urban districts.

It took decades of work to transform the area. From the city’s Pei Plan, a 1960s downtown urban renewal project, came the idea for a 17-acre downtown city park where the Biltmore Hotel once stood. Myriad Botanical Gardens finally opened in the late 1980s with its iconic Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory built through a public-private partnership.

About five years later, Oklahoma City passed the first MAPS initiative, which included transforming the 7-mile stretch of the N. Canadian River. And in 2004, there was finally water flowing in what once was a dry riverbed. The success of the initial MAPS program, which included Bricktown Ballpark; a canal project; and downtown projects like the arena, library, convention center and music hall, led the way for future MAPS endeavors like MAPS 3’s downtown park.

Such projects are impressive by meeting a variety of goals, from creating recreation and making the city more walkable to spurring private investment, bringing jobs and services to the city. In projects like Myriad Botanical Gardens and the Oklahoma River, the city addressed important environmental benefits, explained Okeke-Von Batten.

“There is a real appreciation Oklahoma City leaders and citizens have for continuing to revitalize areas of the city, such as the riverfront that may not have been seen as an amenity in the past,” she said.

As the urban population continues to grow and cities face climate change concerns, urban parks and open spaces are critical for providing healthy habitats for humans, wildlife and plants. Such projects don’t come easy. OKC’s role in the forum is to share how such projects came to fruition.

Louisa McCune, executive director of the Kirkpatrick Foundation, explained the forum will be similar to a G20 summit where the top leaders in areas of ecology, biology, environment and urban design gather to further discuss the best development models for urban ecosystems. Following the forum, the American Architectural Foundation will publish a report summarizing the observations and recommendations.

“We hope to highlight transformative and durable public-private partnership projects that improve the quality of life in cities for people, animals and the natural environment,” McCune said.

Of the Oklahoma-based forum participants, Oklahoma City Zoo executive director Dwight Lawson said members of the conservation community have been awaiting such a forum. Discussions on the effects of urbanization can sometimes forget plants and animal life. He believes urbanization can present opportunities for natural wildlife; however, it is critical that attention is paid to mitigate human and wildlife conflicts.

“I am excited to take a few ideas from this forum and run with them,” Lawson said. “The zoo could become a living laboratory or an experimental opportunity to keep moving this beyond the conference.”

Print headline: Full spectrum; Oklahoma City’s urban renaissance includes projects that address the coexistence of nature and the city.

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