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Oklahoma City

Kayakers and rowers enjoy the recently reinstated Oklahoma River.

Flickr user tomfs

Research Assistant Evan Severs co-authored this report.

 April 2012

Placemaking Principle: Develop a Vision

During the mid-1990s, Oklahoma City was facing a conundrum shared by many cities across the country: Once the workday ceased at 5 p.m., the downtown area would empty with a vigor shared only by elementary school children running outside for recess.  With little to attract and occupy workers after normal business hours, the city of 579,999 all but emptied to the surrounding suburbs, where according to Mayor Mick Cornett, “most of the life of the city took place.”  This began to change in the mid-2000s when Mayor Cornett developed a vision for a vibrant core and initiated a growth policy that is redefining Oklahoma City.

Mick Cornett was elected the city’s 35th mayor in 2004 and one of his first priorities was to transform the city’s downtown through a series of specially financed initiatives called the Metropolitan Area Projects, or MAPS.  Funded by a self-imposed one-cent (penny) sales tax, MAPS have been the vehicle to realize Mayor Cornett’s dream of a city where people want to live.  As he recently told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on a “Building Up America” segment, Mayor Cornett believes that companies are increasingly choosing to locate in cities based on where their employees will be happy. Put another way, these days jobs are coming to where the people are, not the other way around.

 Communities that want to capitalize on this new market reality would be wise to do as Oklahoma City has done and embrace Placemaking, by gearing new development and design toward the creation of public spaces and communities that attract people. Communities with these kinds of places not only boast a high quality of life – because they provide opportunities for people to interact with one another, have fun, and be active – but they typically also have more resilient economies. Mayor Cornett’s emphasis on Placemaking has paid off, as Oklahoma City’s 2012 unemployment rateof 5.9 percent was second only to Washington, D.C., among the country’s largest cities.  Oklahoma City also was named the number one city in the U.S. for starting a business, according to a Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation report.

The Mayor’s MAPS accurately represent his commitment to enhancing all facets of Oklahoma City life; yet the first seeds of Oklahoma City’s rebirth were planted in 1993 by then-Mayor Ron Norick.  He led the first Metropolitan Area Project, which the city called a “visionary capital improvement program,” using $350 million generated from the one-cent sales tax to rebuild or improve civic projects that made the downtown area more attractive.  This program led to the reclamation of the North Canadian River with the help of a number of recreational dams, the construction of a new central library, and completion of the Bricktown entertainment district (including a minor league baseball stadium, movie theaters, and music venues); and contributed to the building of the Ford Center, which attracted the city’s first professional basketball team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

The Metropolitan Area Projects are all “pay as you go,” so the city owes no debt on them. The fact that this debt-free structure allows for a fiscally healthy city is one reason why voters have twice approved an extension of the tax, the last time through 2017.  A common challenge in “pay as you go” strategies is that, because the lead-up time while accumulating the needed funds can be lengthy, projects often are scuttled when administrations change and new leaders want their own signature projects. Oklahoma City has been able to avoid this pitfall due to a genuine commitment to the city’s well-being held by each of the last three mayors. According to Mayor Cornett, Oklahoma City “changes mayors, but not strategies.” The last extension of the penny sales tax will fund MAPS 3, a complete revitalization of Oklahoma City’s downtown district, via a 10-year construction program to improve quality of life. The project revolves around three large initiatives, all in the downtown area: a convention center, a 70-acre park, and a modern streetcar transit system.  Other projects include new wellness centers for senior citizens and expanded nature trails and bike lanes.

In addition to tangible developments to improve quality of life, the Mayor has established the city as a special place, and kept the momentum going. An example is his weight loss initiative, OKC Million.  Using a cleverly titled web site,, to promote the issue, Cornett encouraged many residents to adopt healthier eating and exercise habits, and ultimately led one of the country’s 10 most obese cities to accomplish its goal of collectively losing 1 million pounds.  The Mayor himself lost 38 pounds during the weight loss campaign. In line with this health campaign, Oklahoma City is focusing on Project 180, a $140 million redesign of the downtown’s streets and sidewalks to be more pedestrian and bike-friendly. As Mayor Cornett explains it, the city is now planning for people instead of cars. 

Perhaps no one project captures the essence of Oklahoma City’s turnaround better than the reinstatement of a river in what had for decades been 7.5 miles of dry riverbed. It is now a series of river lakes surrounded by trails and recreational facilities known as the Oklahoma River. With generous support from local philanthropists, the river itself was also reclaimed and now attracts thriving rowing, kayak and canoe cultures. The river is considered such a draw for these water sports that the Olympic Canoe and Kayak trials will take place there in summer 2012. The river project illustrates that creating a place can take time; Mayor Cornett notes that when they converted it from a dry riverbed 10 years ago, they had no idea what a critical piece it would become in the place puzzle of Oklahoma City. As Urbanophile blogger Aaron Renn recently noted, “Quality of space is a long-term game.”

Building a round-the-clock downtown, creating places where people can gather and socialize, and providing outlets for outdoor enthusiasts and people who want to get active and be healthy: All of these are Placemaking, and each one has sent the positive message to current and prospective residents and entrepreneurs that Oklahoma City is filled with energy, enthusiasm and ideas.  Need more convincing? Consider this: Oklahoma City has benefitted from more than $5 billion in private and public investment since 1993 and grown its population by 15 percent since 2000. It didn’t happen overnight, but with a consistent vision and focus on people, Oklahoma City has proved the power of place.