Most important considerations in planning Tulsa's future

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About a year ago, I responded to a questionnaire about the Mayor's Vision Summit, for which I served as a facilitator. I came across my reply today, and much of it still seems relevant.

(My entire response, along with the responses of others, is in the archive of the old TulsaNow Yahoo! mailing list. UPDATE: I was informed this archive is only accessible to members of the mailing list, so I've added the text here. Click the link at the end of the entry.)

So here's my response to the final question. Unfortunately, I don't think the Leadership Team that produced the "Forfeit 4 Greater Taxes" package gave any thought to these issues.


What are the 10 most important considerations that must be faced in planning for Tulsa's future?

There seem to be various of interpretations of this question. I take this to mean economic, demographic, political realities -- whether positive or negative -- that have to be faced honestly so that we can make sound plans. In no particular order:

1. Tulsa's multi-billion dollar backlog of basic infrastructure needs. [Basic means streets and sewers, not arenas.]

2. The greying of the population. What can be done to make this city more hospitable to senior citizens?

3. Declining demand for unskilled labor as those jobs are exported, rising demand for skilled labor and knowledge workers.

4. The damage that has been done to Tulsa's urban fabric over the last 40 - 50 years. It's there, it can't be easily undone, and revitalization efforts have to be planned in a way that overcomes its effects.

5. The "brain drain" -- why have so many young Tulsans left, where have they gone, and what will it take to get them to come back? Let's find them and ask them. And let's talk to those who went away for a time but came back -- what drew them back?

6. The growing number of immigrants in our midst. How do we deal with linguistic and cultural barriers? How can we help them realize their dreams and thereby enhance their adopted city?

7. The electromagnetic pull of home entertainment -- home theaters, computers, game systems. Americans are finding plenty to keep them amused indoors, and many are oblivious to and uninterested in communal entertainment like nightclubs, movies, and concerts. Home entertainment options are less expensive and can be customized and scheduled to an individual's preferences. Reuters reported on Sunday that ticket sales by the top 50 concert acts are off by 18% from two years ago -- a loss of over 2 million ticket buyers.

8. The deep religious faith widespread in Tulsa and its environs. Some consider this an obstacle to progress, but many consider it a distinctive asset, the reason they came here and stayed. I listed it as one of the qualities we should maintain as we go forward. Whether you like it or not, it's a force to be understood and respected.

9. The diversity of priorities and concerns in Tulsa. Ask a Tulsan what should be our city's highest priority and the answer will vary based on where he lives, where he works, and on his other affiliations and interests. Our plans need to respect those diverse concerns.

10. Tulsa's unique qualities -- call them distinctives or idiosyncracies -- how can we raise awareness and pride locally and use this as an asset in our dealings with the rest of the world? I get the impression than some civic leaders are embarassed by our oil heritage, our Cowboy and Indian roots, and the strength of religious belief here -- so our tourist brochures trumpet the ballet and Philbrook and Utica Square, and downplay things like western swing music, the gun museum in Claremore, and ORU. When a German tourist comes to Oklahoma, he doesn't want to see the opera, he wants to see oil wells, tipis, old Route 66 motels, and tornadoes. Some adolescents go through a phase when their greatest longing is to be just like everyone else. If we're going to set ourselves apart, we have to stop trying to blend in as a modern city like every other, stop treating our quirky folkways as things to be suppressed and hidden, and celebrate them instead. It's nice to have the same cultural amenities as every other large city, but it's the unique qualities that will win the affections of our own people and capture the imaginations of the rest of the world.

Date: Mon Jul 15, 2002 5:14 pm
Subject: Re: TulsaNow! - Mayor's Vision Summit--Your Reponse

There was a lot here to respond to. I've got more to say on a couple of related subjects, hopefully in the next day or two.

Silvey, Larry P wrote:

> NEXT STEPS - Your Response to the Mayor's Vision Summit
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> This is an opportunity to sound off, participate in dialogue, and learn from others.
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> If you did or if you did not participate in the July 9 Mayor's Vision Summit, please take time to ponder and then respond to any or all of the following questions.
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> 1. What was your overall impression of the Summit, and did it, in your opinion, accomplish it's goals?

The turnout demonstrated that Tulsans are concerned about the future, and that they believe that under this Mayor, their opinions will shape the outcome. The summit succeeded in inspiring interest and participation, and it got Tulsans talking to each other, but by rushing the public input portion of the event, it fell short of the main goal.

> 2. What would you have done differently, if anything?

(a) Expand the time for answering the four questions. This was the most important part of the summit, and it got squeezed. I also would have dropped the attempt at gaining the table's consensus on the most important three to five items. An item might be important to one or two people at each table -- to 200 people all together -- but because it wasn't in the majority at any table, it would not make it onto any of the response sheets. For example, two at our table identified the need to improve race relations, while the rest didn't see it as an issue. Better to have listed all the ideas that were raised, then perhaps to go back and indicate the extent of agreement on each. 20 minutes wasn't enough time to do everything we were supposed to do on each question.

(b) Drop the electronic polling. It took too much time -- as evidenced by the decision to skip several of the questions -- and, as Janis Griggs noted, several of the questions were so leading that the answers provided no insight. The way the votes were gathered -- on a table by table basis -- guaranteed that the results would be misreported. It distracted the media -- the easiest story to report is X percent say Y, and sure enough the media focused on that rather than the afternoon discussions, which were the heart of the summit.

(c) Drop most of the speakers -- Glenn Hiemstra was valuable to the process, because he helped define what "vision" is all about. It was also valuable to have Bob LaFortune talk about Vision 2000, and the demographic presentation by Rodger Randle. Those speakers provided context to the main event -- Tulsans talking to each other about our vision for our city. The other speakers were interesting, but didn't really add to the purpose of the day.

(d) A box lunch would have been fine and would have saved time. The best part of lunch was the chance to sit down with a different group of people for a few minutes and talk about ideas.

(e) The timing of the summit was awkward. I've heard from many concerned Tulsans who wanted to be there but were prevented by their work responsibilities or unchangeable vacation plans.

> 3. What do you envision as the necessary, immediate next steps?

Offer a few more sessions over the next three months at various times and places to give other Tulsans a chance to answer the four questions. The shorter sessions could have participants see a video of the Hiemstra talk, hear the demographic presentation, then tackle the questions all in about 3 hours. Have some in the evening, some on a Saturday, and use different locations around town, including some of the suburbs.

Compile and summarize the responses from this summit, taking care to include all reported views.

Plan some public meetings to talk about preferred futures on different topics -- transportation, land use / zoning, education. Present options (visually if possible) and ask for preferences. To take an example from Hiemstra's talk -- should downtown parking look like this (surface parking lot) or this (structure with street-level retail space)? The goal is to decide what we want our city to look like and be like, and then we can talk about what we need to do now to get there.

> 4. How regional in scope should this vision, and subsequent planning and action, be?

Different scopes for different aspects of the vision. If you're talking about higher ed, include the whole metro area. If you're talking about land use -- different cities, and in Tulsa different parts of our city, will have different aspirations, and we shouldn't impose a solitary vision on all of them. Some visioning should be done at the neighborhood level, like the Brookside neighborhood plan recently completed.

> 5. How closely should the City's "Vision" program and the County's "Dialogue 2025" program be coordinated?

I think the City's program should have priority, simply because the County's program is restricted to a select few, while the City's program is open to all who wish to participate. If anything, the results of the City process should shape what our City representatives are working for in the County discussion.

> 6. In your opinion, how critical is the downtown core area to the future livability and viability of Tulsa as a whole?

Depends on what you mean by downtown core -- is that just 1st to 6th, Denver to Cincinnati (the downtown office park)? Or is it inside the inner disperal loop only? Or does it include the surrounding neighborhoods? I think the focus needs to be on Tulsa's urban center -- which includes the inner dispersal loop but also much of Midtown. It's all an organic unity.

I would prefer to put it this way: Tulsa needs to offer, as an alternative to the suburban, auto-enslaved lifestyle, a vital urban district -- defined by qualities like architectural beauty, reuse and restoration of historic buildings, walkability, diversity of housing options, and diversity of land uses in a concentrated area. Although they have been scarred by faulty redevelopment policies, Downtown and Midtown together offer the only foundation on which such a district can be recreated. Those areas alone have the necessary ingredients. We must take these two together -- focusing on the downtown "core" while ignoring the rest of downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods has hurt both Downtown and Midtown.

Cities are viable without an urban center -- but they aren't livable or lovable.

Government can't create the kind of variety that we need in a vital urban center, although it can nurture positive trends, while taking care not to smother them in the process. Revitalization is already occuring one house, one storefront business, one apartment building at a time and we need to remove hindrances to the efforts of these pioneers.

> 7. How important is diversity, and what roles should diversity play in the future of Tulsa?

I'm going to assume that we are talking about all sorts of diversity: diversity of housing types, diversity of businesses, and in people, diversity of background, economic status, hobby, religious belief, political opinion.

Diversity happens naturally in a city. A city has a sufficient concentration of people that someone with a particular passion, interest, or concern is likely to find others who share it. A city that is allowed to develop at its own pace will have a diversity in ages and types of buildings, which allows a diversity of ages, incomes, and businesses to coexist in the same neighborhood. Part of the charm of exploring an older neighborhood is the discovery of something out of place, an enclave, an anomaly. Planners like things to be in tidy boxes -- what you might call an interesting oddity, they officially term a "non-conforming use". Oklahoma state law officially declares as "blighted" any place that doesn't fit the planner's tidy arrangement. (It is possible to find grounds to declare any property "legally blighted" and thus subject to condemnation -- see www.castlecoalition.org if you want to read more about abuse of the power of eminent domain.)

Diversity is easy to overlook. Our brains naturally tend to simplify and summarize, and so we overlook the complexity that exists all around us. As I've written previously, it's easy to summarize the Tulsa arts scene as the Big Two museums and the Big Three performing arts companies, but you miss the bands, galleries, ensembles, church choirs, and individual artists that engage thousands of Tulsans as arts participants. It's easy to think of the economy in terms of a handful of companies that employ thousands, but you overlook the countless small businesses where most Tulsans toil in obscurity at jobs you never dreamed existed.

Diversity can be stifled in many ways: Our zoning code imposes a suburban design approach on new urban development, and our building code used to encourage demolition of older buildings, rather than rehabilitation. The local newspaper attributes evil motives to responsible, intelligent people who disagree with them on a controversial issue. Banks refuse financing to developments that don't conform to the standard way of building.

I wonder if a "shared vision" is a threat to diversity. At worst, the phrase conjures up images of rallies in Pyongyang. At the least, it suggests a uniformity that can stifle any concept that doesn't fit the conventional wisdom.

Most of the really interesting things in our world are the product, not of a "shared vision" developed by committee, but of the unique vision of one person or a small group. I think of the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas (www.cosmo.org). It started in 1962 as the vision of one woman, Patty Carey, who acquired a used star projector and found some space in the poultry building at the state fairgrounds where she and some high school students could set it up. She wasn't thinking about boosting the city's economy or building a world-class tourist attraction -- she just wanted to inspire young people about space and science. (http://www.cosmo.org/location/whyhutch.html) Over time the planetarium grew in popularity, and exhibits were added. Today the Cosmosphere features "a U.S. space artifact collection second only to the National Air and Space Museum and the largest collection of Russian space artifacts found outside of Moscow," including the Apollo 13 command module and Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7. No committee would have come up with this idea, and no committee would have put it in the middle of Kansas. (And it is well worth the four-hour drive to visit.) If Patty Carey had gone to the Mayor of Hutchinson in 1962 and sought millions in public funding for her dream, she would have been laughed out of his office. In 1962, the little planetarium in the poultry building didn't need millions anyway -- the dream started small and grew over the course of decades.

The point is that the Next Great Big Idea That Will Put Tulsa On The Map is probably not one that a majority of us would recognize and get behind today. And the combined effect of a lot of Great Little Ideas, individually pursued, may do more for Tulsa's livability than any one big project. Perhaps our "shared vision" should be of a city that encourages individual innovation, rather than one where we are all expected to march in lock-step. (I didn't care for the description of the vision summiteers as an army of 1,100 people. We came to give marching orders, not to take them.) We need to come together to define "a shared vision" for Tulsa's public realm, but there should be liberty for individual visions to grow and flourish.

> 8. Vision was described at the summit as being "a compelling description of your preferred future." How would you describe your preferred future as a Tulsan?

Living and working in a city that can rightfully claim to be America's most beautiful and livable city, a city with a bustling Downtown, where the different centers of activity have been reconnected to form a dynamic whole; with healthy, interesting, walkable neighborhoods, where both residential and commerical uses can thrive in harmony; a city where historic buildings are restored and put to use, and where new development is built in a way that enhances the whole. A city free from stifling monopolies of power and communication -- where citizens from every neighborhood and walk of life feel that their concerns are heard and respected. A city that remains a good place to raise a family, a place to call home for generations to come.

One more thought: There are too many prominent people in the world who came from Tulsa. They had to go to Wall Street or Washington, Hollywood or Nashville to make their mark. I would like to see Tulsa become the city where you have to go if you want to rise to the top, in at least one field of endeavor.

> 9. Former Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut, who concluded (as did former Tulsa Mayor Bob LaFortune) that the inclusion approach is a good approach, said, "Itís got to come from the people, not from the top." Do you agree with that assessment, and if so, how can it best be accomplished?

Yes, the goals must be driven by the people. Our political and business leaders need a degree of humility, a servant's heart -- a willingness to set aside personal goals to facilitate the aims of the public. "Non ministrari sed ministrare." Experts may be able to help us reach our goals, but it's not for them to tell us what we want and hope for.

The process of gathering input needs to be well-publicized and facilitated through a variety of media. Equally important is the process of sifting through and boiling down that input into a coherent set of goals. That should be done by a diverse group of people, representing a variety of interests, so that the result doesn't merely reflect the biases of the summarizer.

There should then be an opportunity for clarification -- here's what we think we heard you say, did we hear you correctly? Boil down public input into a dozen propositions describing "a compelling description of our preferred future" and invite the public to respond specifically to each, using public meetings and the Internet. The focus at this point should still be on qualities to which Tulsa should aspire, rather than on the specific steps that will serve as means to those ends.

Even when we begin discussing implementation, we should still be open to public input. There is a lot of expertise here in Tulsa that we need to tap as we evaluate the soundness of our plans. A case in point: One of the people at my table last Tuesday was a convention planner who has put on events all over the US and internationally. We had a discussion afterwards about why many convention center expansions have failed to produce the desired results. He mentioned the failure to consult with potential customers about the design and amenities -- you may have the floor space but there may be some flaw in the arrangement of space or in the amenities that would disqualify a center from consideration by the most lucrative conventions. If Tulsans decide to explore a major expansion of the convention center, this man needs to be at the table. But to get this kind of input, we must make detailed plans, concepts, and rationales available for public comment early in the process. The Internet makes it easy to put plans out where everyone can get to them.

> 10. . What are the 10 most important considerations that must be faced in planning for Tulsa's future?

There seem to be various of interpretations of this question. I take this to mean economic, demographic, political realities -- whether positive or negative -- that have to be faced honestly so that we can make sound plans. In no particular order:

1. Tulsa's multi-billion dollar backlog of basic infrastructure needs.

2. The greying of the population. What can be done to make this city more hospitable to senior citizens?

3. Declining demand for unskilled labor as those jobs are exported, rising demand for skilled labor and knowledge workers.

4. The damage that has been done to Tulsa's urban fabric over the last 40 - 50 years. It's there, it can't be easily undone, and revitalization efforts have to be planned in a way that overcomes its effects.

5. The "brain drain" -- why have so many young Tulsans left, where have they gone, and what will it take to get them to come back? Let's find them and ask them. And let's talk to those who went away for a time but came back -- what drew them back?

6. The growing number of immigrants in our midst. How do we deal with linguistic and cultural barriers? How can we help them realize their dreams and thereby enhance their adopted city?

7. The electromagnetic pull of home entertainment -- home theaters, computers, game systems. Americans are finding plenty to keep them amused indoors, and many are oblivious to and uninterested in communal entertainment like nightclubs, movies, and concerts. Home entertainment options are less expensive and can be customized and scheduled to an individual's preferences. Reuters reported on Sunday that ticket sales by the top 50 concert acts are off by 18% from two years ago -- a loss of over 2 million ticket buyers.

8. The deep religious faith widespread in Tulsa and its environs. Some consider this an obstacle to progress, but many consider it a distinctive asset, the reason they came here and stayed. I listed it as one of the qualities we should maintain as we go forward. Whether you like it or not, it's a force to be understood and respected.

9. The diversity of priorities and concerns in Tulsa. Ask a Tulsan what should be our city's highest priority and the answer will vary based on where he lives, where he works, and on his other affiliations and interests. Our plans need to respect those diverse concerns.

10. Tulsa's unique qualities -- call them distinctives or idiosyncracies -- how can we raise awareness and pride locally and use this as an asset in our dealings with the rest of the world? I get the impression than some civic leaders are embarassed by our oil heritage, our Cowboy and Indian roots, and the strength of religious belief here -- so our tourist brochures trumpet the ballet and Philbrook and Utica Square, and downplay things like western swing music, the gun museum in Claremore, and ORU. When a German tourist comes to Oklahoma, he doesn't want to see the opera, he wants to see oil wells, tipis, old Route 66 motels, and tornadoes. Some adolescents go through a phase when their greatest longing is to be just like everyone else. If we're going to set ourselves apart, we have to stop trying to blend in as a modern city like every other, stop treating our quirky folkways as things to be suppressed and hidden, and celebrate them instead. It's nice to have the same cultural amenities as every other large city, but it's the unique qualities that will win the affections of our own people and capture the imaginations of the rest of the world.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 20, 2003 11:38 PM.

Whirled in overdrive was the previous entry in this blog.

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