Applying imagiNATIVE thinking

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Last September, the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce won approval under that city's downtown design guidelines for a new headquarters building at 4th and Gaylord, where Gaylord jogs left to connect to Broadway. Approval was controversial, because of the suburban site plan -- the building sits back from the street, and a good deal of the site is devoted to surface parking. An opportunity was missed to reverse an urban design mistake from the '60s and restore a street grid that would make pedestrian movement through the area easier than it is today: Six-lane Gaylord acts as a barrier between the downtown core and the Flatiron District.

The project is not yet under construction, and one quiet critic of the plan, Blair Humphreys, is now speaking up in hopes of urging a rethink of the plan. Back before the project came before the Downtown Design Review Board, Humphreys wrote a critique of the plan, but decided to keep it under wraps:

At the time, the proposal was still weeks away from initial urban design review and I hoped to contribute to the dialogue, or more accurately, initiate a dialogue about the proposal and the constraints placed on the project by the flawed planning of the I.M. Pei Plan. But then, after receiving advice that it would damage my future job prospects in OKC, I chose to stay silent.

Humphreys is studying urban planning at MIT. I started to write that it's stunning to think that someone with his name and education could hurt his job prospects by uttering some constructive criticism, but it really isn't. Although OKC has been more forward-thinking in its urban policy than Tulsa, its social structure is not that different from Tulsa's. Telling the emperor that his clothes are somewhat transparent, even if it's said in the most polite way, is never appreciated by the emperor.

His decision to remain silent gnawed at him:

It is a tough deal because I love Oklahoma City. I have always dreamed of helping to shape the future of the city and want to make it great - that is why I left development to pursue a career in planning. As a student of history I appreciate and respect the vital role the Chamber has played - and continues to play - in Oklahoma City's rise from train depot, to State Capitol, to Big League City. However, I have never felt right about the way I stayed quiet on this issue. From now on, I will not back down from contributing my thoughts on contentious issues, but I will try to do so in the most respectful manner possible.

In a later entry, he posts his critique of the Chamber's proposal.

One of my frustrations over the last decade or so of active involvement in local issues is how many Tulsans, active in community affairs, will tell me their concerns or objections to some public plan privately but don't dare speak out publicly. To speak up might alienate a potential compliant, might cost their non-profit a major donation, might get them ostracized from their social circle. (I wrote about this frustration at length last June.)

I can understand their reluctance. Criticizing the plans of the powerful doesn't earn you praise, position, or riches.

But being willing to speak has its rewards as well as its costs. You give others who share your opinion the reassurance that they aren't alone, which may give them the courage to speak up, too. If you're a well-trained urbanist like Blair Humphreys, your words can give laypeople a vocabulary for expressing their gut feelings about neighborhoods and buildings and places. Eventually, you may have the satisfaction of seeing your ideas become the conventional wisdom.

You can't shape the public debate unless you're willing to debate publicly.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 2, 2009 11:23 PM.

Tulsa High Tech -- rebooted was the previous entry in this blog.

Columnist Bates quits weekly is the next entry in this blog.

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