Cities: February 2009 Archives

Blair Humphreys has downloaded the latest version of Google Earth, 5.0, and reports a feature that will delight urban historian types: The ability to go back in time to earlier images.

The coolest new feature of the program is that it allows you to search historical aerials. With Oklahoma City, there are approx. 10 different aerial sets dating back to 1991, though only a few are from before 2002. Still, it is great to have access to a tool that records urban transformation.

He demonstrates with images of Bricktown from 1995 to 2003 to 2007. It's striking to see that, for all the new development -- the ballpark, the canal, the new development south of Reno -- very little was demolished over that 12 year period. Bricktown began with a great stock of older buildings, and those buildings have been reused, not replaced.

MORE: Although OKC did plenty of demolition as part of the I. M. Pei plan, their pre-World War II Civic Center -- City Hall and the Music Hall and the connecting mall -- replaced an old Rock Island rail yard. Doug Loudenback has a fascinating historical sketch of the planning and development of the Oklahoma City Civic Center.

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.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Cities category from February 2009.

Cities: January 2009 is the previous archive.

Cities: March 2009 is the next archive.

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