Everything, it seems, in city service provision is wildly entangled.
While questioning the need for humongous public safety in the abstract is pointless and even heretical, Tulsa's hyper-conventional arrangements for doing/funding police and fire protection have at least two unintended outcomes: city employees who are not cops or firefighters are big casualties of our hugely unimaginative, extremely costly public safety trajectory, and the insufferable neglect of our public parks and recreational programs is a second disaster zone.
In the early part of the 19th century, city planners and pioneering landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux re-imagined green spaces in American cities. And while many now assume that the "parks movement" was inspired by proto-environmentalists, Olmsted's driving conception was really counter-punching inequality. Olmsted had directly experienced the disgusting, hyper-dense, and predatory immigrant communities that characterized rapidly industrializing cities in northeastern America. While Olmsted was wellborn, he had a bevy of vivid experiences as a young adult that put him in close contact with working people and their jammed, owner-neglected, often filthy 19th-century urban settlements.
Interestingly, as producer/writer Rebecca Messner shows in a recent PBS documentary on Olmsted's work, he also witnessed the superior integration of green spaces, parks, and open-air circulation that characterized parts of Paris and other large European cities in the early part of the 19th century. Messier's lucid film argues that Olmsted concluded that it would be transformative for American working class folks to experience what the well-to-do encountered on their summer stays in American rural retreats and European vacation spots. And New York City's magnificent Central Park was the first expression of Olmsted's obsession -- and a protean template for dozens of urban parks and green spaces that quickly followed all across America.
The park scene in Tulsa, apart from our premier golf course, our top-notch river park and trail system, and a handful of jewel-like specialty sites, are simply mediocre and on a decay path spawned by sorry funding and heavy political neglect. In north Tulsa and parts of west Tulsa, these still-essential city services are in a dire state of advanced decay, and this is a travesty.
There's an ongoing controversy: the current city administration and a small set of north Tulsa activists are waging a pitched battle over the future of three sites. The big tussle: the proposed demolition of community centers at Springdale Park, 2223 E. Pine St., Ben Hill Park, 210 E. Latimer Place, and B.C. Franklin Park, 1818 E. Virgin St. All are combination recreation centers/public pools marked for destruction after being shuttered for almost a decade. The Bartlett administration has announced that all three sites should be replaced in accord with a 2010 parks master plan. But a cadre of area residents is now demanding that the dilapidated north-side facilities be renovated and opened anew.
According to a raft of folks I've talked with, the parks at issue, had they been private facilities, would've been formally condemned and slated for demolition by the Health Department long ago. But the parks in question carry an emotional weight for folks who believe that destroying them (even if they are replaced) is another piece of ongoing treachery at City Hall, and who can really blame them?
In recent days, mayoral candidates Kathy Taylor and Bill Christiansen have thrown in with the north side protagonists, insisting that the city waylay the current demolition schedule and reopen the entire matter. Both candidates argue that prospects for renovating the three facilities should be given a second, more searching look.
In doing so, there are some key questions that must be addressed.
First, how have leisure and "play dynamics" changed among children in north Tulsa and elsewhere? As it happens, the service area for all three facilities contains fewer children and many more seniors than at the time of their construction -- now decades ago -- and a puzzling underutilization hovers over a host of functioning city parks.
Second, what should we make of the fact that a third of Green Country children and an outside share of Hispanic and black kids are profoundly overweight? Many are in need of additional physical exercise and the incentives and mentoring required to get them on a wildly different path.
Third, is there merit in looking at regional park facilities with rich, distinctive features -- say a half-dozen across the city that might inject deep fun, real variety and actual excitement into our park landscape?
Think aqua parks, a bike velodrome, extreme sports enclaves and free park bus passes. And how about a giant sidewalk-to-school/parks project that would be Tulsa's world-class testament to walkability?
Finally, what can park planners learn from the electric reception the Guthrie Green space has received in downtown Tulsa? And what should we make of the shiny new, but "no operating fund" mess called Mohawk Soccer park?
While it's an obvious thing to say, it bears repeating that public parks still play roles in the world of kids and parents who are short on money and mobility. These realities are a moral challenge and one that goes to our town's obligation to address the insufferable inequalities that hobble Tulsa's unity, undermines the working poor, and exacerbates youth alienation.
That's why it's especially tragic that the current controversy is so tightly focused on preserving antiquated recreational facilities in north Tulsa -- the question shouldn't be about retaining these assets at any cost. We should go squarely to what 21st-century Tulsa is: a spot with monstrous diabetes and obesity problems, a fourth-rate sidewalk complement, and sparse grocery store offerings in north Tulsa. There is a glittering array of novel park concepts to combat this -- though these are mostly unseen in Tulsa -- that fuse health, recreation, urban agriculture and cool play worlds.
It is a damn good time to revisit our still-fresh park master plan, provisioning parks services in modest-income neighborhoods and some of the breakout notions being tossed around in planning and health care circles. But let's include children in the reviews. They will always be significant users of our public parks and should have a voice. Kids should have a real say in the look, feel, and character of these services, especially given a world filled with violent video games, bad television, vapid Internet surfing and other compelling but empty alternatives.
And we need to use actual political will and put on our thinking caps to find funding both for constructing novel parks and recreation programs and maintaining them in sustainable ways.
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