In 1957, Tulsa proudly proclaimed itself "America's Most Beautiful City." And, in a lot of ways, we had it right. The sunbelt states were just beginning to come into their own and the city's hubris was intense.
But that same year, the planners got hold of it.
Regular readers will know of my fascination with Tulsa in 1957. Not only was that year of Oklahoma's semi-centennial and the massive and spectacular Tulsarama! celebration (of which the Belvedere burial was but a small afterthought), but it represents a turning point in the history of our city.
Tulsa in 1957 is recent enough to be well within living memory, but far enough into the past to be a very different city. 1957 is before the expressway system, before urban renewal, before sprawl began in earnest.
Tulsa in 1957 was a quarter of a million people in 41 square miles. Today we've got only 50 percent more people spread out over nearly five times the territory.
While we may think of 1957 as an old-fashioned time, it was a time when the word "modern" carried only positive connotations and "old-fashioned" was no compliment, particularly here in a young city in a young state.
It was in the '50s that "forward-thinking" main street merchants in big cities and small towns began to cover old fashioned, turn-of-the-century stone and brick facades with futuristic metallic cladding and grills. Fifty years later, Oklahoma's award-winning "Main Street" programs are helping building owners tear off the mid-century cladding and restore the original facades.
Tulsa, I.T., a tourist magazine published by the Metropolitan Tulsa Chamber of Commerce in 1957, gives you a sense of what gave Tulsa's civic leaders pride in the city.
The center spread is a map and description of the Tulsa Tour, with its red arrows guiding motorists past the Chamber of Commerce building on south Boston, the "ultra-modern national headquarters" of the U. S. Jaycees (now demolished), the refineries, the Municipal Rose Garden, Utica Square, the Fairgrounds ("where the nation's largest livestock exhibit barn is to be found"), the "new $4 million" County Courthouse, and the "new inspiring" YMCA.
Boston Avenue Church and Philbrook were the only buildings on the list more than a few years old. Tulsa's leaders were proudest of what we had that was new and ultra-modern.
In 1957, the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) began the development of a comprehensive plan, an effort that continued for several years thereafter. The plans were intended to cover the period from 1960 to 1975. (You can find the documents on the TMAPC shelf in the government documents section on the 4th Floor of Central Library.)
These half-century-old planning documents make for instructive reading, particularly as we embark on the first comprehensive planning effort in 30 years. (See planitulsa.org for details.) They illustrate both the limitations of planning and the persistence of plans.
For better or worse, nearly every concept in those documents has been realized.
The 1957 comprehensive plan made Tulsa what it is today, a very different place than it was then.
General Plan Report 1 was issued in May 1957, with the title tulsa TOMORROW. The use of lower case and a smart sans serif font for the city's name and the article headings, the harvest gold color scheme, the striking graphics, the bold layouts that defied page boundaries put the reader on notice that this was not his granddaddy's approach to city development.
tulsa TOMORROW was an introduction to the idea and importance of urban planning. The reader was told that "no one could deny the value to a family of residing in a quiet area free from through traffic" and that the kind of major industry Tulsa needed to attract was looking for cities with "an up-to-date downtown."
A two-page spread rehearses the history of planning in Tulsa, starting with the 1922 establishment of the City Planning Commission and the adoption of a zoning ordinance and subdivision regulations in 1924.
But planning didn't flourish until 1953's merger of the city and county planning boards into the TMAPC. The ensuing four years saw a major zoning code change, the creation of the Civic Center plan, and surveys of traffic, parking, and land use.
At the heart of this mid '50s comprehensive planning effort was the efficient movement and storage of cars. The design of the expressway system, the decentralization of industry, the layout of subdivisions, and the plan for downtown were all developed with the auto in mind.
In 1956, a "sketch plan of expressways" was completed and planned industrial areas were designated. Their research on traffic and parking patterns showed that the key deficiency in Tulsa's street network was its lack of radial routes.
Thirty percent of all car trips began or ended downtown. People wanted to go from their homes in the subdivisions to downtown where the jobs and shopping were, but the mile-grid network of arterials forced them to travel extra miles and endure congestion.
The first draft of the expressway system had most of the elements we know today: Radial routes to the suburbs, an inner dispersal loop linking the radial routes around downtown, with Skelly Bypass, the Sequoyah Loop, and Memorial Drive creating an outer loop. The Mingo Valley Expressway would link industrial areas east of the airport with planned industrial areas in southeast Tulsa. The initial plan didn't yet include the outer loop Creek Expressway; instead the Riverside Expressway continued along the river to Memorial Drive, where it converged with the Mingo Valley Expressway.
By December 1957, when General Plan Report 3, METROPOLITAN tulsa EXPRESSWAYS, was issued, the city and county had adopted the plan unanimously and city voters had approved a bond issue for right-of-way acquisition. Every dollar of local funds would be matched by nine federal dollars. Construction costs would be split evenly by state and federal governments. Barring unforeseen obstacles, the entire system was expected to be completed by 1972.
Since the local cost contribution was minimal, there was a strong incentive to plan as many expressways as possible, especially since federal highway construction dollars meant local jobs. I suspect that the prospect of federal money for freeway construction, linked to a requirement for a regional plan, is what motivated the launch of Tulsa's metropolitan planning effort in 1953.
It would be tempting to blame the 1957 planners for the suburban sprawl and the demise of downtown retail, and without a doubt their recommendations contributed to those results.
But the planners were trying to cope with changes in living and working patterns that, I suspect, trace back to 1924 zoning ordinance--the beginnings of segregating land uses from one another--federal lending policies that encouraged new housing development over inner city redevelopment.
Planners predicted that the metro area's population, number of households, and the number of workers would double between 1957 and 1975, but the number of cars was expected to increase by 142 percent (almost double and half again more). The key measurement--the number of daily car trips--was expected to triple.
What they didn't anticipate is that the inner dispersal loop would cut downtown off from the neighborhoods that provided a customer base for its stores. The radial expressways made it easier to commute from ever more distant suburban subdivisions while slicing through and contributing to the decay of older inner neighborhoods.
Retail followed rooftops and eventually so did professional and clerical jobs. Traffic patterns changed from radial to tangential as soccer moms traveled from suburban home to suburban school to suburban mall to suburban after-school activity. The growth in the number of cars and car trips outpaced population growth.
What the mid-century planners missed was that you can move people without moving and storing cars. They overlooked the ability of people to adapt to congestion by adjusting where they live, shop, and work to avoid it, resulting in more efficient use of the existing road network and pressure to maintain a densely-developed urban core, which in turn makes convenient mass transit practical and reduces the need to move and store cars.
In future columns I hope to delve further into the 50-year-old planning decisions that continue to shape Tulsa. If you were involved in that process or have documents to share, I'd love to hear from you. As we map out a course for our next 50 years, we need to know how we got where we are.
Share this article: