By the summer of 2014, I had been using the trails at several of Tulsa’s “non-park” parks in east Tulsa for a couple of years. You may be asking yourself, “What on earth is a ‘non-park’ park?” It’s a term I coined for the narrow lengths of land adjacent to creeks and other small waterways, owned by the City of Tulsa and used for flood control purposes, but that also includes gravel walking trails, creeks, ponds, and occasionally, a bench or two.
There is no programming, no playground equipment, no basketball/tennis courts, and even trees are sparse, but the green space is there, and people use it to walk, run, kick a ball, or fish.
These non-park parks are not part of the Tulsa Parks & Recreation Department – instead, these areas are maintained by the City’s Streets and Stormwater Department.
After lamenting the lack of nice, programmed, active public parks and open space in east Tulsa, I had the idea to turn these green spaces into a connected network of narrow, linear Creekside Parks that would connect several parts of town, including links between dozens of public schools and parks, similar to Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the plan to restore the Los Angeles River, or Tulsa’s own River Parks. With a little work, these properties, which are already owned by the city, could create transportation and recreation opportunities for a part of town with few existing options.
Granted, some need a little more work than others. For example, after the Great Tulsa Flood of 1984, the City began turning natural streams like Mingo Creek into concrete channels. These concrete channels quickly flush water away, eventually into the Arkansas River via an elaborate and expensive network of large, underground pipes. With these and other measures, the City of Tulsa solved many of its flooding problems (amid a “drainage war” between the City, developers, and neighborhoods), and quickly received national praise for its flood mitigation efforts.
But these kinds of things have consequences. In the channelized sections of streams, for example, practically all the fish and wildlife died. Plants don’t stand a chance against the concrete. In times of drought or very little rainfall, the concrete channels contain just a small stream of slow-moving water, which has led to the growth of lots of algae. It also created an impenetrable heat island in summer months.
The result is a place that is simultaneously uninhabitable by fish, birds, bees, other wildlife, plant life, and is unappealing and uncomfortable to humans. It resembles the drag racing scene from Grease, which was shot in the concrete channels of the Los Angeles River. There’s no way these concrete channels and retaining walls help home values in nearby neighborhoods, either.
Never been? Just take a look:
For more photos of Mingo Creek, visit my Flickr Album.
I began mapping the parks, and along the way, I noticed similar opportunities in each quadrant of the city. The project grew. The City solicited transformative ideas from citizens for the Vision renewal package, and I had a few up my sleeve, but ran out of time.
New Partnership Between City & School District
Fast forward to 2017. Tulsa’s new mayor formed a partnership between the City and local school districts to improve outcomes. Earlier this week, it was announced that the City Parks Department, Tulsa Public Schools, and TPS’s after-school bike programs have teamed up to create bike trails to provide safer routes to school while providing the opportunity for kids to get physical activity outdoors. It sounds like a perfect match for my Creekside Parks system.
The east Tulsa Creekside Parks could link up to six schools together along a north-south corridor, and others in smaller east-west segments, all while expanding access to park space, existing ponds, neighborhood walking trails, and more, stretching from Admiral south to 41st Street.
Dawson Area Creekside Parks could connect multiple schools, create more parkland, and provide opportunities for appropriate commercial development in certain areas.
The potential expansion of park space is most dramatic in North Tulsa, opening up more than two square miles of recreational areas, while connecting more than a dozen schools to bike trails that would feed into the Osage Prairie Trail.
The program’s effects in south Tulsa would also be quite pronounced, connecting seven schools to neighborhoods stretching from 51st & Sheridan all the way to 81st & Riverside.
If the City and TPS are looking for low-cost ways to expand safe routes to school and better connect with surrounding neighborhoods, this is a great solution. It would also help fulfill the goals of many official neighborhood plans (for example, objective 8 of the East Tulsa Detailed Implementation Plan: Provide additional, safe pedestrian paths and connection between area neighborhoods and activity centers). Water quality along sections restored to their natural states would also improve dramatically, reintroducing fish, birds, amphibians, and plants.
Essential Elements of a Creekside Park
- Restoring the channels to a natural state
- Multi-use trails on one or both sides of the streams
- Soccer fields, basketball courts or tennis courts, where the size permits
- Playground equipment, where possible
- Outdoor exercise equipment
- Extensive native landscaping
- Multiple bridge crossings, especially near schools
- Art that corresponds to and complements the surrounding neighborhood
- Gardens and trees
- More direct access to the water
- Natural stone used in retaining walls, where needed
- Fully-shielded, Dark Sky-compliant lighting in appropriate areas
- Directional signage, to help kids find their way to schools; and to help adults navigate
- Bike share stations
- In appropriate areas: Programming, Programming, Programming