Today’s guest blogger is Blair Humphreys, who with a masters in planning from MIT in hand, has done more to influence how I look at urban planning than anyone else I know this past year or so. I’ve already introduced him to you via yesterday’s post. After some more editing and discussion, we both agreed to hit you with his entire post all at once. It’s long, but it’s worth reading:
I want to start by thanking Steve for the opportunity to borrow his audience and offer up my thoughts on the future of Oklahoma City. While he asked for my thoughts on Downtown in 2020, my writing considers the city as a whole. I hope it is a worthy contribution to what has already been a very interesting discussion.
My own history with the city is something of a love affair. I grew up near 44th and Portland, and spent my first 18 years circling this location in ever growing loops as my mode of transportation allowed. I attended Putnam City Schools and played uncountable rounds of golf at Hefner. A normal childhood is a spectacular thing unto itself. I spent the next four years on the southern edge of the metro in Norman: watching football, getting a business degree, and somehow catching the attention of the girl of my dreams. After graduating from OU and getting married, my wife Maggie and I were excited to call Crown Heights home and enjoyed walking down 42nd Street to the burgeoning scene on Western, and living in the middle of a new area and in a post-MAPS version of Oklahoma City that was excitingly different then that of my childhood.
Looking back, my Dad’s years as Mayor, which began during my “formative years” starting with my freshman year at Putnam City, had a special effect on my life and career. It was during his tenure that I gained my first insights into all the work that goes into and all the people involved in, shaping the future of the city. Mayor Norick left a legacy with MAPS, demonstrating what was possible when the city pulled together to solve problems. I remember the excitement of attending games at the new ball park and the enthusiastic celebration surrounding the ribbon cutting for the Bricktown Canal.
Still, it wasn’t until some years later that the power of these experiences became clear. Throughout college all I wanted was to be a real estate developer. I wanted the life, the money; I admired Donald Trump. I even stood in the freezing cold for hours in order to tryout for Apprentice. Then, thankfully, this all started to change. My bookshelf of Trump books and get rich in real estate guides gave way to urban planning classics (Death and Life of Great American Cities being my favorite), books on New Urbanism, and a growing collection of research on the history of Oklahoma City. Soon, so much of my thinking was focused on Oklahoma City: what it was, what it had been, and where it was going. I couldn’t focus on a single development project, because I was more concerned with how to make the whole city better. I wanted to recapture the vitality and spirit that I felt had been buried beneath the rubble of the wrecking ball and to rebuild the city into something it was always destined to become – a great city and a great place to live!
So, after two years living my “dream” as a real estate developer, I decided to pursue my new dream: to contribute to shaping the future and improving life in Oklahoma City. It seemed the best place to do this was as a Planner, so I resigned my developer position to accept an internship at the City Planning Department. Under the tutelage of Russell Claus, I had the great pleasure of assisting during the early efforts and planning of Core to Shore. And since then, I have spent the last two years earning a Masters in City Planning degree, with a focus on urban design, and am now eager to get back to Oklahoma City and contribute to making it great however I can. I tell you my story, only to let you know that I love Oklahoma City, I am passionate about the city, its people, and the built environment that defines our experience. I think Oklahoma City has incredible people and I think they deserve an incredible city. Oklahoma City today is wonderful, especially when compared to the city of 15 years ago, but now we must ask what should be done so that the same statement is true 15 years hence.
THE POWER OF ENGAGED CITIZENRY
As I consider what Oklahoma City should be in 2020, I have interestingly become fixated on a story that took place almost seventy years ago. Further, the story didn’t take place in Oklahoma City, but in a city very much unlike our own – New York City. However, while the era and the city may be different, in this case the story demonstrates what I believe to be one of the enduring principles of what it takes to make a great city. That is, a great city is the cumulative legacy of extraordinary contributions made by its citizens. I came upon the story in the course of my summer reading. After graduating in May I decided to make a second attempt at reading Robert A. Caro’s biography on Robert Moses – an 1162 page “modern classic” called The Power Broker. The book, a winner of both the Pulitzer and the Francis Parkman prizes, is an incredible study on not just the life of Robert Moses, a city builder who shaped the future of New York City for over half a century, but also on the history of American cities in general. It provides glimpses of what happens behind the scenes of some of America’s greatest public works and offers insights into how city building actually happens.
The story begins in the late 1930s. It was generally agreed that something had to be done to ease the flow of traffic between Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Robert Moses, who had spent the previous decades building up an empire of power, attempted to use his position of influence to push through his vision for a new Brooklyn-Battery Bridge. The bridge would be another of his great public works whose image would provide a lasting legacy of his reign. Unfortunately, for such a bridge to be constructed, the city’s beloved Battery Park and the historic Fort Clinton would be bisected by towering bridge supports and access ramps. Many citizens, among them many respected leaders and longtime civic reformers, opposed the immediate construction of the bridge because of the potential negative impact it would have on the waterfront and Battery Park. However, while this result seemed far from ideal, Moses remained committed to the bridge. It was no longer a question of what was best for the city, but a game of power and ego. And it appeared as though Moses was winning the game.
The importance of a thoughtful consideration of alternatives
That changed however as a group of concerned citizens stepped forward and became involved. Initially, they were not against Moses or against progress in the form of Bridges. They simply questioned why the matter could not be studied further to ensure that the best solution was found and that no irreversible mistakes were made. Moses attempted to sway opinion, stating that not only was his bridge the best solution, but if they did not proceed with the bridge immediately the traffic problem would never be solved and the city would suffer a setback. But the citizens pointed out that other solutions – solutions which might offer better results overall – did in fact exist and were not receiving adequate consideration. One solution was a tunnel that would pass under the park, would not diminish waterfront views, and could be constructed for less than Moses was stating publicly. The citizens asked why these other solutions should not be further analyzed. Caro says:
“The [citizens] were also hopeful because their aim was modest. They were not, after all, insisting that the bridge proposal be defeated. They were only asking that it be studied. With three competing plans for a solution to Lower Manhattan’s traffic problem – and wildly conflicting estimates of the cost and effects of each plan – surely an impartial study was needed to determine the true costs and effects before a decision was made. Moses was insisting on the need for haste, they said, but wasn’t the need really for delay, a delay which would provide time for mature consideration? The decision the city took on the proposals would vitally affect it for decades – centuries perhaps. Was it not only rational to take a few more weeks or months to make sure the decision taken was the right one?”
The Herald Tribune offers this pointed argument as to the value of delay:
“It seems clear now that a major alteration in the city’s design and appearance is involved. No conceivable need for hurry has been suggested. The need is therefore for the carefulest consideration and full public discussion, with every opportunity for alternatives to be review impartially and thoroughly. No possible risk should be run of building in haste and repenting for generations to come.”
Moses would not budge, however, and it became clear to the citizens that their only chance was to perform their own analysis and demonstrate which solution was truly in the best interest of the city.
What it takes to be truly engaged
The group of citizens that joined together to oppose the immediate construction of the bridge put on a clinic on what it means to be an engaged citizen. Presenting in front of the City Council, as they were set to vote on the matter, the citizens offered up the following:
- “Major Henry J. Amy, executive director of the Citizens Budget Commission, analyzed Moses’ contention that the bridge and its approaches ‘wouldn’t cost the city a nickel’”, and effectively refuted them, identifying the actual costs, and showing the city would have to pay $11 million.
- A real estate expert documented “block by block” the buildings and real estate that would be affected by the bridge and showed that the reduction in property tax revenue was not be reported as a cost of the bridge solution.
- Regional Plan Association experts showed that “everything Moses hoped to achieve by building a new bridge could be achieved – at a small fraction of the construction cost and real estate tax loss – by their alternate plan.”
- The citizens even delved into some of Moses’ baseline assumptions, showing many to be skewed or completely untrue.
Caro states that by the end of the citizen’s presentation “every Moses contention subject to factual analysis had been utterly demolished.” My search of our city’s history shows that have been very few occasions when Oklahoma City’s citizens have taken an active interest in making sure major public works plans were thoroughly analyzed, alternative options explored and the best course was chosen. Whether we are talking about the planning failures of our City’s founding on April 22, 1889, or the continued embarrassment of a not-so-’Grand Boulevard’ started in 1909. Or how about the still demoralizing effects of a 1960s vision that took, forever, so much of our history and density while often only giving back a surface parking lot in its stead. Whether or not you believe these to indeed be failures, or merely minor blips in the course of our city’s growth, it seems fair to conclude that we could have done better had concerned citizens put forth an effort similar to what was offered by those of NYC seventy years ago.
While the citizens’ presentation should have put an end to the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge debate, it unfortunately did not. Despite the amazing effort put forth by the citizens of New York, the political arena does not appreciate an uninvited guest. Moses may have lost the debate, but he won the council vote by pulling strings behind the scenes. Thankfully, however, the citizens’ efforts were finally rewarded when the President himself, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, became involved in the matter and, due in part to the strength of the citizens’ arguments, kept the bridge from obtaining what was typically routine federal approval. Thus, the tunnel was built instead of the bridge; the park, historic fort, and beautiful views of the harbor were saved; and the city was seemingly far better off as a result of engaged citizens who sought a thorough analysis of alternative solutions.
The power of defining the debate
One other important consideration identified by citizens during the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge debate is the questionable premises on which the debate itself was founded. It was generally agreed that traffic was an issue, but there were many other problems on which people might generally agree and yet here the citizens were only given the opportunity to debate between spending millions on a bridge or spending millions on a tunnel because Moses was able to define the debate itself:
The insistence that [Moses'] proposals be viewed only in isolation, that each be viewed strictly as an attempt to solve a particular, limited problem by creating a particular structure of concrete and steel, that it not be evaluated in terms of the needs of the city as a whole (the need for a bridge, for example, weighed against the need for schools and hospitals) or even as part of the larger problem of which the specific problem was only a part (a traffic-moving machine like a bridge evaluated in terms of the city’s over-all traffic-moving problem) and especially not in terms of its impact on the surrounding neighborhood – was the same insistence that had underlain the public works he had been building for the city for…years.”
As we assess whether or not to pursue certain public works over the next few years, the debate should be about what will do the most to improve the quality of life for all Oklahoma City citizens.
“The debate should be about what will do the most to improve the quality of life for all Oklahoma City citizens.”
At its core this is about prioritizing our goals as a city and making sure our resources are utilized in a manner consistent with these priorities. The city budget, a record of our spending, is one indication of the city’s actual priorities. We should view it as such, and be quick to point out when it is not in line with the goals of the citizens.
On another level, this is not only about how money is spent, but also how we go about locating and implementing projects. For instance, an example from history, when choosing to build a new ball park, we didn’t ask, “What is the ideal place for a ball park?” rather we ventured, “What ball park location does the most to enhance the city as a whole?”. Only by asking the right question did we get the right answer. A new ball park at the fairgrounds would have been more accessible and provided plenty of free parking, but it would not have created the tremendous amount of surrounding benefit provided by the Bricktown location.
As you can see, the power of engaged citizenry cannot be underestimated and it is my hope that Oklahoma City in 2020 will have made great strides in this regard. Engaged citizens are necessary if we are to ensure that the city stays on course and that the values and priorities of the leadership reflect those of the city itself. This has not always been the case in Oklahoma City. Our history suggest that some of our biggest mistakes are made when too few people are involved in the decision making process.
We should not discount the value of a few good questions. While some might try to equate well-intentioned questions with ill-intentioned interference, the truth is that active questioning is a very good thing. It is an indication of a thoughtful discourse, results in a more thorough analysis, and is integral to a healthy democratic process. Not only should we ask questions, but we should expect our leaders to answer the questions and answer them directly. If an idea cannot stand up to legitimate questioning, then it is an idea unworthy of our consideration.
While there is a burden on the citizens of Oklahoma City to step up and become involved, there is a greater burden on the elected and non-elected leadership of the city to provide opportunities for involvement. It is important that we create a culture of collaboration that encourages citizens to take part in a healthy debate in search of the best ideas, rather than allow ourselves to fall prey to a climate of controlled information and “go along if you want to get along” intimidation. Such a climate is rarely the origin of great ideas and provides a direct route to lowest common denominator thinking. I am weary of anyone that would question the purity of a citizen’s motivation simply because they disagree on an issue. While it is impossible to know the heart of a person, simply the act of questioning demonstrates an interest and commitment to the city that is worthy of our respect.