Design Cities 2019: Tulsa, Oklahoma

An expansive new landscape by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates is energizing public life in the Oklahoma oil town.
Design Cities 2019 Tulsa Oklahoma

The Gathering Place, a 100-acre riverfront park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, opened last fall. Courtesy Alex S. MacLean


This article is part of Metropolis Magazine’s annual Design Cities list, a collection of articles that highlight unique and intriguing projects from around the world. Stay tuned to our front page as we unveil our entire list—10 cities spread across 5 continents—over the coming weeks.


Tulsa, Oklahoma, may not immediately leap to mind when thoughts turn to the best of modern design, but the Gathering Place hopes to change that. Visitors to the city’s new public attraction can enter a cedar-and-maple lodge and curl up on a Womb Chair near a monumental fireplace to recharge their spirits and phones. Elsewhere in the park, they might take in live music from bands like the Roots, which played opening night as picnickers gathered across verdant expanses of lawns studded by ginkgo trees, near gurgling wetlands that twinkle in the sunset like miniatures of the nearby Arkansas River. There are countless other diversions, none of them particularly suggestive of T-Town: castles brushing up against tree canopies, giant slides shaped like blue herons, a “sensory garden,” or, for more grown-up leisure, a Modernist boathouse serving cocktails on balconies overlooking the above.

With free admission to its 100 acres of playgrounds and skate parks and lawns, Tulsa’s must-do amenity aims to counter the region’s reputation, deserved or not, as a racist, parochial bit of flyover. Envisioned and largely funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, and designed by landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the park opened last year to raves and attendance rates more than double their projections. Its Mist Mountain and Water Maze offer relief from broiling summers, while the surrounding grottoes and stacked limestone paths are much more Andy Goldsworthy than Six Flags.

“We were really excited by the abundance of natural stone that was available locally,” says Van Valkenburgh. “The textures and colors of the stone feel very at-home in this setting, especially when you are in some of the higher elevations of the park, where you can view more of the landscape, out across the Arkansas River.”

The idea is to show off Tulsa’s resources while providing free space for locals to imagine what else they could do in their own backyard. It might not fix the past, but it’s a bright vision of a future.

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Categories: Cities, Landscape