Can a park transform a city?
The man whose firm is behind the design for Tulsa's Gathering Place says it can.
Michael Van Valkenburgh has become one of the world's most acclaimed landscape architects by stressing that parks are more than just a collection of trees and swing sets. He believes they're a place for people, where strangers can mingle and interact and build a better city in the process.
To get a sense of what's coming to Tulsa, I met Van Valkenburgh in Brooklyn, New York, his home, where his firm has turned an industrial wasteland into a vibrant piece of urban life.
The sounds of a park in the middle of America's greatest city – a park with a heart-stopping view of that city – are the sounds that tell Van Valkenburgh he's done his job well.
“This is something that people want to embrace, it's all around us,” he said. “People having a good time, around other people they don't know. People like being around people.”
First and foremost, America's leading landscape architect considers himself in the people business.
Whether it's at Brooklyn Bridge Park, Pennsylvania Avenue out front of the White House, Harvard Yard, the Gateway Arch grounds in St. Louis, the George W. Bush library, and soon, Tulsa's Gathering Place, Van Valkenburgh is at the top of his game – and his profession - at a time of exciting renewal for American cities.
“I feel very lucky as a landscape architect that I'm alive and doing this work at a time when people are so interested in what makes cities a good place to live,” he said.
To Van Valkenburgh's thinking, it's great parks that define great cities, even more than iconic buildings; great parks are designed to serve people and their everyday lives.
Though each project presents its own challenges, it's in Brooklyn - wedged between lower Manhattan and the East River, the Statue of Liberty, and its namesake bridge - that Van Valkenburgh's latest creation offers hints of what's to come in Tulsa.
There his firm took 85-acres of abandoned riverfront piers and warehouses, and in a $380-plus-million transformation, left behind an urban oasis of muscular exertion, and quiet solitude.
There are great expanses for play, and small hidden places to escape the noise and chaos of New York.
All of it is wrapped in reminders of the grittiness that's never far away, softened by native flowers, trees, shrubs and water that convey a sense of nature that's completely man-made – every sloping hill, every wooden grove.
“What makes landscaping exciting? Not seeing the same thing over and over again. Tall spaces and enclosed spaces and sun and shadow and hills you can't see over,” Van Valkenburgh said.
That's his template for Tulsa, on a riverside site Van Valkenburgh began plotting the minute he first laid eyes on it four years ago.
“I knew it was gonna be great, I was surprised that a piece of land that big right in the middle of the city was still sitting there the way it was,” he said.
But the biggest surprise was that philanthropist George Kaiser and a collection of local corporations and foundations would pay to build it, and to care for it.
“It's unbelievable, I mean, the generosity,” Van Valkenburgh said.
For their investment, Van Valkenburgh promises a stunning statement to the world, of sculpted hills and glades and native stone.
A place that, even when filled with visitors, will offer them a sense of separation, with a breathtaking children's playground, nestled in the Blair family's oak grove.
“I think it may, when it's done, be one of the great playgrounds in the world,” Van Valkenburgh said.
In total, it'll be an Oklahoma place - at once of great expanse and peaceful intimacy - the city's new centerpiece.
“Tulsa is already an amazingly livable city, and I think people see this as another piece in the puzzle of making a truly great place to live and to raise families,” he said.
The pieces of Tulsa's puzzle, and all the others, are fitted together from the 11th floor of Brooklyn's tallest building where Van Valkenburgh's staff of 75 - architects, engineers, artists and industrial designers - are changing the dynamics of landscape design, and by consequence, of cities themselves.
Despite the clatter on the streets outside, Van Valkenburgh is never far from the upstate New York dairy farm where he grew up and learned to love the native flora and fauna. Never far from his memories of rolling hills studded with maple groves.
It's a sense of beauty and calm that still center his life, and drive his designs and offer the places his work touches a chance to follow him there, and make it their own.
“I think this park will help people decide to settle in Tulsa and make it home,” he said.
A Gathering Place's first phase should be finished in three years, followed by a second and third phase.
The Kaiser Foundation's predicting over a million visitors a year will use the park.