NOTE: Another post with more details on this topic, focusing on territorial live-work buildings is now available HERE.
We live in a world of buzz words and trending topics. When it comes to community design and planning, there is no shortage of emerging labels for favored concepts. We hear a lot about transit-oriented development, live-work or mixed-use projects, complete streets, and public space. These concepts, we assume, are to be carried out in Scandinavia or the West Coast, somewhere far away from here. Do these concepts have any applicability to making quality communities here in Oklahoma? If so, are they compatible with the context of our culture? To answer my questions, I wanted to take a look at the shape of development in territorial Oklahoma, when our communities were first being born.
Today, TOD means building high density projects at transit stops, such as a light rail stations. Providing places to live, work, and shop within close distance of a rail station helps drive ridership on the transit system.
It turns out Oklahoma has been doing TOD for a while now. Almost all the communities in our state grew along passenger and industrial rail lines, where depots were located. High density downtown or Main Street development often took place closest to the train stations. The dependence on rail transit is especially evident in Central Oklahoma along the Santa Fe Railroad, where Purcell, Norman, Oklahoma City, Edmond, and Guthrie all sprang up as important towns at rail depots.
This photo, taken just months after Oklahoma City’s founding in April 1889, shows how the Santa Fe Depot served as the focal point for the booming community. In the next image, a postcard shows how Main Street grew directly outward from the Santa Fe Station, pictured here in the 1910s.
As Oklahoma begins to move forward and invest in transit, we can learn from modern concepts and recent TOD projects around the world. We must also remember our own history with transit-oriented development, and how it shaped the early growth of our communities.
Another popular trend in real estate is live-work housing. These projects are often conceived as art studios where the artist occupies a single unit which contains both living space and commercial space. They provide a major benefit to business startups by allowing self-employed, potentially low-budget entrepreneurs to combine some living and business expenses.
This is another not-so-new concept for Oklahoma communities. Imagine men and women with pioneer spirits heading west to Oklahoma Territory in the late 1800s. They would have needed a place to live, and a source of livelihood. For those who decided to settle townsites, that meant a commercial business. Lots were commonly used as shops where business owners lived in second story apartments.
This type of housing was critical for establishing opportunities for small business owners in an area where no commercial activity previously existed. It is easy to draw parallels to circumstances in our communities today, where economic decline has left some areas with few businesses left. Perhaps a return to this format, with small retail spaces and small apartments, would allow entrepreneurs some gains in efficiency which could help them compete with national chains.
In fact, examples of this strategy are already available in Oklahoma. Shop Good is an independent retail store in downtown Oklahoma City operated by young entrepreneurs who occupy an apartment above the store. The Plaza District, also in Oklahoma City, is quickly becoming known as an incubator for new small businesses, and there are several opportunities to live and work within the same dwelling unit in the neighborhood. It is easy to imagine that there are artists and aspiring entrepreneurs in small towns throughout Oklahoma who cannot afford to rent and maintain both a living space and commercial space separately. Live-work housing is a modern solution to this problem, but it is firmly grounded in Oklahoma tradition.
Complete Streets and Public Space
The movement for complete streets focuses on the need to adapt our streets for many different types of users. There is a general consensus that many modern streets only focus on the goal of moving automobile traffic. A complete street would serve the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, and auto drivers.
Some well-regarded urban design experts praise the Dutch woonerf, a type of small street where all traffic is mixed into the same right of way. This causes automobiles to slow down and allows pedestrians and cyclists equal access to the street. The woonerf could be considered a type of complete street that does not specifically designate which zones should be used by certain traffic types.
With all our state highways and busy arterial roads, it is difficult to imagine a situation where mixed traffic could be feasible anywhere near Oklahoma. But it just so happens that streets in the early days of Oklahoma could better be described with the woonerf concept than anything resembling our modern arterials. On Main Streets, pedestrians, horse riders, carriages, stagecoaches, and eventually trolleys and automobiles, were often found in the same right of way. The edges of the right of way were used for parking, as often recommended by the complete street concept.
There is also a notion growing in popularity that streets are places of active public life. Renowned thinkers like Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl have promoted streets as community living spaces, where people may stop and sit at a sidewalk cafe or lean against a streetlight to watch people pass by. Gehl believes that streets should provide ‘places to stay’ for pedestrians- benches, columns, or even building walls can provide such opportunities.
Places like this are rare on Oklahoma streets. It seems like a foreign concept, but actually our streets were designed in this way in the very beginning.
The image of a territorial Oklahoma City is almost a textbook example of public space in the street. Large canopies help mitigate the comfort impacts of hot sun, dust clouds, and cold winds. People are gathered against building facades and columns, where they can rest and look outward to observe the urban space. This tendency to want to be in the public space, watching for neighbors and friends passing by on the street, is in our Oklahoma nature. Can we bring back the places that allow us to pursue this community activity?
It is important not to blindly follow trends and pursue buzz words as we develop our communities. When we think of emerging concepts in community design, we must understand how they can be adapted to fit an Oklahoma context, or whether they are appropriate at all. In these cases, Oklahoma’s historical development supports the need for modern incarnations of many of these design strategies. Let’s listen to the expertise of international leaders in community design, but let us also be inspired to draw from the rich (yet short) history of our own built environment in Oklahoma.
Bonus: Back-in Angle Parking
Back-in angle parking is all the rage in hip bikeable and walkable cities, yet the idea of backing into a parking space on a busy street is often controversial when it arrives in new cities.
Sure enough, we even have documented examples of this configuration occurring in the early automobile days of Oklahoma, as shown in this postcard of Broadway in Oklahoma City. Early Oklahomans were urban design experts!