Small Steps to a Walkable Oklahoma City

Oklahoma City, OK | July 2015 | By Jennifer McClintock

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It started with a spark. In 2006, a national magazine declared Oklahoma City one of the fattest cities in the United States. That spurred Mayor Mick Cornett into action, first by losing 38 pounds on a diet based on sensible eating and exercise, then by launching a campaign to help his city lose one million pounds.

“There’s no other way to put it, we were overweight,” Cornett said. “I knew if I wanted to encourage change in our citizens, I had to first change myself.”

The campaign not only turned heads in the community, but ignited local leadership to reshape how the city needed to change in terms of walkability and citizen fitness.

“For years we were not a walking city,” Cornett said. “We sensed that starting to change as our awareness campaign gained traction.”

The campaign came on the heels of success of MAPS, the City’s first one-cent sales tax program launched in 1993 that created nine new capital projects downtown, including a walkable canal, baseball stadium, redeveloped river corridor and other projects. “MAPS gave us new bones and the incentive to recreate our city in terms of walkability,” Cornett said. “The structure was there, we just had to start a new way of thinking about it.”

With MAPS spurring new investment downtown, private development soon followed. Walkable districts were created, connecting portions of the city center that for decades went untouched.

“We found our momentum,” said Cornett, “and people started to see what walkability was about. They saw how sidewalks and accessibility led to better fitness. They understood that getting out of their cars was a positive thing, and that walkable places meant more connectivity in their own neighborhoods.”

Such a cultural shift didn’t happen overnight, and the city still has a way to go.

Indeed, the city’s biggest challenge in terms of walkability is its size. At 621 square miles, and with a population of just over 600,000, Oklahoma City is one of the largest land mass cities in the United States, with much of that land zoned for agriculture use.

“Making a walkable City takes initiative at all levels,” Cornett said. “It’s about planning for urban development and suburban development, it’s about trails, parks and public transit, and cooperation from the private sector. We’ve had to take a multi-pronged approach and show people how their investment can pay off.”

Such investment is what attracted Douglas R. Kupper to take over as Oklahoma City’s Parks & Recreation Department Director in 2014. Kupper, who spent 14 years as director of the Wichita, Kansas Parks Department, bought into the OKC plan. “I’d been watching Oklahoma City closely for years,” Kupper said. “I saw the investment their leaders were making, I saw the enthusiasm their citizens had for their city, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Kupper’s arrival came at a critical time for Oklahoma City parks. In 2013, the department introduced its new Parks & Recreation Master Plan, developed with the City’s Planning Department and assistance from the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. Top on the priority list? Increased accessibility to parks through walkability.

The issue is being addressed not only in the parks master plan, but in planokc, the City’s Comprehensive Plan adopted by Oklahoma City Council in 2015. And to no one’s surprise, adding sidewalks came out as one of the plan’s top priorities.

“A major driver to people using our parks is not just the amenities in park spaces, but the ability of our citizens to walk to their neighborhood park from their home or business. If a citizen lives two blocks away from a park, but doesn’t have a sidewalk to get there, that’s a challenge” Kupper said.

Walkability partners such as the City’s Planning Department, the City-County Health Department and local non-profit Neighborhood Alliance are a major part of that process. The 2013 Parks Master Plan specifically addresses walkability in terms of access to neighborhood parks, and the department regularly reaches out to its neighborhood network for citizen input. It also participates in the City-County Health Department’s “Open Streets” program that promotes fitness by encouraging citizens to experience their city by walking or biking.

All in all, since 1993, the city has added 108 miles of dedicated multi-purpose trails, 145 miles of on-street bike routes and close to 80 miles of walking paths in parks. In addition, it is on track to add 260 linear miles of sidewalks. Funding has come largely from general obligation bonds, but also from MAPS3, the third of Oklahoma City’s one-penny sales tax programs that adds funds to the capital coffers.

In the past six months alone, Oklahoma City has kicked off a bicycle and pedestrian master plan (bikewalkokc), opened 7.5 miles of new dedicated trails, authorized plans and funding for another 8 miles of trail, and initiated a new sidewalk repair program where the City will pay up to $100,000 annually to assist homeowners with sidewalk repair.

It’s biggest success so far? “That’s hard to say,” said Kupper. “But it all started with MAPS - having the right leaders in place that were willing to listen to citizens so they in turn would invest in themselves. That’s an achievement any city leader should be proud of.”

Whether there’s a best place to walk in Oklahoma City is hard to gauge given its wide variety of topography. Trails wind around two major lakes, in nature parks and wooded areas, and along the Oklahoma River. In addition, more than 80 miles of in-park walking paths plus sidewalks in urban and suburban neighborhoods provide plenty of variety.

Recently, a citizen sent the Parks & Recreation Department a tweet thanking them for the new 1/3-mile walking path in her neighborhood park.

“One third of a mile might not be much in terms of length,” Kupper said, “but it takes small steps to forge long paths, and Oklahoma City is heading in the right direction.”