Principle 3: Bring people of all backgrounds back into public life, reconnecting communities to civic assets where trust can be formed

Civic assets that are designed for a wide range of ages, interests and abilities provide common ground for people to enjoy shared experiences and participate in public life.

Tulsa’s Gathering Place consists of 100 acres of public parkland that were intentionally designed for all to enjoy. Launched by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the waterfront park aims to counteract the city’s history of geographic segregation and civic distrust by creating opportunities for interaction and shared experience in a thoughtfully designed public space. In September 2018, nearly 100 years after race riots etched deep racial divisions into the city geography, the Gathering Place opened its doors. In its first month, park attendance surpassed 300,000, with many visitors returning multiple times to explore all the park has to offer.

The foundations of the park’s design arose from an inclusive planning process that invited input from people of all backgrounds and generated roughly 1,400 unique design and programming ideas. These ideas were then winnowed and refined into a project plan tailored to the needs and interests of Tulsa’s various communities. As a result, the Gathering Place has something for everyone, including an adventure playground, kayak and canoe rentals, sports courts, a water park and space for picnicking and relaxing. Programming complements the physical space and runs the gamut from early childhood education programs to free dance and theater performances to music concerts highlighting a wide range of genres.


Tailor outreach to specific communities. Finding authentic ways to engage with different cultural communities shows respect and concern for their needs. The composition of the park’s community relations team reflects the demographics of the communities that the park serves. Likewise, marketing efforts vary by audience, with particular attention paid to organizations and media outlets serving Tulsa’s Latino, African American, and Native American communities. At the same time, outreach efforts have consistently emphasized that the park is a place all Tulsans can enjoy together. For example, a music video created for the park’s opening features children and adults of all backgrounds, Native American dancers, members of Tulsa’s youth symphony and Tulsa’s Metropolitan Baptist Choir singing lyrics affirming that everyone belongs at the Gathering Place. This targeted approach helps the park make authentic appeals that resonate with different groups, which in turn increases the likelihood of people’s participation and support.

Use high-quality physical design to invite engagement and interaction. The Gathering Place put a premium on thoughtful design of physical space. Award-winning landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, known for NYC’s Brooklyn Bridge Park and Chicago’s Maggie Daley Park, sought to design a park that all Tulsans could enjoy, with particular emphasis on children and young people. Elaborate play spaces—including pirate ships, wooden towers, bridges, swings, a zip line and a massive blue heron slide—capture the imagination of children and invite active exploration and interaction with others through play. Park designers also paid careful attention to the accessibility of these physical spaces so that those with disabilities would be able to enjoy the park alongside able-bodied visitors.

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Case studies crafted in partnership with The Aspen Institute’s Center for Urban Innovation. With special thanks to Jennifer Bradley and Jessica Lee.

Lead image provided by Shane Bevel Photography.