Transforming Tulsa, Starting with a Park

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TULSA, Okla. — The landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh is a diviner of places, a city whisperer.

Though he had never set foot in Tulsa, he was coaxed to a flat, ho-hum stretch of land overlooking the Arkansas River by the billionaire philanthropist George B. Kaiser, who was bent on building a park.

Confronting this hodgepodge site with killer views of an oil tank farm and a power plant, Mr. Van Valkenburgh, who created Brooklyn Bridge Park,Maggie Daley Park in Chicago and other celebrated cityscapes, responded the way he typically does. “A limitation,” he will say about challenging terrain, “is the beginning of a gift.”

Seven years later, the Olmsted-style transformation of 66 acres in the central city is now Gathering Place, a much-anticipated $465 million park that opens Sept. 8 as one of the largest and most ambitious public parks ever created with private funds — and the latest example of deep-pocketed citizens rebuilding cities through projects they perceive to be in the public good.

If it succeeds, as its founders and community leaders hope, it can bring families together and help mend a city with a legacy of segregation, where many neighborhoods grapple with poverty, health disparities and the isolating effects of urban renewal. “Tulsa has a long history of social inequality,” Mr. Van Valkenburgh observed. “There’s hardly a better way to bring people together than in a democratic space like a park.”

At Gathering Place, play and landscape get equal billing. The wide range of park programs, which arose from a close engagement with the public, are the heart and soul of the project.

Even as the finishing touches are readied, it is a richly imagined landscape inspired in part by local limestone cliffs, in which a child can encounter a 22-foot-tall Great Blue Heron with a slide between her wings — one of more than 160 inventive play structures secreted among its groves, glades, vales and prairie-flowered hillocks.

The project, which comes with a hefty $100 million endowment for maintenance and family programming, has been spearheaded and largely funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, with an assist from other donors. Its Tulsa-born namesake, Mr. Kaiser is a progressive Democrat in a sea of red who has devoted much of his philanthropic energy toward addressing intergenerational poverty in Tulsa, trying to level the playing field for children left behind by “the accident of birth.”

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