Gathering Place park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is the product of a dream of 77-year-old billionaire philanthropist George Kaiser and of several decades-long experiments by the landscape architecture team at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). What Kaiser originally intended to be a series of riverfront “gathering spots” to activate the city has become a singular, whimsical, and lush 66.5-acre landscape that has attracted over 2.8 million people since opening last year. AN spoke with Scott Streeb, Matt Urbanski, and Michael Voelkel at MVVA about designing the park and sourcing materials both locally and globally for “the most complex topography [they] have ever done.” Taking cues from fanciful and innovative European playgrounds, their goal was to turn several desolate plots of land into an inclusive, truly one-of-a-kind environment. By many accounts, they succeeded; this summer, TIME listed the park as one of the greatest places in the world.
Beyond its ambitious design agenda, Gathering Place has also aimed to unify the historically segregated city. Tulsa was formally settled in 1836 and by the 20th century had earned the nickname “the Oil Capital of the World.” Money from the energy business flowed into the city, bringing with it a serious construction boom during the Art Deco era. Despite growing prosperity, race relations were tense. In 1921, white crowds rioted for 16 hours in the affluent neighborhood of Greenwood, then known as Black Wall Street, killing local residents and destroying black-owned businesses and buildings. It was one of the worst attacks on African Americans in U.S. history, and Tulsa still hasn’t fully recovered.
Gathering Place is being marketed as a space where the region’s diverse communities can come together. A decade ago, in talks between MVVA and the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF), key decisions were made to engage Tulsans in their vision for the future 100-acre landscape and to raise expectations of what 21st-century parks can do.
Over 80 philanthropic and corporate donors, including GKFF, funded the entirety of the $465 million park. Though built with private dollars, Gathering Place is a public park: GKFF donated it to the River Parks Authority, the city and county agency in charge of public riverfront parks, in 2014, through Title 60, a public trust law. River Parks now owns both the land and the park and oversaw the five-year construction effort.
Gathering Place takes up four disparate, flat parcels of land along Riverside Drive, the adjacent four-lane commuter highway, that were purchased in 2009 by GKFF for $50 million. At the northern end was once a 35-acre estate owned by oil entrepreneur B. B. Blair. The historic Blair Mansion, built in 1952, was torn down in 2014 after a failed attempt by its previous owner to relocate the building. Two large-scale apartment complexes south of the site, totaling 494 units on 14 acres, were also demolished and its residents displaced to make way for a construction staging area. GKFF offered to pay for those affected to receive mental health services. Phase 2 of the park’s design will be built out in this location, south of the skate park (shown below) and will include a $45 million children’s museum by local firm KKT Architects, as well as a $24 million pedestrian bridge by MVVA.
MVVA and German playground manufacturer Richter Spielgeräte designed the park’s custom swings, water-play and sensory equipment, elephant slide, and four fantastical wooden castles that stand 30 feet in height. Danish design company Monstrum shaped additional wooden playscapes to look like the great blue herons (pictured here) and paddlefish found along the Arkansas River. The 160 playground structures and their installation cost about $11.5 million.
In 2011, two years before construction began, MVVA began tagging around 600 existing trees on-site, some up to 200 years old, in an effort to monitor their health, and preserve and restore them. The firm then brought in 5,789 new trees sourced from over a dozen nurseries, two in Oklahoma and others in Tennessee, Missouri, Georgia, Illinois, and New York. The cohort includes over 90 species of evergreen and deciduous trees. Nearly 120 species of shrubs and over 200 species of perennials were selected as well and had to be stored in a greenhouse for up to three years before planting.
There are three buildings on-site by Atlanta-based Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects. The ONEOK Boathouse features a roof canopy made of 130 fiberglass-reinforced plastic panels in the shape of flying sails. The rest of the three-story building, which includes a steel and concrete frame, has floor-to-ceiling glass panels that Vitro Architectural Glass created using raw material and sand from Mill Creek, Oklahoma. Williams Lodge, the 25,000-square-foot structure that serves as an entrance to the park, blends into its surrounding landscape with native sandstone from Haskell County. These massive boulders integrated into the design range from 1,000 to 5,000 pounds.
There are over 20 different surface materials used at Gathering Place, including eastern Oklahoma and Arkansas sandstone in various hues. In total, the walkways used 4,500 cubic yards of fill excavated from just across the Arkansas River. The stones that flank the entrance paths are also from an in-state quarry, similar to those found in the Four Season Garden, a series of rock towers, pictured below.
MVVA took 450,000 cubic yards of silt from the Arkansas River to create the 40 feet of grade change in the park necessary to bridge over Riverside Drive. Ohio-based engineering company Contech fabricated a set of precast concrete arches off-site in Broken Arrowhead, Oklahoma, that support the two 300-foot-long land bridges that help the park seamlessly connect to the waterfront.
Riverside Drive was shut down in July 2015 and reopened in September 2018 after construction ended. The City of Tulsa spent $40 million to widen and reconfigure the busy highway and for other infrastructure improvements, such as stormwater drainage and replacing sanitary sewers and water lines surrounding the site.
Because Gathering Place is located just five minutes south of downtown Tulsa and immediately west of the wealthier Maplewood Historic District, accessibility is an issue for nonsuburban communities. This summer, the park began providing free shuttle transportation to underserved neighborhoods in North Tulsa, scheduled to operate every other weekend.
Because of the oppressive Tulsa heat, water plays a big role in the park, and its nearly-6-million-gallon central reservoir, Peggy’s Pond, serves as a source for irrigation. To create it, MVVA had to dig down to groundwater level, integrating 70 feet of grade change within the landscape. Wetland gardens at the northern end of the park work as a biofilter to clean the water that’s pumped out of the pond. Parking lot and highway runoff is also filtered through the gardens, and then through two large cisterns and below-grade, natural filtration basins. Wells throughout the site pull up clean water and redistribute it through the pond.
Half of the money raised went to capital investment and the other half created a $100 million endowment for the continued operations and maintenance of the landscape for the next 99 years. GGP Parks, LLC, is a subsidiary of the River Parks Authority that operates out of GKFF and coordinates the over 450 volunteers that help the park run every day. So far, both individuals and groups have completed 11,300 hours of volunteer work. There are also 200 full-time and part-time employees who specialize in horticulture, programming, community engagement, food service, and more. An underground maintenance warehouse spanning nearly 1 acre was built to house facilities management off-site.
Columbus, Kansas–based construction company Crossland took over the build-out efforts from Manhattan Construction in 2015 when initial preconstruction, utility, and dirt work was done. Since the park’s groundbreaking, any day sees upward of 150 to 500 people laboring across 27 work zones and 12 play areas. A total of $10.3 million was paid to both contractors, and 3.7 million man-hours were worked on-site.
Over the last year, Gathering Place partnered with a local charity group, John 3:16, and the Mental Health Association of Tulsa to help employees and security teams better understand how to engage with the city’s homeless community. The park is open to all and does not operate fully in the late evening or early morning, but does welcome the homeless throughout the day.