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Why a park you’ve never heard of in the South is the coolest park in the USA

A super-cool park changed Tulsa from a fly-over city into a bucket-list destination.

Written by
Sarah Medina

Tucked away in Tulsa, Oklahoma is the coolest park we’ve ever seen. The Gathering Place is an 100-acre, regional destination complete with year-round programming, a three-acre, man-made lake and a children’s playground that rivals any amusement park in the country (and it’s all free). Ten years ago, native Tulsan George Kaiser of the Kaiser Foundation wanted to build something that would make Tulsa a better, more vibrant place to live and attract new families to Oklahoma in the process. With more than 465 million dollars in private donations and three years of construction, the Gathering Place was born. The park has been open for little more than two years, and already boasts more than three million annual visitors and a flurry of awards. TIME voted it one of the most exciting places to visit, USA Today named it the number one attraction for 2019 and National Geographic called it one of the top mind-bending parks in the world. We spoke with Gathering Place Executive Director Tony Moore about how this Southern park sets the standard for what parks could be in the future, how it changed Tulsa from a fly-over city into a bucket-list destination, and what every city can learn from the Gathering Place. 

Gathering Place Tulsa
Photograph: Courtesy Gathering Place/Shane Bevel

It’s an amusement park, but free 

“Our attraction mix is a little different than the traditional park," begins Moore. He's not exaggerating—the Gathering Place offers much more than just green fields to run through. Unlike some other large parks in the country, Gathering Place really centers kids with five acres dedicated just to playgrounds, which are spit into seven different realms (imagine an elephant slide, huge rope bridges and a complete wooden boat) which facilitate play for kids from toddlers to tweens. “It feels like a theme park but it’s a free experience,” adds Moore. 

For adults, there are five sports courts as well as dedicated spaces for street hockey, a skate park, and a BMX track. Joggers can take the trail which runs through the park all the way to downtown Tulsa. 

And it's working. Pacing to hit about 2 million visitors this year, Gathering Place is faring better than the city’s paid attractions, but also its larger parks. 

“We’re not a destination in the sense of Orlando or L.A. or New York, but we’re becoming a regional destination. Folks from Dallas and Kansas City and Arkansas are driving to Tulsa in numbers that we haven’t seen before to visit for the weekend." 

Gathering Place Tulsa
Photograph: Courtesy Gathering Place

A park for all 

Located at the junction of working class and affluent neighborhoods, the Gathering Place was positioned as a park for all Tulsa residents from the beginning. 

Moore elaborates, "Tulsa, unfortunately, is still struggling with being a segregated city—segregated by geography, by zip code, by socio-economic status. And we’re still struggling to deal with the aftermath of the Tulsa Massacre almost 100 years ago. Oklahoma also has one of the largest numbers of Native American nations—acknowledging the land and the heritage of the land is important—as well as a growing Latino community. And that’s why the mission of the park is 'a park for all' and we are intentional with our programming to authentically attract cultural audiences." 

In the past year, the Gathering Place hosted more than 20,000 visitors a month to a number of cultural festivals including the largest Native American gathering in the nation. But in the wake of Covid, Gathering Place was able to pivot its programming to something they’re calling linear programming—programming that’s not concentrated in one large space but instead allows a crowd to move in a single direction line along sidewalks and pathways. Since reopening for events, the park has hosted a drive-in concert, an art installation that involved more than 10,000 pinwheels spread out over 30 acres, a beer and wine festival, and an initiative to allow residents to paint art on the park’s rocks. Coming up is a drive-thru trick-or-treating event and a floating movie screening on the lake. “We had to reimagine things." 

“We haven’t figured it out by any means," adds Moore. "But when you build this good bones and to accommodate a wide range of visitors and demographics is has naturally evolved into a regional draw on holidays and weekends." 

Gathering Place Tulsa
Photograph: Courtesy Gathering Place/Shane Bevel

At the end of the day, it’s still about the nature 

While the Gathering Place has had to change many aspects about the space since the pandemic began, Moore says, "You can’t undermine the value that green spaces and the great outdoors add from a sociological point of view.” And while Tulsa doesn't lack in beautiful outdoor spaces, the Gathering Place is in a category of its own with more than 1.2 million plants and shrubs and more than 7,000 trees.

Moore elaborates, "We used the blueprint of Central Park in that it’s winding, there's movement, it has elevation, it has topography, and diversity of landscape; There are 16 different soil patterns including a pine forest, 16 acres of wild flowers, great lawns a three-acre pond, and a river that runs adjacent."

Just two miles from downtown Tulsa, the park provides a natural getaway for everyone with access to more than 70 acres of open space (30 acres are currently under construction for a children's museum). Also pending construction is a gateway bridge across the Arkansas River, which would allow neighborhoods across the waterway direct walking access to the park. 

Parks are important as a place of play, a getaway, and a place for families to get together," Moore says. "But with Covid, parks have taken on a much greater sense of importance; Parks allow people to get out in the open space and enjoy the sense of wellness that comes with of touching nature, hearing birds, seeing trees move in the wind and feeling at one in the environment. Kids especially, young kids, are rediscovering the great outdoors and a sense of engagement and value in these spaces that we took for granted."

"We all have a role to play," Moore adds. "Parks are very, very important from a wellness point of view and are more critical now more than ever before." 

To hear more about the future of green spaces in cities, you can catch Tony Moore moderating a panel on the role thaopen space plays in the wellbeing of the city and how we might improve access to it for everyone in the city as part of the WRLDCTY, a virtual world’s fair of cool cultureCheck out to for the agenda including incredible free events and for the premium stuff use the code TIMEOUT20 for 20% off. 

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