Tulsa from the west bank of the Arkansas River. Credit Frank Boston (bostonsphotos), Flickr, Creative Commons License.

Learning from Disaster: Tulsa’s Resilient Floodplain Design

In this dispatch, Associate Director of City Relationships Olivia Stinson reflects on her recent trip to 100RC member city Tulsa, USA, and on the flood management expertise they bring to the network.

As I flew into Tulsa, Oklahoma in early June—days after heavy rains had caused urban flooding across the west, in southern Texas, parts of Dallas, and eastern Oklahoma—I could see the swollen Arkansas River making its famous bend to the south east and defining the western edge of the city. Despite having just experienced the wettest May since 1943, the city stayed dry, with only minor flooding of a few homes. In the days that followed, the community and local media reflected on the benefits of the flood protection improvements they’ve made since the hard lessons the city learned in 1970s and 80s.

Tulsa may seem an unlikely spokes-city for flood control, but it is a leader in storm-water management design in the United States. On the eastern edge of the Great Plains, the city is located in a dense watershed. 

Tulsa’s Flood Plain. Image courtesy of City of Tulsa.


Catastrophic, fatal, repetitive and wide-range flooding of the Arkansas River and Mingo Creek in the 1970s and 80s precipitated the city using state and federal attention on the region, using resources to design and build a comprehensive storm-water management system–a dramatic change in the way Tulsa managed its land and infrastructure.

Bishop Tract Detention Faciliy serves as athletic grounds except in times of flooding, when it diverts and captures floodwater.

The city forged strong, high-level partnerships with the state and federal agencies that help fund and maintain key protection systems. It acquired private property in vulnerable areas to turn into open space. The city made strict regulatory changes and enforced them, joining the Community Rating System program, which lowers individual insurance rates.

Tulsa designed a system that is visually appealing, environmentally sustainable, and perhaps most importantly, provides other benefits in the absence of flooding. For example, detention ponds function as parks, soccer fields, walking paths and gathering spaces. Crucially, even after 30 years, Tulsa continues to adjust and improve its system as the city grows and changes, to keep managing the threat of flooding while realizing these other benefits. Embracing the natural dynamism of the floodplain has made Tulsa more resilient.

Tulsa Centennial Park  serves as valuable public space most of the year, and provides essential flood water detention when it rains.

Cities have historically and increasingly are responding to land availability pressures by developing in and near floodplains. Cities like New Orleans, Rotterdam, and Bangkok, for example, depend on the viability and strength of their levees, pumps, dikes, flood walls or canal systems for their survival, keeping the urban environment safe from flooding. Extreme weather events are certain to continue all over the world, and threats and hazards will test or overpower our systems.

We push cities to figure out how they can learn better from the experiences of others that have survived, and then adapted and innovated to become safer, more vibrant places to live. Cities facing a high risk of flooding can learn from Tulsa’s trials and successes, and borrow from its flood plain management expertise to grow more resilient before the next disaster strikes.