Norman, Oklahoma: Nowhere Near Nowheresville

Don’t scoff. It's not a benighted backwater. Norman, Oklahoma supports a thriving music scene and promotes sustainability, community gardens, and public transit.

| October/November 2009

  • Norman, Oklahoma - OU Library
    In addition to hosting Oklahoma University, Norman, Oklahoma is a bustling town with vital live entertainment and a strong focus on sustainability.

  • Norman, Oklahoma - OU Library

Let’s face it, the Sooner State seems an unlikely candidate for the 11 Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard Of list. Just ask Kara Joy McKee. She grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, a city of about 100,000 located 20 miles from Oklahoma City. “When I was in high school, my creative friends would say ‘I’m going to New York or Los Angeles,’” McKee says. She herself left to travel and live in other places.

But today, at 30, she’s back home in Norman and happy to be there. “In the past five years, a lot of the 30- and 40-something crowd has come back and really started to invest in this place,” she says. “It’s up to us to create our own fun. Everybody knows everybody, and we all pull together.”

The results of this spirit of investment are everywhere. And they’re impressive. The local music scene is revved up, fueled in part by the presence of 30,000 students at Oklahoma University. The annual Norman Music Festival draws high-profile indie rock and alt-country bands, including Of Montreal, Man Man, and local-made goods the Starlight Mints. (The Flaming Lips also hail from Norman.)

Equally fertile is the city’s effort at sustainability — including mass transit initiatives, a community garden movement, and an unusual community supported agriculture program that links farmers and consumers throughout the entire state. Much of this activity is thanks to the Norman Sustainability Network (NSN), an organization that McKee helped establish.

“We started NSN to fight apathy and to inspire Oklahomans to adapt to our changing world,” she says. The network links together a variety of existing groups that are working on various sustainability issues, and the list of topics it’s involved in are impressive. NSN helps organize the annual “Dump the Pump” campaign to promote mass transit; it’s helped launch a metropolitan wind power array; and it’s behind the city’s bike sharing program (and has secured funding for an ambitious bike path).

NSN is also part of a movement to support community garden projects: There’s the “food not lawns” program, designed to help residents turn their front lawns into food gardens, and a community garden connected to a downtown homeless shelter with a mission of teaching self-sustaining organic farming skills.

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