Bubbling With Excitement

By Ann Christensen and Katie Feeney

Oklahoma’s new 11-acre whitewater park is an exciting addition to the existing training and rowing facilities within the city’s vibrant Boathouse District. The Riversport Rapids Whitewater Center is one of only three of its kind in the U.S., and is a key component of the city’s ongoing economic-development effort to revitalize the riverfront, promote health and recreation activities, and attract competitive events. The $45.2-million center, part of Oklahoma City’s MAPS 3 program, opened last May when it hosted the Olympic canoe and kayak slalom trials for the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The Boathouse District is the headquarters for the USA Canoe and Kayak Federation, and is designated as a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center. The whitewater park, funded as part of the city’s one-cent tax initiative, can accommodate up to 40,000 visitors and will continue to serve as an Olympic training center in addition to providing water sports and recreation for local, regional, and out-of-state guests.

Urban Rapids
In realizing the vision for such a grand venue, the landscape master plan and design was purposefully developed to build excitement and engagement, whether for visitors, spectators, or athletes. In addition, the team managed unique technical challenges as presented by a space-limited, 11-acre site in integrating channels, architecture, and site into a well-functioning whole.

Thousands of visitors experience the park daily, making Riversports Rapids one of the largest rafting companies in the country. Corporate team-building gatherings, church groups, college programs, and the public can all experience the excitement of the changing courses without the long shuttle drives typically involved with rafting and kayaking sports. S2O Design and Engineering, a whitewater design firm, led the project team that included Oklahoma City-based architectural firm Elliott & Associates and Denver-based DHM Design, landscape architects. The project team also included Cloward H2O, Howard Fairbairn Site Design, and Triad Design Group.

The whitewater venue, located adjacent to the Oklahoma River, includes two channels: one for recreation and one forcompetition, with a combined-flow, freestyle channel. Landscaped islands lie between the channels with access provided by a pedestrian bridge and a central viewing area of events for spectators and access for maintenance.

Six pumps re-circulate treated water through the channels, with the capacity to adjust water flow to various levels, from calm water to Level II - IV rapids. Water experiences available include rafting and kayaking, flatwater kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, dragon boating, and tubing. In addition, a stage that accommodates concerts and events creates an exciting setting for outdoor gatherings. The pump house building wall provides a screen large enough for floating movie nights.


The course and activities were designed to span the range of ability levels, from flatwater floating to high skills areas; with all the opportunities available, it isn’t surprising that only 1 in 10 people are said to actually get wet during a visit. Appealing to an audience of this size brings additional revenue to the venue, keeps visitors on site longer, and makes them eager to return often. It is this enhancement of the visitor experience that guided decisions of the design team, from the efficiency of the circulation layout to the guests’ physical comfort and ability to feel part of the action.

Enhancing The Visitor Experience
These visitor experiences support the overarching goal of the city to build a regional recreational draw. The park appeals to a myriad of users, capturing the atmosphere of elite Olympic athleticism and integrating the new facility into the architectural backdrop of the existing Boathouse development.

The physical environment celebrates the water in accommodating the competitive nature of training, coaching, and event-day needs. From the moment a visitor arrives, the journey is supported by framed moments ofactivity and repose, with clear signage to orient and educate. An exterior walkway loops around the entire waterpark and soft-surface trails provide circulation on the islands.

Where other whitewater venues lean toward a more natural streambed layout, this facility integrates into the geometric architectural environment of the Boathouse District with modern clean lines, elements, and features. As an Olympic training center, this facility complements the stature of the international games, with overtones ofexceptionalism and elite athleticism.

The islands between the whitewater channels provide viewing and recreational experiences for visitors to watch a competition within the channels or along the adjacent Oklahoma River. Landscape features strengthen the sleek linear geometry with long formal bands of shade trees and diverse riparian plantings that recall Oklahoma’s lush natural waterways. The angular forms seamlessly tie the site to the architecture. Inspired by the dynamic forms of canoes and kayaks as they move through the water, the patterns in the site create a feel of speed and excitement. With rising construction costs, the material choices were also beneficial to the bottom line, with simple and intentionally light industrial-styled elements that met multiple design, construction, and maintenance goals.

Meeting Competitive And Olympic Requirements
The design team was charged with meeting the International Olympic Committee’s exacting requirements for facilities that host competitive events, as well as giving consideration to other organizations’ training requirements, whether for collegiate or high school athletes. One such challenge was in the foot bridge crossing the water channels and leading to the islands. Training coaches had to be able to walk under the bridge so they could continuously go along the edge of the channel to coach athletes as they paddled through. Thus, the bridge was designed to accommodate the needed height, but included a switchback to minimize the height and mass of the bridge.

In most projects, technical issues can be addressed by applying well-thought out technical solutions. However, in the parks and recreation business, visitor traffic is crucial to a project’s success and an exceptional and engaging experience. This state-of-the-art aquatic park facility does just that, offering recreational, healthy, and competitive activities to its citizens and visitors in an unequalled setting. This park offers a range of physical activities, event hosting, and spectator opportunities that adds to the growing list of amenities in downtown Oklahoma City that takes everyone into the action.

Ann Christensen is a Managing Principal for DHM Design in Denver, Colo. Reach her at achristensen@dhmdesign.com.

Katie Feeney is a Senior Associate for DHM Design. Reach her at kfeeney@dhmdesign.com.