Are We Building a Better Omaha?
I have been really excited about all the momentum towards creating a more livable, resilient Omaha as of late. My beautiful wife and I moved to Omaha in 2000 fresh out of college and have seen the city really make some strides over the years. We’re not originally from Omaha but now don’t foresee a scenario where we leave; It’s home and we want nothing more than to see it get better and better.
One of the biggest opportunities for improvement is in how Omaha develops to be more vibrant, dense, walkable, and sustainable. Since the 1950’s we haven’t done very well. One clear sign of our failure: in 1950 our population’s density was 6,171 per square mile. Today it’s around 3,489. Much like every other city in the United States we’ve sprawled, and we’re less connected, spending more time in our cars and in our (typically over-sized) houses, driving more, emitting more, weighing more, and putting the City into a financially and environmentally unsustainable position.
Thanks to Omaha by Design and the Greater Omaha Young Professionals, I had the opportunity to attend a Strong Towns Curbside Chat last week in Omaha. Executive Director Chuck Marohn’s two-hour presentation painted a bleak picture of how we (the U.S.) have dived deeply into unsustainable debt in order to fund our horizontal growth. Without going into all the details, our current development system relies on constant growth to sustain itself, and that constant growth puts us deeper and deeper into the hole.
Chuck walked us through several compelling graphs (I’m a sucker for charts, graphs, info-graphics and charticles), but the one that’s really stuck with me is the graph below showing how Omaha has grown since World War II. In essence, Omaha’s population has grown about 90%, our urbanized area has grown 250% and our street length has grown a whopping 325%. Sustainable trends? I’m thinking no.
If we continue developing the way we have for the last 60+ years, we are in deep, deep trouble. Fortunately, I’m hopeful and confident that we can reverse this trend, but it’s not going to be easy. It seems there are four primary players that can affect meaningful change: planners, developers, citizens, and elected and appointed officials. I know many of Omaha’s Planning Department staff, and I really believe that they “get it”. I worry, however, that the institutional momentum at City Hall is too much for them to overcome. They are critical players in the system, though, and must do what is in the best interest of the City.
Developers worry me. They develop for profit, plain and simple, and only a few Omaha developers have figured out that there is a business opportunity in developing our city in a sustainable way (e.g. Noddle Development, Urban Village, and BlueStone are three good , albeit not perfect, examples of visionary developers in Omaha). But I’m not exactly oozing confidence that the rest of the development community is there, or even close. As Marohn reported during the Curbside Chat, between 1990 and 2005, U.S. consumer spending per capita rose 14% (inflation adjusted), yet national retail space per capita rose 100%. He also noted the U.S. has six times the retail space per capita of any European country. Sustainable trends? Ummmm, no.
Then there are citizens and elected and appointed officials. I run in circles that can largely be considered “believers”. If asked whether or not we need to alter our current development patterns, they will largely say yes and may have some ideas on what sustainable development looks like. But they are in the minority. With that said, I don’t think this issue is partisan. No matter how you look at it, our current path is unsustainable fiscally and environmentally. I firmly believe it’s just a matter of educating the average citizen on the issue and asking them to advocate for smarter development. This leads us to our elected and appointed officials. If citizens get educated and then activate, I would like to think our officials will follow. Am I naive? Maybe a little, but I also think that pushing for smarter development is an easier decision than some of the other challenges these officials face.
So where does this leave us?
I honestly believe that we’re set up nicely to make some significant and meaningful progress, and there are several important things happening that put me in my “happy place”. First, the Omaha’s Planning Department is getting ready to finalize and release an update to its Transportation Master Plan (TMP), and Daniel and I have been fortunate to be on the Core Committee for the TMP update. It’s a pretty well-done plan (thanks AECOM) that has prioritized some great projects that will really move the needle. There are two key questions, though: 1) how can we obtain a reliable and dedicated funding source for active transportation projects, and 2) will the plan actually be followed and implemented or will planners and other officials relent to business-as-usual when analyzing, critiquing, improving and approving development projects? I believe the second question is more important, and I think time will tell whether or not the plan has any impact.
Another important plan is the Environmental Element, which was added to the City’s master plan a few years ago. After several years of community-wide work in developing the plan, the Environmental Element spells out several hundred strategies in the areas of the Natural Environment, Building Construction, Resource Conservation, Community Health, and Urban Form and Transportation. Once again, it’s a plan, albeit a very aggressive one, and its effectiveness depends entirely on how well it is followed.
One good sign that the TMP and Environmental Element are making a difference was the recent announcement that the City is planning (pending approvals) to turn two terrible one-way streets (19th and 20th Streets just north of Cuming) into two-way streets; a really smart thing to do as they are both ridiculously oversized for an at-risk mixed-use community in north Omaha. It’s a manifestation of precisely what the TMP and Environmental Element are prescribing.
And finally, Mode Shift Omaha, a group of citizens advocating for a more resilient and responsive transportation system, is really starting to take root and find its legs. This is exactly the kind of group that can help educate the public and hold our elected and appointed officials accountable for following the two aforementioned plans. Mode Shift is doing great work, and I’m excited to see how much of an impact they will have.
As evidenced by a recent brief exchange between Chuck Marohn and an anonymous Omahan that attended the Curbside Chat, the evolution to a more fiscally and environmentally sustainable development pattern is immensely difficult. We’re fighting decades of bad decisions and institutional momentum. BUT, we’re making progress, and I’m hopeful that the pace of progress will hasten and Omaha will become an even stronger, more resilient city. Dare I say a “strong town”?
When it comes down to it, we really don’t have a choice. Economic and environmental factors will make the decision for us and we’ll be left to react. I would rather we were proactive and took the bull by the horns. Let’s do this.
Onward and upward.