Outlook not so good: We build an unsustainable future

Corey Griffin, Business Manager

Over a massive sign and towering brown fence lies a sea of houses that goes over one hill and past another, as if it were a churning sea. Homogenously green lawns and the infamous cookie cutter houses dominate the western city landscape and take up almost a third of Douglas County’s area.

Of the seven city council districts, three are representing western Omaha, but they represent more than half of the city area. In fact, since 2014, 40 large areas have been annexed by the city, nearly all of which have added to those three western districts.

This continued outward growth of the city of Omaha may bring in positive revenue streams for the city in the short run, but if similar development continues the city will face major consequences. Already parts of western Omaha have home-to-work driving times that can be up to 15 minutes greater than those in the city center according to the Department of Transportation. Many of these developments are built to be solely accessed by the automobile, and modes of transportation like walking and biking are ignored.

With continued spread, the need for automobiles increases, and so the number of cars on the road increases as well. More traffic means more congestion, which can increase driving times further.

In the next 30 to 50 years the Omaha metropolitan area is expected to expand further into the Papillion Creek watershed increasing flooding risk. Dams and levees are in place to prevent a flooding disaster, but it may not be enough to accommodate the safety of Omaha today and especially not for future development.

Our problems are not alone, they are found throughout the United States, and continue to be a burden to city development even though cities continue to push this flawed design. In every major city, in virtually every state, cities in the past four decades have developed categorically.

In the past, cities were settled naturally, people moved in, built their homes, and set up shops within a small area which made everything accessible to them and others within the community. As the industrial revolution hit, people acquired wealth, and cities became more polluted, so the desire to explore and settle outside the city was born as small country estates near railroads.

After World War Two, oil became affordable, it became economical to have a car, and so the suburbs were born. Developers continue to spread the cities outward, and separate residents from shopping, offices, recreation, and industry effectively requiring the use of the vehicle.

Then came the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, which encouraged vehicular use throughout the cities, and was the final blow to the traditional mixed-use buildings that were integral before the industrial revolution. Nothing has changed since then, other than highways and developments continued to sprawl further from the cities.

“This can easily be called the worst misallocation of resources in the history of the world,” David Howard Kunstler, author and social critic said. “The immersive ugliness of our everyday environments in America is entropy made visible.”

“We can’t overestimate the amount of despair generated with places like [the suburbs],” said Kunstler.

Kunstler says that suburban areas are not worth caring about and that when we have enough of them we will have a nation that is not worth defending. “Think about those young men and women that are in places like Iraq spilling their blood in the sand, and ask yourself, ‘What is their last thought of home?’ I hope it’s not the curb cut between the Chuck E. Cheese’s and the Target store,” Kunstler said.

Hungry people who do not have time to go to grocery stores have come to rely on faster chain restaurants which outcompete local diners and small grocers. Those same businesspeople are those that support the community, and without the support the community fragments.

Those communities that fragment are communities like northeastern Omaha, which had its heart ripped out as the North Freeway was constructed. Land values hear highways are inherently low, and it glues people to one location because they cannot sell their home for what it was worth when it was built or purchased. People in North Omaha also live far away from good paying jobs, which can lead to desperation for wealth and prosperity, and ultimately crime.

Midtown before its recent renovations was a destitute and impoverished place with little hope for further prosperity because it too had been ignored for years. South Omaha was once the most vibrant communities in the city, but now many lots lay abandoned or bulldozed, a tiny glimpse of what it was in the past.

Omaha city planners stick to the “Master Plan,” a plan proposed by the city council members for the future construction of the city, but three of them are from suburban districts, and only one district is represented by a minority, which creates an extreme amount of bias when creating public and private constructions for the future.

City growth and development must stick to the Master Plan to be approved, and the plan has two major parts.

The first part includes the continuation of building suburbs in the western parts of the city. Most of those constructions include low density residential, and separated commercial, but also take back time and include winding boulevards and unique houses, which spice up the drab scenery out there. Though this development is not sustainable, it is one step closer, because it is not repetitive and boring.

The other part of the plan includes mixed use in downtown and midtown, housing nearby or on top of commercial developments, walkable streets, and a recently envisioned streetcar idea, which would encourage mixed use development near stops if approved. Mixed use is the most sustainable form of development, as it does not require as much public funding as the suburbs, is easier on the people, and reduces traffic.

This is called gentrification, and this occurs most often in cities that are out of developable land, but with Omaha’s ranking of 12th fastest gentrifying city in the nation, there are signs of hope in Omaha. Continuing developments like Midtown Crossing and Aksarben Village, and future ones like Boys Town and Florence continue to add to this gentrification rating.

Omaha has a future, but it will be suppressed if we continue to build as we are today, we need to build developments that are mixed use to be able to be a power in the future.