Tag Archives: city planners

Neighborhoods, USA

February 20, 2017 by
Photography by Provided

Chris Foster quickly developed a deep appreciation for his Gifford Park neighborhood after arriving in 1986. He joined its neighborhood association when it was launched a couple of years later and served as its president for a two-year stint that ended in 2001.

But it took a trip to Pittsburgh that year to trigger an epiphany. He realized what his midtown neighborhood could become.

On the trip, members of Omaha’s Planning Department and folks from various Omaha neighborhood associations traveled to the Steel City to attend that year’s “Neighborhoods, USA” national conference.

At the NUSA conference, hundreds of attendees passionate about improving neighborhoods and building stronger communities gather to swap ideas, participate in educational workshops, tour neighborhoods, and honor the innovative and life-changing work of neighborhood betterment projects.

And 2017 will see an exciting culmination of the efforts of city planners and Omaha neighborhood advocates like Foster—the 42nd annual NUSA conference is coming to Nebraska for the first time. The conference will be held at the Omaha Hilton Hotel and CenturyLink Center from May 24-27.

“NUSA coming to Omaha is a great training, educational resource, and networking opportunity for Omaha neighborhood leaders to learn about what’s going on in neighborhoods all around the country,” says Julie Smith, a conference organizer and neighborhood alliance specialist with ONE Omaha. “We will learn about programs other cities have and know that they face a lot of similar challenges, as well.”

A Fourth of July parade attracts residents in the Maple Village neighborhood.

Years in the Making

Discussions to bring NUSA to Omaha started six years ago, according to Norita Matt, a city planner who attended that 2001 conference with Foster. Years of planning led to Omaha’s presentation to NUSA leaders at the 2015 conference in Houston that landed the bid to host this year’s event.

“There is a lot that goes along with it; you have to have the mayor’s support and plenty of city support,” Matt says.

The Omaha conference will include local keynote speakers; dozens of local, national, and global workshops; awards for exceptional neighborhood betterment programs; local and national exhibitors; and a mayor’s reception.

The highlight of each conference, Matt says, are the Neighborhood Pride Tours during which attendees learn how neighborhoods use innovation and elbow grease to better their communities. More than 20 tours, including two in Council Bluffs, will focus on the rich history, unique designs, and revitalization of neighborhoods, she says. Tours are capped with receptions, local entertainment, and demonstrations of different cultures through music and dance.

“Going into the neighborhoods gives us a chance to hear about challenges and what people are doing to bring back the neighborhoods,” she says.

Gifford Park is one of many neighborhoods to participate in the city’s annual Spring Clean Up.

Two Omaha keynote speakers will highlight a key crucial neighborhood betterment effort. Jose Garcia and Terri Sanders will present their groups’ efforts to revitalize the 24th Street corridor, Omaha’s original “Street of Dreams,” connecting North and South Omaha, including the Fair Deal Village MarketPlace near 24th and Burdette streets.

Fostering a Better Community Life

For Foster of the Gifford Park association, NUSA coming to Omaha holds special significance because of his profound experience in Pittsburgh more than 15 years ago.  >

“I described it as a life-changing experience because I saw a presentation on inclusiveness involving community gardens,” Foster recalls, describing how he was “blown away” by a Seattle speaker who described the city’s network of community gardens.

Foster and others spent hours with the speaker at a local coffeehouse, and he then found himself doodling ideas about a vacant piece of land behind the Gifford Park home he shares with his wife, Sally.

Soon after, they were cleaning up the double-wide lot and purchasing the parcel for $4,000. Others joined in to transform the lot at 3416 Cass St. into the Gifford Park Community Garden. A youth gardening program soon followed.

A mural on North 30th Street emphasizes the history of the Florence neighborhood. Photo by Mele Mason.

A couple of years later, the garden expanded and an “adventure playground,” complete with a double-decker treehouse, was built as a way to build community ties among Gifford Park families and children.

Since then, a host of neighborhood activities and services have been developed, including a community bike shop and a free youth tennis program held each August at 33rd and Cass streets.

The conceptual seeds that revitalized Gifford Park’s community were planted at that NUSA conference years ago.

“NUSA provides me with some leadership development,” Foster says. “It gets people excited, invigorated, and motivated to want to take on projects in neighborhoods or work with the city and take on leadership roles. As volunteers, we have more effect on our neighborhoods than almost anything else. We’re the owners and stakeholders who can actually get it done.”

Visit nusa.org for more information.

The 42nd annual NUSA conference is coming to Nebraska for the first time. The conference will be held at the Omaha Hilton Hotel and CenturyLink Center from May 24-27.

A mural in Prospect Village celebrates the North Omaha neighborhood.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Waking Up from City Planners’ Utopian Dream.

November 5, 2014 by

It seems that the push into new urbanism has cost cities and developers a lot of money. All money spent in an effort to create from whole cloth a new Utopian form of urban-density design. From apartments with ground-floor retail, to new idealized communities where the form-based zoning pushed dense urban public space designs. They are designs that appear to make money only where consumers don’t have alternatives.

Contradictions between the theory and reality become apparent when driving up to one of these new urban-planned projects. I can think of two examples that show how poorly city planner ideals conflict with the realities of consumers. The use of compact parking stalls despite the fact that half of U.S. auto sales are for ever-larger pickups. Also, that notion of “walkable” developments despite the realities of weather-challenged cities such as Omaha.

Even the Lifestyle Mall concept is often a money loser. Yet the redevelopers of abandoned traditional malls where the focus is creating fun gathering places are making money. The trick here is pretty simple: Know one’s local market and design the shopping experience to match instead of using a cookie-cutter approach.

The idea of careful targeting of what consumers want is rewarding developers and cities. Rather than nudging consumers with idealistic regulation, rather than relying on what always worked with the baby boomers, successful development targets the actual marketplace of consumers in all the diversity of wants and needs. Just as states and cities compete to attract new employers with subsidies, successful communities work to attract the entire marketplace of those who will engage and energize their local community.

What appears to be working, and very well in many cities, is the revitalization of historic communities. Reuse of historic structures, rebuilding of historic neighborhoods, and support for the historically successful developments have a proven history of success. These redeveloped neighborhoods and areas appeal to a market segment nostalgic for a pre-suburban lifestyle. One could say: What’s old is new.

Here you have suburban zoning, which recent generations are accustomed to, separating each use. Euclidean zoning. Segregated clusters of similar homes, all linked by big roads. The mini McMansion with a yard, the soccer-mom Suburbans. Homeowners associations with strict enforcement of uniform appearance. The suburbanite exemplifies the notion that bigger is better, or if some is good, more is better.

Then there is the rental lifestyle found in well-located, high-end apartments. Here is a demographic that doesn’t look to homeownership as any sort of investment. This is a demographic focused on convenience and ease of social engagement. Often this lifestyle is a convenient walk, or bike ride, to work, restaurants and nightlife. As opposed to cheap apartment life of the ubiquitous suburban three-story walk-up units, the upscale apartment lifestyle often comes at a price point higher than home ownership, per square foot.

Another trend starting to gain momentum is the tiny-house movement. Despite minimum size requirements in most zoning codes, people skirt the requirement by building very small homes on trailers. Cities might consider embracing the tiny-home movement because it allows for a very affordable housing product. Much like incubator businesses, this affordable housing allows residents to become part of a community without financial risk. Think of underutilized infill locations being offered as temporary, or permanent, locations for communities of tiny homes. These folks tend to consider their lifestyle focused on quality as opposed to quantity.

Instead of imposing Utopian new urbanism on consumers, focusing on the different lifestyles consumers desire is the successful model. Seek the bottom-up, consumer-driven model as opposed to the top-down, authoritarian model we now see so often.