Omaha and its Highways
I came across this recent video from Vox about the highway system and its history within our cities. It quickly reminded me of a project that I did last fall about recognizing some of these patterns of inequality within Omaha, Nebraska. For that project I overlaid a 1937 redline map of Omaha with today’s demographic information to show that 80 years later those lines that were drawn still have a real effect on mobility and demographics in the city. This gets more interesting when you then overlay the highways that were built in the 50s, 60s, and 70s in Omaha, and you get a clear picture of how isolated some of these areas of Omaha became. This is highlighting a specific issue, but it is also a broader call to continue to reevaluate how issues are processed and solved within cities.
Before I go further, I want to recognize that the history of redlining has racial and political roots that are major issues. Redlining was used to deem neighborhoods poor and blighted and it was used by banks to refuse loans and home ownership opportunities. This allowed for racial and economic minorities to be taken advantage of and isolated. It is clear by this map that those patterns of isolation are still prevalent and have an impact on social and economic issues within cities. While you cannot discuss these issues without understanding the history behind it, I really want this to be about exploring the future of how we reconnect cities. It is very easy to overwhelm a discussion like this one with negative history and social issues that it has created. I think current planning discourse struggles to disconnect from these aspects of the conversation and look forward to solution based conversations. This is where I believe that architecture’s empathy and process is better prepared to handle the new and future urban issues.
Something that has become clear to me throughout my studies is that Omaha is not this humble Midwest city, rather it has been shaped by the same social, economic, racial, and historical issues of all major US cities. The interstates and highways are one of the more visible within the city. Its westward sprawl would not have been possible without the dominance of Interstate 80, which runs right down the center of the city on an east west axis. Like most cities, Omaha is very spatially categorized into North, South, and West, and all of those carry strong stereotypes and connotations (mostly negative and misunderstood within the public). These lines are reflected as clear within the major highways that cut up the city. While working on my project in the fall I drove around south Omaha neighborhoods with Ed Leahy, Director of Omaha EITC Coalition, and it is impossible not to feel the disconnect that Highway 75 creates within the area. The description of “food desert” and lack of transportation continually came up. Access is a key for mobility for these areas and these highways cut off access and turn community into isolation. South 24th Street is lively and vibrant district within Omaha, but its tightly constrained by Highway 75 on the west which makes it a community asset for very few compared to what it could be. Neighborhoods like South Side Terrace and Indian Hills have no walking or biking access to those amenities, and the through roads that do connect are 4+ lane roads that make it even hard to maneuver if you do not have a car.
Many cities are grappling with hows to reconnect these neighborhoods that were divided by highways. Los Angles with Park 101 (http://www.park101.org/) and Dallas with Klyde Warren Park (https://www.klydewarrenpark.org/) are just a couple of examples. These are massive infrastructural undertakings by these cities. I think it is important to explore all scales of reconnection. A policy change is not going to solve the physical boundaries of this issue. There is at times a grey area where design can intervene in cities, but being creative on how to reconnect neighborhoods is one of the clearest examples of where design can create a better city. Design can be forward thinking and not reactionary. It does not have to be constrained by the negative aspects of the past. The issue is clear and it does not have to continue that way. To rethink our cities will first take a rethinking of the process with which we problem solve within them. Whether Omaha or New York, it is time to allow design more freedom to attempt to improve the situation within our cities.
Christian de Portzamparc: “No One But an Architect Can Solve the Problems of the Contemporary City”
I want to thank and cite a few people for the map and the resources.
-Palma Joy Strand- Creighton Law School
Director, Creighton's 2040 Initiative
Co-Founder and Research Director, Civity
- Edward W Leahy
Director, Omaha EITC Coalition
University of Virginia- Demographics Research Group
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