Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Observations of Midwest Urbanism

I recently split a week between Omaha and Des Moines.  As much as possible, I observed the current and potential urbanism of both.

Normally, I’d compare and contrast the two cities.  However, the nature of the trip precluded that approach.  Along with a family member, I was following a minor league ballclub for a weeklong roadtrip.  The trip included staying in same hotels as the team.  As I’ve previously written, the Omaha ballclub plays in a cornfield a long ways from downtown Omaha.  Not surprisingly, the visiting team hotel is close to the ballpark, so far from the part of Omaha that would have most interested me.

So the best I can offer is observations about the two cities.

We made a couple of short visits to downtown Omaha.  The downtown grid pattern is fairly strong and logical, although freeways have intruded on it.  There were areas of interesting existing buildings, but on both a Sunday evening and a Monday morning, there was an absence of street activity in most districts.  There was a sense that Omaha was where people worked before hopping onto a freeway to drive to a home in the suburbs.

The only neighborhood that had much street life was the Old Farmers Market District.  On a Sunday evening, it was so filled with activity that we chose not to fight the crowds, but went elsewhere for dinner.

On Monday morning, the district was quieter, so we stopped for breakfast.  Indeed, it was so still that it was obvious that the district relied on tourism for its vitality, which is a different thing than good urbanism.  In a well-conceived and mature urbanist neighborhood, streets are active for most hours of the day all seven days of the week.   The Old Farmers Market District was a fun place to visit, but it was more Disneyland than working city.

Relating Omaha to Northern California equivalents, much of downtown was like the Financial District in San Francisco, nearly deserted on a weekend.  But the Old Farmers Market was like Old Sacramento, hopping during play hours, but largely somnolent during business hours. 

After my trip, I visited with a planner who knows Omaha well.  He confirmed my impression that much of Omaha, with the exception of the Old Farmers Market District, lacks urban vitality.  Nor does the zoning code or the current mayor encourage urbanism.  It’s too bad.  There are missed opportunities for Omaha to be a more interesting place.

Des Moines was a stronger urban place, but still less urban than might be hoped.  The Iowa State Capitol, sited on a hill just east of downtown, is a strong element, providing a visual point of reference from much of the downtown.

Unlike Omaha, the ballpark is close to downtown, almost close enough that we could have walked from the visiting team hotel.  And the State Capitol is noticeable landmark over the centerfield fence, which provides a solid connection between the park and the town.  (Although I understand that the ballplayers aren’t happy about trying to pick up pitches out of a background that includes a sunset reflecting off gold leaf.)

My only concern about the ballpark was that, although close to downtown, the true pedestrian experience was interrupted by parking lots between the public street and the front gate.  However, there were indications that the parking lots will soon be redeveloped into lofts.  I didn’t learn how parking will be provided, but the loft project, especially if it includes retail, will make Principal Park a more complete urban experience.

Otherwise, Des Moines included several neighborhoods that offered urban experiences, although most were thin gruel.

East Village, lying between the Capitol and the Des Moines River, was described as a historic district, but the elements of history were dispersed among a mélange of low government and commercial buildings and lacked a critical mass.  The most distressing element was boarded-up houses a couple of blocks northwest of the Capitol.  If a city can’t create a demand for housing within walking distance of the State Capitol, urbanism is severely lacking.

Court Street was the entertainment district, with a string of brewpubs and music venues.  Perhaps it hops in the evening, but it was awfully quiet through the lunch hour and early afternoon.

The Des Moines River is spanned by a series of bridges, similar to Napa, although they seemed lightly used.  I had a hotel room overlooking the bridges and was surprised to see them bereft of traffic at 8:00 am.  None of us like traffic, but it’s a sign of economic activity and its absence is concerning.

The historic Governor’s Mansion is in the Terrace Hill residential neighborhood, which is filled with interesting architecture, but doesn’t function as a walkable place.

The most exciting blocks I noted in Des Moines were along the route between downtown and Terrace Hill.  With a moderately dense mixture of offices, medical facilities, and residential, and a sprinkling of interesting parks, it seemed to be the area closest to achieving urbanism.  The number of pedestrians on the sidewalks in the early evening supported that observation.

Looking again for a Northern California equivalent, Des Moines is like a sleepier version of Sacramento.  (To those who might be surprised that it’d be possible for Sacramento be to any sleepier, you need to take another look at Sacramento.  It’s not yet a walkable urban paradise, but it’s trending in a good direction.)

Like Omaha, Des Moines seemed to have the pieces to be a good urban place, but work remains to be done.  Less work than is needed in Omaha, but still work.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Is there a ball team in Lincoln, Nebraska? Years before I had any conscious sense of urbanism or planning, I thoroughly enjoyed a short visit there. I'll betchya it has an urban vitality that would provide a contrast to Omaha. Incidentally a google maps search shows downtown Lincoln as an 11-minute walk from the University. Hmmm....

    1. Barry, the Lincoln Saltdogs are a long-time member of the Northern League. It's independent baseball, similar to the teams in Vallejo and San Rafael, but the Northern League is among the strongest independent leagues, so I suspect the Saltdogs are a better club than the Admirals or the Pacifics.

      I agree that college towns can have a particularly vital type of urbanism. I visited Ames, Iowa, home of Iowa State, during my Midwest trip and will soon share insights.