By Michael Wunder – Contributor
The Omaha Planning Board voted unanimously Oct. 6 to recommend approval to add an environmental section to the city’s master plan. Environment Omaha, a collaborative effort between the City of Omaha, the public and Omaha by Design, prepared the document. The City Council will consider the recommendation later in the year.
The lengthy proposal consists of five sections including urban form and transportation, building construction, resource conservation, community health and the natural environment.
A major focus of the proposal is bringing Omahans closer to their natural surroundings.
The writers of the proposal, citing numerous studies, found the psychological response to nature was pleasure and wakefulness, along with negation of anger, anxiety and stress.
The new plan would require every community to have one-half mile of open space within a walking distance.
“Open spaces provide respite for people in denser areas,” said Steve Jensen, Environment Omaha co-chair. “Space is a critical component; it provides a connection back to nature.”
If approved, the plan would require new developments to utilize green infrastructure, the foundation of which is natural elements — woodlands, rivers, wetlands, grasslands and more — to create a more open, cost-efficient and beautiful Omaha.
Urban development would work around, within and with these natural elements to “maximize the natural systems” already in place, Jensen said.
One natural element the proposal stresses is Native and Ecologically Well Adapted Non-Invasive Plants. Certain native plant species will help to deplete storm water runoff and other pollutants.
Native plants, along with their aesthetic and ecological purposes, could also provide a welcome breath of financial air to a winded city budget, Jensen said.
“Obviously, [Native and Ecologically Well Adapted Non-Invasive Plants] are less expensive in the long run,” said Jensen, who has a background in landscape architecture. “You don’t have to water them as much, and you don’t need weed killer or fertilizer.”
Installation of sod turf grasses can be costly, often exceeding $12,000 per acre, and turf grass seeds may cost up to $8,000 per acre, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Landscaping website. By contrast, a native prairie seed installation costs $2,000 to $4,000 per acre.
The combined costs of installation and maintenance for natural landscapes could be one-fifth the costs of conventional landscape maintenance.
However, native plant species can seem out of place in urban landscapes.
“When you get to highly urbanized areas like downtown or Midtown Crossing, there’s no opportunity to have large swaths of prairie grass,” Jensen said. “It tends to look odd.”
The challenge for developers and landscapers will be to find better ways to incorporate native plants into the design, Jensen said. They will need to be planted in a more organized pattern; otherwise indigenous species will appear poorly maintained or neglected.
The proposal’s focus on the use of natural systems and native species in development has goals of efficiency, beauty and health, but the overseers of the plan hope to get connections to nature put in place, Jensen said.
The plan would ensure people in denser areas have opportunities to convene with the natural world and that environmental and conservation education roots would have fertile soil.
“[Open spaces] might be urban kids’ only connection to nature,” Jensen said. “It helps them understand how they relate to the environment.”