Toward a "Prairie Boulevard"

February, 2015

Lincoln -- City planners have made a good decision to widen NW 48th street but to move it somewhat eastward, away from residential housing, between West Adams and West Cuming Streets. The reasons for the eastward move are to lessen traffic noise, reduce right-of-way impacts, and provide traffic benefits at Arnold Elementary School.

One good idea should lead to others. By routing the corridor through a mostly vacant area of Air Park, this part of the street could become a scenic boulevard. It already has admirable landscaping, although the loss of Scots pines in recent years has diminished the original vision.

A revised landscape plan featuring native prairie flora could be combined with an effort to make this Lincoln's "Prairie Boulevard." It would be the route Lincolnites take to nearby Nine-Mile Prairie, a tallgrass prairie on the National Register of Historic Places. Future developers of businesses along this corridor could encourage enterprises compatible with environmental protection, sustainable agriculture and horticulture, re-cycling, and outdoor recreation, as well as production, distribution, and consumption of healthy food to fight Nebraska's obesity epidemic. Non-profits and indigenous businesses could also be encouraged. No chain stores. Walkable paths would connect businesses; parking areas would demonstrate the feasibility of integrating pervious surfaces into an overall landscape plan. In other words, this would be a big departure from North 27th Street and its ilk. Lincoln has enough such places; it's time for something different.

The NW 48th corridor area is also overdue for re-naming. "Air Park" calls forth the old Lincoln Air Base, which has long since come and gone. Before there was an air base there were prairie hills sloping down gently to an unusual salt basin. Orchards dotted the area around the corridor, which was home to many of Lincoln's pioneer families and early leaders, like the Hartleys, the Mearses, the Fladers, and the Cheneys (not those Cheneys; the other ones who came from New York, loved Nebraska, and gave their name to the rural school that educated the children along the corridor). A Farmer's Club brought area families together socially. Orchardist Ellis Hartley became Lincoln's first superintendent of schools. Later, NU ecologist John Ernst Weaver and his protégé Theodor Steiger took a scientific interest in the remaining tallgrass prairies on the nearby heights. In 1929, Weaver wrote the definitive book on prairie plant science, and in so doing established himself as the nation's foremost authority on North American prairies. These citizens are as worthy, or more so, of commemoration than is General Henry Arnold, after whom much is named but who apparently never set foot in Lincoln. Why not Weaver Heights rather than Arnold Heights? And why do we have a school, of all places, named after the man who advocated fire-storming civilians in WWII?

Lincoln should take the opportunity to make itself into the Prairie Capital of the United States. Lincoln has no mountains or seashores, but it has remarkable prairies. Three prairies around Lincoln have much potential for greater visitor draw: Spring Creek Prairie near Denton, the newly-expanded prairie at Pioneers Park, and Nine-Mile Prairie. Fortuately for the latter, most of the surrounding landowners are committed to creating the necesssary buffer zone around this jewel of nature to protect it from the type of adjacent development that would destroy it. The University of Nebraska and the Lincoln Airport Authority are major landowners in the area. The city and the county should take the lead to protect and enhance the Nine-Mile Prairie environs, as has been done for the saline wetlands to the north of the city, another worthy prairie attraction.

No other city with surviving prairies can claim such an illustrious scientific heritage that attaches to them. It was Lincoln that produced three of the world's greatest botanists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Charles Bessey, Frederic Clements, and John Weaver. Clements was not only world-class, his theory of dynamic ecology and plant succession dominated botany throughout the world for decades, and still serves as a practical approach to grassland and range management. It does not reflect well on Lincoln that until recently, Clements' ashes lay unmarked for years in Wyuka Cemetery. That oversight should now be corrected, and one way to do it would be to brand (that's the vogue word) Lincoln as the the nation's Prairie Capital.

From one good idea, many others can spring. Opportunity awaits.