Education, Mode Shift Omaha, Perspectives, Street Design|

This is from our friend, Nick Klimek, AICP

In October of 2017, I had the opportunity to help the community of Ottumwa, Iowa build a better block in its downtown. More specifically, an official “Better Block” – the national movement that seeks to redesign the public environment through temporary interventions. The interventions may only last a few days, but with the hope that they serve to empower and inspire participants, community leaders, and property owners to immediate and sustained action.

My professional career began in Ottumwa, Iowa – first as city planner, then planning director – and allowed me the opportunity to aide a dedicated group of downtown advocates on the pathway to revitalize downtown Ottumwa; at the time, a task considered unattainable. Much progress has been completed since then (a new business incubator/downtown market, rehabilitated storefronts, and dozens of new apartments above the storefronts) but one question remained: how much more could be done without the millions of dollars needed to improve the street?

Main Street Ottumwa offered a solution – to use temporary interventions to transform the former highway corridor into the environment that its stakeholders want and need. Through a partnership with Main Street Iowa, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Iowa Economic Development Authority, the community hired Better Block to lead the community in its transformation. Upon hearing of this project, I knew I had to be part of it.

I arrived back in Ottumwa on a Thursday morning to a sea of volunteers eager to help. We learned of the plan: to install protected bike lanes; install landscaped bump-outs and pedestrian crossings; arrange trees and flowers; install chairs, benches, and bike racks; design and set up three temporary businesses in vacant buildings; create public art installations; and to create a community event space. Quite ambitious for a days’ work.

My next 12 hours where a whirlwind of activity where I helped with all of the above projects. When the dust settled, the block was transformed.

What was once desolate and abandoned, was now alive. Live music emanated from a public plaza. The sights and sounds of children playing restored a sense of joy to Main Street. Visitors now had a place in downtown where they could (and would want to) mingle with their friends and neighbors to enjoy a meal, a drink, or simply the atmosphere. The buildings were once again filled with businesses, customers, and energy. The collective impact was one of animation – the district had awoken.

While the paint will wash away, the murals will fade, and the trees and plants will find a permanent home, the experience will inform the new vision for what downtown should become – a vibrant place, designed for people, and the heart of the community.

The lessons from this experience should be universal. A tremendous amount of time and energy is lost discussing what is possible, what is feasible, and what should be done next; this stagnation can often be bypassed by testing an idea rather than arguing the premise.

For my friends at ModeShift Omaha, I offer a few closing thoughts.

  • The Power of Partnerships.
    • Few significant and sustainable actions are created in a vacuum. We are strongest as a collective of individuals, organizations, and government. Better Block Ottumwa engaged hundreds of volunteers and countless organizations to make it a reality – ultimately, it is these engaged stakeholders who will push to ensure the temporary interventions are made permanent.
  • Demonstrate Public Support.
    • It can be difficult for elected officials to understand the desire of the public, especially for positive projects – instead, officials receive one-off comments, irritated speakers at public meetings, and input from their regular networks. The project in Ottumwa brought people together, offered them a meaningful way to engage in their community, and sent a strong and celebratory message to their elected officials declaring their support and desire for a better downtown.
  • Thanks to ModeShift Omaha.
    • ModeShift provides a consistent voice in support of alternative transportation which may otherwise be lost in the decision-making process. Thank you for advocating for a truly balanced transportation system in Omaha. Keep up the good work.

Painted bike lanes with landscape buffer and volunteers at work

Street furniture, CNC milling by RDG Planning & Design, assembly and painting by volunteers

Custom kiosk


2 Replies to “Better Block Ottumwa”

  1. says:

    Hopefully we can do something this innovative and collaborative in Omaha! Thanks for the great work!

  2. Jim Jackson says:

    And the mess in the downtown is still there! Just like little kids…have a party and leave the mess for the adults to pick up! Ridiculous!!

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