By Nicole Walde, Seth Bench, Jesse Vrable, and Malcom Nietz 

In 1950, 30 percent of the world’s population lived in urban settings and that number is projected to increase to nearly 70 percent in 2050 (Briller 2013). Environmental racism exists even in Omaha, people of color and those living in low socioeconomic groups are subject to a disproportionate number of hazards. These hazards include toxic waste, garbage dumps, and several other sources of environmental pollution that lower the quality of life. The concentration of populations with less income and greater social needs in certain neighborhoods is a direct result of the process of urban segregation,  the idea in which due to their individual options in the land and housing market, different social groups tend to become separated in urban areas with fewer resources. As the ability to choose a place to live depends on both personal and household income, those with greater incomes have more options when it comes to choosing where they want to live. Meanwhile, households bringing in less income are generally pushed to places where the prices as well as the quality of life are lower. Non-Profit groups throughout the United States are coming together to rebuild broken communities and create a higher quality of life for the people.  This study is going to examine how non-profit organizations are improving neighborhoods and parks in Omaha.  Specifically, the qualitative research on how the changes of neighborhoods and parks affect the people living in them.

Methodology:

The first steps toward gathering data was to look for scholarly articles, journals and research papers that pertained to the project’s theme.  The group used databases provided by the UNO Library and searched using keywords like litter, urban renewal, waste disposal, environmental health, etc. to find applicable information for use in the project.  Most of these sources indirectly related back to Omaha meaning they were laws or examples of the good effects of city beautification.  

For secondary qualitative data, the group used prior knowledge of nonprofit organizations and the internet to find reputable organizations that are based in Omaha, Nebraska.  Many of the sources obtained were found through communication with Dr. Edwards and other professionals in the field.  The data obtained was primarily based from the websites of each nonprofit organization. This study uses the Keep Omaha Beautiful website, Omaha by Design, 75 North, City Sprouts and archives from the Omaha World Herald to show how the environment has an impact on the people.

After all the individual members of the group collected both scholarly and quantitative data, everyone discussed the findings together.  This discussion allowed for a much more in-depth understanding of Environmental health and renewal for everyone in the group.  Next, The group coded the data into a table using the main themes of Litter and Waste Disposal, Landscape and Beautification, Building and Park Renovation, Human and Natural Environment Health.  Using these themes the data was organized to be used for the final project.

Litter and Waste Disposal:

Garbage creation and control are major issues for most core and industrializing nations, and it is quickly becoming one of the most critical environmental issues faced in the United States. Litter removal is often the first step in renovating and reinventing parks, neighborhoods and communities. Before any landscaping or planting can be done, the area needs to be free of litter. Poor litter management has been a major epidemic in cities worldwide for centuries. Many of these cities, including Omaha, have struggled to take control of trash infested parks and neighborhoods.  While it seems a growing population would only contribute to the problem more so, non-profit organizations in Omaha are using this to move forward.  

Omaha has quite a few non-profit groups that play a major role in litter removal for the city.  A major contender of these is Keep Omaha Beautiful, whose mission, according to their website, focuses on environmental education, sustainable beautification, and waste and pollution prevention.  Keep Omaha Beautiful hosts a variety of litter removal and city beautification programs and events that allow volunteers throughout the city to take action. The organization hosts an annual youth fall cleanup that employs over 950 youth volunteers across 36 Omaha locations to pick up litter and recyclable items from Omaha neighborhoods, school yards, parks, trails, and dam sites.  Not only does this event take place once a year Keep Omaha Beautiful also organizes volunteer groups and provides them with the necessary equipment to pick up litter in local neighborhoods and public areas throughout Omaha, such as parks, trails, and dam sites.  There is also a $50 incentive for volunteer groups that collect litter along at least 2 miles of trail located within Omaha.

Another massive part of environmental health is waste management.  Often times people store large/bulky items because they are not accepted by curbside trash service.  This can lead to illegal dumping in parks and forests and storing these items can often create a haven for rodents, insects and fire hazards in residential homes.  To help combat this Keep Omaha Beautiful hosts an event each year known as the Omaha Spring Cleanup, this event takes any and every big bulky item off the hands of Omaha residents to help keep the area cleaner and beautiful.

Landscape and Beautification:

Environmental nonprofit groups in Omaha are pushing to create new green spaces through public initiatives that encourage volunteers to come help beautify the city. These projects by the nonprofit groups include plans to plant flowers, trees, and native plants. This is a very important aspect in the process of urban renewal because these green spaces and vegetation create a sense of community. For example, local nonprofit Omaha by Design recently added more green space and activity to Benson Park. In 2015 the park added a new playground and fishing pier, ending a three-year renovation plan that started in 2012. After the renovations were finished, Benson Park’s new facelift made it a much more accessible green space for families and the park was built so “people with mobility impairments and other disabilities [can] enjoy sports and recreation” (“Benson Park Grand…”, 2015).

General beautification within a city is also crucial to urban renewal especially in the case of the new Highlander Housing Projects. The Highlander Neighborhood is a brand new neighborhood that was created due to the efforts of Omaha nonprofit group “75 North”. Before the new, modern Highlander Neighborhood was built, there was previously a dated, ran down housing project called Pleasantview Homes. Before the demolition, the housing project was rampant with crime. After the demolition in 2009, there were twenty-three acres of vacant lot, yet another hub for crime to manifest. In order to counter this activity detrimental to positive urban renewal, 75 North stepped in and pushed for what is now the Highlander Neighborhood to be built. The result is a 101 unit neighborhood, with a future 64,000 square foot community center including shops to be built within the coming years. The completion of this new development is crucial for the continued urban renewal of Omaha as this beautiful neighborhood has taken the place of an old vacant lot and housing project where crime was a mainstay (Gonzalez, 2017).

highlander housing 2
Once cities implement an ample amount of green space and beautiful landscaping, the cities must not stop there. In order to keep the process of urban renewal going, cities must maintain these parks. To aid Omaha’s Parks and Recreation, Omaha nonprofit group Keep Omaha Beautiful, mentioned before, has established a public initiative program called “Adopt-a-Park” that encourages volunteers to agree to a one-year commitment to help with upkeep of the parks. The program has mandatory responsibilities such as picking up litter and debris, but KOB promotes more special projects for parks that many volunteer groups do such as “mulching [and] planting and watering trees and flowers” (Adopt-a-Park, 2017). As said before, the presence of parks and green spaces within a city is vital as it provides a sense of community. These parks and green spaces are essentially useless if trash isn’t picked up or the flowers and trees are dying/poorly cared for. Nonprofit groups within Omaha such as Keep Omaha Beautiful are doing their part in keeping these parks accessible to the people of the city which provides places for families to go and congregate.

Building and Park Renovation:

Building renovation is often the final push to revitalizing a neighborhood. It is the process of turning a once neglected area into a lively hotspot. The work can be as simple as painting park benches, picnic tables and playgrounds, as well as painting over graffiti.  Non-profit groups in Omaha are turning vacant lots into purposeful property for homes or community centers. They are working with neighbors and volunteers to make a safe spot for community use. Omaha is making great strides in renewing urban areas while also preserving the history of our city. Not only does renovating buildings increase the housing stock in the area, it reduces crime and provides healthy living for the people of the neighborhood. Non-profits are pushing establishments to take a more environmentally friendly stance on how they operate business, helping to reduce Omaha’s carbon footprint overall. Foundations throughout Omaha are also helping renovate public spaces for new audience spaces, revamping community centers, and updating community pools.

There are several small actions taken by local nonprofit groups that contribute to significant progress in creating a healthy living environment, reducing the impact on our physical environment, and promoting urban renewal. For example, graffiti in parks and on buildings affects communities in so many ways. The vandalism sends a message to citizens and visitors that no one cares, in turn promoting crimes and other forms of delinquency. Graffiti decreases the neighborhood’s residents feeling of safety. Streets that contain a large of amount of building and parks riddled with graffiti have decreased property value, loss of tourism and small business growth, and reduced access to transit systems. Graffiti does not only affect the living environment, it also causes a strain on the city budget and costs taxpayer dollars to clean up. The City of Omaha Public Works spends around $554,000 annually in graffiti cleanup. (City of Omaha, 2015). This is where nonprofit groups become extremely important to Omaha. It has been proven that public education and community involvement has a direct impact on reducing vandalism in parks and on buildings within communities. Keep Omaha Beautiful teamed up with the city of Omaha and other small neighborhood associations and developed a plan of action to reduce graffiti in order to increase property value, lower the cost to the taxpayers, and maintain a healthy living environment. The goals were to educate, gather volunteers, enforce the anti-graffiti policies, and prevent people from vandalizing more parks and buildings. According to CityofOmaha.com, since the citywide initiative was established in the year 2012, graffiti has been reduced by 92%.

Requests from neighbors have been heard about updating the parks playgrounds to be up to the city code. A large contribution to park renovation is building entirely new playgrounds throughout the city to encourage youth involvement and creating a safe space for physical activity. It’s part of the independent, nonprofit organization, the Parks Foundation, initiative to help the City of Omaha improve playgrounds in city parks. The Omaha Parks Foundation enlists the help of individuals, corporate donors, and other charitable foundations in our efforts to conserve and enhance the  city’s parks and green spaces.  Through their work, the Omaha Parks Foundation helps facilitate donations to community centers and several local projects, create awareness of issues that our parks, trails, and green spaces face, and help fulfill items from the city’s “wish list” of needs they are unable to fund. The initiative began in 2012. Donations have come from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska, Mutual of Omaha, the Dr. C.C. and Mabel L. Criss Memorial Foundation and the Sherwood Foundation, as well as individual donors. Fellow donors recognize the value of the parks to community life and pitch in to help the city make them better. In this case, one playground at a time.The donations allow the local organizations to renovate these playgrounds sooner than they would have been able to otherwise. In this year alone, seven Omaha parks are due to updated and renovated for the public.

In the past decade, Omaha commercial buildings and schools have been actively trying to reduce their individual carbon footprint. Omaha Public Schools has taken action by participating the ENERGY STAR program. The Environmental Protection Agency created the ENERGY STAR program in 1992 in an attempt to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by power plants. Throughout the last 18 years, the program has developed energy performance rating systems for several commercial and institutional building types and manufacturing facilities. The Omaha Public Schools concluded an energy study of all their buildings in an effort to identify opportunities for energy and resource efficiency improvements and the associated cost saving opportunities. They are putting forth efforts to identify ways that the buildings can be more energy-efficient while still ensuring that they are adequately heated, cooled, illuminated and have sufficient indoor air quality. Other buildings including the local grocery store chain, Hyvee, have turned their large buildings into environmentally friendly establishments. Features they have added to make this happen include automatic freezer lights, natural lighting and artificial flex lighting, a light-reflecting concrete parking lot, and doors on refrigerated sections.

Not only are nonprofits in Omaha transforming parks and commercial buildings, they are helping to revamp community centers in downtown neighborhoods, and volunteering on projects to provide affordable housing for people in low-income areas that could not afford an adequate living situation otherwise.

Human and Natural Environment Health:

When renovating a city, a major factor is maintaining the health and wellness of the environment and citizens. By renovating a city space, nonprofits are maintaining healthy plants and water systems. They can turn vacant, hazardous lots into beautiful gardens and water systems. These lots can cause damage to resident life and may even cause crime and a location for illegal dumping. For example, Keep Omaha Beautiful has launched ‘Community Beautification’, which aims to revitalize vacant lots into safe spaces for community use. They have turned a vacant lot on 3101 Florence Boulevard into a well-maintained, beautiful space. It is now an attractive community space, an outlet for storm water management and a “source of pride for the neighborhood”. (“Community Beautification”, 2017)

Nonprofits aim to maintain a healthy community by helping those who need it. For example, they may help elderly or disabled persons of the community with yard cleanup or provide exercise trails for active participants. In October of 2016, fourth-graders from Howard Kennedy Elementary planted native flowers and trees in cemeteries – offering a more lively atmosphere for the mournful. This exercise offered the students healthy habits and an excellent way to get involved into the community. (“Students plant trees…”, 2016)

Omaha By Design is on the forefront of keeping Omaha a healthy and beautiful city. In particular, the Cole Creek Project is turning heads with it’s innovative and transformative techniques. The Cole Creek used to be nothing more than a drainage ditch, but now it is a beautiful landscaping space. The ugly ditch was redesigned to stabilize the creek, improving its water quality and enhancing the recreational use of Orchard Park. The project’s community outreach was remarkable. Homeowners, neighborhood and business associations, and students within the Benson-Ames area all pitched in to save the creek. With the help of the community, the Cole Creek is now a healthy growing garden and water-drainage system. (“the cole creek project”, 2009)

Access to safe water is one of the most basic human necessities, and it is out of reach for millions of people on the planet. Many of the major diseases that undeveloped countries battle, such as diarrhea, cholera, and typhoid, are caused by contaminated water. The situation is only getting more dire as the global population increases. The Earth is about 70% water, however the way we use this abundant natural resource renders much of it unsuitable for consumption. Due to these reasons, it makes it all the more important that cities ensure their citizens living in urban areas have access to clean water. Omaha Stormwater is doing their part by helping to control storm water runoff. As a Omaha grows in size, the natural landscapes, prairies, and forests are being replaced by buildings and parking garages, causing runoff water to flow across the cement and not be absorbed into the ground. Omaha Stormwater urges residents to protect and clean up Omaha’s streams and rivers. They offer tips such as, making sure one’s car doesn’t leak oil, not fertilizing one’s grass before a heavy rain, turn one’s gutter downspouts away from hard surface, etc. (“Stormwater in Omaha…”, 2016)

With an over abundance of pollution and litter issues, communities need to come together and help to take care of Omaha. With nonprofits such as Keep Omaha Beautiful, Omaha By Design, and 75 North, residents can join the fight in maintaining a lively city with access to fresh food, economic opportunities, and affordable healthy living spaces.  In order to have an orderly community with happy residents, they need access to healthy food, economic opportunities, and affordable healthy living spaces.

Conclusion:

Human activity leads to pollution of soil, water, and air. While everyone is at risk, poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods and nations face more consequences of the planet’s pollution. Urban settings in general and urban neighborhoods specifically can be important centers of innovation and problem-solving (Briller 2013). Due to the fact that urban areas contain a large amount of people, urban settings have many pressing social problems. Local nonprofits are taking the steps to renew these broken neighborhoods by renovating their parks and community institutions, including eliminating playgrounds and buildings of graffiti, as well as leading large projects to create green spaces, audience spaces, and environmentally friendly schools and commercial buildings. Organizations are also working tirelessly to rid the community of litter, by encouraging volunteers to use provided equipment to clean up parks and trails. By renovating spaces, Omaha nonprofits are improving the quality of life of people living in urban areas, helping to decrease the amount of crimes committed in these neighborhoods, providing necessary resources that might not have previously been available, and keeping Omaha neighborhoods a healthy place to live.

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