Essay by David Karle
“Everyone knows that more than half of mankind lives in cities, that everyone is moving to the cities. And I became interested in simply, what did they leave behind. … I am discovering the countryside now is a totally undescribed field and nobody thinks about it. In spite of that, it is changing very fast. The countryside is no longer an idyllic environment.”1
—Rem Koolhaas, Office for Metropolitan Architecture
The Great Plains region of the United States has always been a territory of contested aspirations and viewpoints. Historically, the central Great Plains was known as the Great American desert, the final frontier, and seen as agriculturally fit to support the coastal cites. Attempts to inhabit the region often met with failure, but only after brief moments of opportunity and prosperity. According to Randolph Cantrell, “The first Nebraska settlements were either staging areas for an arduous westward journey, or service centers for those passing through. It required the advent of rails and mechanized agriculture to change that.”2 Over a 100-year period the government and local communities have been forced to address the issues of survival and inhabitation with regional, territorial, and local strategies, from the government-assisted and influenced forms of urbanism in the mid-1800s (Homestead Act and Railroad Act), to natural and environmental consolidation acts in the late 1800s (Timber-Culture Act, 1873; the Desert Land Act, 1877; the Timber and Stone Act, 1878; and the Timber Cutting Act, 1878), and the unstable natural and economic cycles throughout the 1900s (the Dust Bowl; Agriculture Department’s Soil Conservation Service, 1937; the New Deal, 1933-1942; and the Farm Crisis), attempts to develop this region that have been continually flawed. Yet with each successive movement came achievements in infrastructure and the built environment, including the transcontinental railroad, the interstate highway system, local grain elevators and silos, and various civic architecture typologies scattered across the landscape, such as single room schoolhouses, churches, train depots, opera houses, and post offices. Some of these once-necessary constructs have now become abandoned and consolidated spatial artifacts of the past.
Through various economic and environmental cycles, the speeds and forms of American urbanism, population shifts, and migration patterns have significantly impacted the development and sustainability of the Great Plains’ architecture and infrastructure. The pace and fluctuation of development in the region, or lack thereof, highlights these movements and patterns more clearly than the speed of a growing metropolis. Even today, we can see the residual spatial and architectural relicts formed by these rapid patterns of urbanism in the Great Plains. Examples include the sod houses in rural communities, the streamlining of dimensional lumber and the method of balloon frame construction deployed through the Midwest in the later 1920s. Larger spatial implications were impacted by cross continental trails and infrastructure at various scales and speeds, from the Oregon and Mormon Trails to the government-assisted Railroad Act and Highway Act. However, today these historic forms of development are underperforming. With decommissioned regional railroad tracks, fewer farms and farmers, and the reduction of regional dependency on forms of agriculture, the state of Nebraska has created small isolated towns and communities disconnected from the state infrastructures that are slowly becoming ghost towns. This trend is continuing, but should efforts be made to engage large regional consolidation strategies as a means of survival?
Scholars Deborah Epstein Popper and Frank J. Popper believe “that over the next generation, the Plains will, as a result of the largest, longest-running agricultural and environmental miscalculation in American history, become almost totally depopulated. At that point a new use for the region will emerge, one that is in fact so old that it predates the American presence. We are suggesting that the region be returned to its original pre-white state, that it be, in effect, deprivatized.”3 A longstanding suggestion is the Buffalo Commons proposal to return 139,000 square miles, affecting ten Great Plains states, to short grass prairie for the American bison. This leads one to ask, should we be considering the myriad isolated small communities finding themselves on the brink of no return? Learning from historical events in the region, we should be able to reasonably predict what will happen and propose an exit strategy for them.
The American historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and influential literary critic Lewis Mumford describes four definitive historical flows of population: the outflow led by the covered wagon; the reflow led by the iron house (train); the inflow attracted by the skyscraper; and the backflow forced by pressure from the skyscraper.4 The historic shifts and speeds of development described by Mumford are no longer sufficient representation of patterns found in the Great Plains, specifically in Nebraska. The state is actively forming two additional population flows based on migration patterns and consolidated architectural and infrastructural networks. The first new type of flow includes rotational flow in the form of micro-regional networks. This method will work with existing communities to generate and enhance partnerships between communities within close geographic proximity. The second type of flow is compressible flow and tracks population drifts toward the I-80 and Platte River corridors.
Rotational Flow: Micro-Regional Networks
Moving beyond the European city model or those of iconic cities in North America, areas outside the mega-regions, specifically the Great Plains, can be investigated and used as a case study for new forms of agrarian and micro-regional urbanism. For decades the label and role of cities has been questioned as terms such as rural, suburban, urban, and mega-region became ambiguous and multifaceted. A new scale of analysis is needed to identify emerging strategies of survival outside the scale of the mega-regional.
In 2008, the America 2050 Mega-Regional Plan re-contextualized the way we read city boundaries and ex-urban developments. The plan introduced a new way of viewing and connecting cities and communities via environmental, infrastructural, economic, and cultural networks. The strategy was divorced from county, state, province, and governmental lines in hopes of achieving new regional relationships. According to this plan, the eleven mega-regions consist of 75% of the total U.S. population, but only 25% of the total U.S. square miles. Given these staggering statistics, a sustained focus on the liminal areas outside the mega-regions is needed. Looking outside the mega-region and beyond the compact city will expose new spatial strategies that allow us to think strategically and act locally. Communities outside the mega-regions are operating as micro-regional networks, expressing a spatial co-dependency of development and participating in local, national, and international economic cycles. Examples include such middle tier metropolitan areas as Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, Des Moines and Aims, Iowa, and Kansas City and its surrounding communities. However, by investigating the inner workings of micro-regional networks, specifically in the Great Plains, new spatial strategies will be uncovered.
An involuntary case study of new patterns of urbanism emerging from massive patterns of non-urbanism is Ord, Nebraska, located geographically in the center of the state. With a population of 1,990 people, the town is an example of a community participating in a multi-scalar regional network. Ord is also a unique case study because the town is at the end of an active railroad line and has an active ethanol plant. Previously the railroad connected Ord to two communities to the north, but now the railroad tracks stop at the ethanol plant. Ord forms the center of a rotational flow providing goods, services, and resources for less populated communities within a 30-mile geographic radius. Most of the adjacent small towns were once connected to an active railroad track, but in recent years the tracks have been decommissioned and the communities have depended on trucks to transport their corn, which is more expensive. Ord has become a micro-regional hub for agriculture and ethanol processing, school districts, healthcare, and retail. At a macro-scale, Ord is within 60 miles of two larger communities, Kearney, Nebraska, and Grand Island, Nebraska. These two larger communities are located within seven miles of I-80 and a major east-west railroad line, which reconfirms the notions that people want to live in close proximity to large-scale infrastructural networks.
Compressible Flow: Offset Infrastructural Consolidation
The second new type of flow in Nebraska suggests a compressible flow towards the I-80 and Platte River corridors. This more extreme strategy will consider the active population shifts to consolidate and enhance population, economic recourses, and personal amenities along these corridors. The current small-scale building consolidation strategies in the region have influenced this speculative exit strategy. The region has always been considered a pass-through or flyover territory, but with recent demographic trends showing a continuing population decline, small communities need to assess and act before it is too late. According to the US Census and as reported by Brian Williams, “A record one in three U.S. counties are dying, hit by aging population and a bad economy. That hurts the employment base. The downward trend stretches from the Ohio Valley, out through the plains to parts of California.”5 Population shifts over the last few decades in the state of Nebraska have shown that small isolated communities are continually losing population, while communities along the I-80 corridor are sustaining population, and iconic cities like Lincoln and Omaha are gaining population. Documenting these population shifts throughout the state of Nebraska will illuminate the need to generate and support an exit strategy for small communities towards the I-80 and Platte River corridor.
Currently 83% of Nebraska’s total population lives in the counties adjacent to the Platte River. Of that population, 64.73% live in what the census classifies as urban areas (2500 people or more) and 35.27% live in rural areas.6 The only major city not included in this area is Nebraska’s capital of Lincoln. However, Lincoln is located along the I-80 corridor. The I-80 corridor contains 67% of the total Nebraska population including the two largest cities Lincoln and Omaha. As a consolidation strategy towards densifying the I-80 corridor the compressible flow strategy merges multiple historic and contemporary viewpoints. Contemporary examples include hybrid coupling strategies described by mega-regional theorists and medium density infill described by Charles Waldheim and Ellen Dunham-Jones. The compressible flow exit strategy merges the spatial qualities of density and the micro-regional strategies of proximity with the residual territorial solution of Buffalo Commons. The rotational and compressible flows actively forming in Nebraska could be a viable exit strategy for consolidated towns and architectures throughout the state.
However, in order to survive, small communities must prepare for unstable natural and man-made cycles and anticipate aging and migrating youth populations. Based on survival tactics, these communities are forced to reconsider their future and stability. To negotiate these issues along with consolidated architecture and infrastructural networks, Nebraska communities are voluntarily and involuntarily forming two new spatial relationships, introducing new ways of connecting towns and communities via environmental, infrastructural, economic, and cultural networks. These relationships are similar to the large-scale mega-regional networks described in contemporary planning and design, but have more urgency. No longer can we view urbanism only through metropolitan cities or mega-regions. As communities in large mega-regions continue to be the focus of research, resources, and government supported infrastructural projects, we must remember the small isolated communities throughout the Great Plains. Viewing forms of urbanism in the Great Plains through small isolated rural communities will illuminate the duality between loss and stabilization.
1. Rem Koolhaas, Architect Rem Koolhaas, October 19, 2011. Charlie Rose. ↵
2. Cantrell, Randolph. “Rural Depopulation: A Closer Look at Nebraska’s Counties and Communities” Rural Initiative Publications and Reports, 2. ↵
3. Popper, Deborah Epstein, Popper, Frank J. Popper. “The Great Plans: From Dust to Dust” Planning: Dec. 1987, 53, 12;ABI/INFORM Global, 12. ↵
4. MacKaye, Benton. “The New Exploration: A Philosophy of Regional Planning” Harcourt,Brace and Company, Inc. Quinn, BodenCompany, 1928, 75-94. ↵
5. Brian Williams, United States Census: On the Move, March 14, 2013. Nightly News with Brian Williams, NBC. ↵
6. Daniel McTavish “Archipelago Nebraska Project(ing) Territory” (Master of Architecture Thesis, University of Michigan, 2013). ↵
David Karle is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, College of Architecture, where he teaches design studio and lectures on contemporary forms of American urbanism. Prior to joining the faculty at Nebraska, David taught undergraduate and graduate level architecture courses at the University of Michigan.