pass the potatoes

Nothing is more impressive than a wide open field of prairie grasses and wildflowers swaying in the breeze.

That’s how Zack Fergus, a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, introduced his idea for making Omaha a more sustainable community on www.passthepotatoes.com. Later this year, his idea will be planted in two Omaha parks.

Last fall, Pass the Potatoes – a virtual town hall event sponsored by Environment Omaha – invited anyone interested in Omaha to submit ideas for improving the sustainability of the city. During a 10-week period that ended Oct. 1, users submitted more than 100 ideas in five areas – preserving and enhancing Omaha’s natural environment; improving how people move around the city and determining what shape its future growth should take; improving the way Omaha builds, renovates and maintains its buildings; conserving the city’s natural resources; and improving Omaha’s overall health. Following the idea submission period for each area, the public was asked to improve upon the ideas of others and then vote for their favorite idea.

“The community took the Pass the Potatoes challenge seriously, and the result is an impressive collection of thoughtful ideas that can serve as a checklist for future action,” said Connie Spellman, director of Omaha by Design.

At the conclusion of the online outreach effort, a panel convened by Omaha by Design and city officials reviewed the top ideas in each category – as determined by the event’s online voting process – for potential implementation in 2011.

Fergus, a native of Omaha, will be among the first to graduate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s landscape architecture program this May. His idea – introducing the prairie aesthetic into public parks and properties – was among the most popular in the natural environment section. “If you are like me, then at one point in time or another you have wondered just how much the city puts into mowing the properties it owns, let alone the other time and management that goes into these grounds,” wrote Fergus, an intern at Community ReDesigned. “What if we replaced the manicured bluegrass and fescue lawns with sustainable plant communities like the tall- and shortgrass prairies native to our region, which were then allowed to naturalize, thus cutting down on management (twice a year mowing)? We can make this happen, all we need is to change the way we design and maintain publicly-owned properties while informing the public to gain acceptance of this historic yet misunderstood prairie aesthetic.”

The review panel, in consultation with the parks department, will operationalize the ‘prairie in the park’ idea in the coming months prior to the start of the planting season. Benson Park and Fontenelle Park will serve as the project sites, Spellman said. In addition, a project fund will be established with the Omaha Parks Foundation for those who would like to make a donation.

For more information about the prairie in the park project, contact Omaha by Design at 402.934.7055 or info@omahabydesign.org.

Environment Omaha – a partnership of the City of Omaha, the community and Omaha by Design – developed the comprehensive new environmental section of the city’s master plan, which received Omaha City Council approval in December 2010. For more information, visit www.environmentomaha.com.