As many rural areas experience declining jobs, shrinking populations and eroding incomes, several Nebraska communities are pushing back against the trend and embracing what makes them unique and enhancing it. UNL’s Landscape Architecture Program with the assistance of a Rural Futures Institute grant started a long-term project with the city of Valentine, Nebraska, to design a facelift aimed at boosting tourism and economic development. Finally coming to fruition, Valentine will have a completely new streetscape for their main street designed by UNL’s Landscape Architecture students.
Students from Professor Kim Wilson’s Landscape Architecture 311 studio developed placemaking framework plans focused on providing places and spaces that encourage economic development and generational renewal in rural areas. After talking with Valentine community stakeholders and identifying focus areas, UNL students created design concepts for several projects including a new streetscape for highway 81 which runs along main street in Valentine, a key community corridor which hasn’t been updated since the 1930’s.
“Since main street is our primary retail corridor and community center, we thought modernizing it would make our community hub more walkable for commerce and aid in enhancing the brand of our community,” said Valentine Mayor Kyle Arganbright. “I often say we have world-class natural amenities that could never be re-created by any other community. We have a top ten canoeing river, top 100 ranked golf courses and the vast beauty of the Sandhills out our backdoor. So our focus for this new street scape project is on building community amenities that are at that same unique, pristine level as everything else around Valentine, Nebraska.”
This past July those streetscape concepts came one step closer to reality when Valentine city council members approved $350,000 in landscape architectural improvements to be included in their new highway 81 project that is scheduled for construction in 2021. When finished, the new streetscape will include new concrete from storefront to storefront, planting beds at intersection corners, street trees, a decorative paving strip next to roadside parking and new dimmable LED dark sky-friendly lamp posts in addition to future planned decorative benches, trashcans, bike racks, pedestrian wayfinding kiosks and street art.
“With the highway originally scheduled to be torn up and redone by the Department of Transportation, city stakeholders saw this as a great opportunity to implement some improvements,” said Austin Arens landscape architecture student.
While not all their design projects were approved for installation, Arens said he and his fellow students are beyond excited to see that the streetscape studio concepts will actually be implemented.
To assist with the design implementation of the streetscape, Arens has been hired by the city of Valentine to work with Olsson Associates, Inc. to provide design consultation services to take the studio designs beyond conceptual work and develop them for implementation, a process that is expected to be finished by January 2020. If everything goes according to projection, the city of Valentine could have a new streetscape by 2022.
“Since the studio is over, we selected Austin to work with Olsson Associates, Inc. Austin has immersed himself in Valentine,” said Arganbright “He knows this community and what the preferences are, and he knows what the opportunities are. He already has that really fundamental connection to Valentine so we knew he was the right choice to continue the project and enhancing our community’s brand.”
Arganbright says he couldn’t be more pleased with how the whole process has gone. “Austin, Kim and the whole studio did a phenomenal job. If I had it to do all over again, I definitely would. By partnering with UNL and the Landscape Architecture Program we received a much better project than what we normally would have. The students were able to devote so much time to the project. The vibrancy, energy and creativity they put into the project was impressive.” Arganbright also said he appreciated the outreach provided by UNL into small communities like Valentine and across the state.
Arens said being involved in a student learning opportunity that makes a positive impact in rural Nebraska has been very rewarding for him.
“I think the community engagement we provide rural areas is great,” Arens said. “It’s the nature of rural communities. They don't have professionals like landscape architects, architects or engineers readily available and so having a university to be able to help them out in that way is really beneficial and impactful.”
Landscape Architecture Program Director Mark A. Hoistad said this type of engagement is a crucial part of the studio culture. “Whether it be assisting groups with the visualization of parks and recreational facilities, the development of strategies for the reclamation of contaminated sites or the exploration of urban streetscapes and underutilized spaces, our studios have connected our student with real projects for real people. Connecting people and landscapes is a central mission for the landscape architecture profession and it is an important part of our students’ education.”
Professor Kim Wilson
Yitao (Dorothy) Lee