Our novels, films, and urban planning textbooks are filled with imaginary cities. Whether utopias or dystopias, most of these fictional cities imagine what a city could be at its best — or worst. However, few describe an average city, let alone map out a typical 1,011 square mile American city in excruciating detail, complete with a named streets and an imaginary history. That’s precisely what my friend Neil Greenberg set out to do with his Fake Omaha project.
Neil is probably best known as the creator of airBus, a highly successful bus service operated by the student government to get University of Michigan students to and from the airport. Today he works as a bus scheduler for Detroit’s regional bus system. When I heard he had been invited to present on the Fake Omaha project during the Storefront for Art and Architecture’s Performance Z-A event this fall, I decided to investigate further.
ROB GOODSPEED: What inspired you to start the project? What did you originally think the goal would be?
NEIL GREENBERG: I have a bizarre fascination with “quirks among the average.” It’s why I travel to places like Houston and Norfolk and Grand Rapids. Those are not popular destinations. Few Americans associate an unmistakable landmark, cuisine, or music genre with any of those places. However, amidst all their averageness, I have found great things in each of those cities. I wanted to create a similarly average metropolitan area, with the possibility to insert quirks and local flavor as I went. While I didn’t have a “goal” per se, I imagined that the project would further my understanding of real metropolitan areas.
I also wanted to try my hand at scaled, large-area mapping. Until Fake Omaha, I drew countless isolated, out-of-context maps on letter-size paper. I never attempted to maintain a uniform scale among the maps. I’d fill one sheet, but almost never continue onto another page. Each piece of paper was its own stand-alone work.
RG: How big will the complete Fake Omaha be, both on paper and also if it were a real city?
NG: The Fake Omaha metro area exists on 17 sheets, each one 34 inches by 28 inches. All sheets observe the same scale (4 inches equals 1 mile) and design standards. It’s hard to give dimensions of the whole map, as it’s oddly shaped and it’s been fully assembled only three times.
Fittingly, my approach to planning the project mirrored the development of American metropolitan areas. I began with one sheet, a “zoomed out” core area of Fake Omaha and a few close-in suburbs drawn at a 1 inch equals 1 mile scale. In this area, I mapped major roads and land features. I blew this up 400 percent, traced the base features onto the larger sheets, and mapped minor streets directly onto each panel. This original area amounted to maybe 10 map sheets. I kept going, and ended up mapping seven “exurban” sheets not part of the original core map. The sprawl ceased only when I ran out of paper.
Doing the math, the entire metro area equals 1,011 square miles to scale. I’ve been looking for ways to compare that to actual metropolitan areas. Urbanized area in square miles, central city versus metropolitan population, density, all the usual measures come to mind. It’s proven amazingly hard to find a thorough, credible list with that information.
I’ve come up with my own approximated, non-scientific measurements to better understand Fake Omaha. I use Streets & Trips, a $40 Microsoft program, to eyeball the “height and width” of various real [urban] areas. A few examples, at its tallest and widest points, the Cincinnati area is 28 miles by 30 miles. Chicagoland is 70 miles by 45 miles. The Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area is about 44 miles by 40 miles (Damascus to Dale City, Dulles to Bowie). Real Omaha is 19 miles by 28 miles. Fake Omaha checks in at 36 miles by 30 miles (Meadowbrook to far south 19th St, Terval Heights to New Raleigh East). So there, Fake Omaha is larger than Real Omaha.
What is easier to find is the size and density of central cities. At one point – and I need to verify this – I calculated that the City of Fake Omaha (not including any suburbs) is about 91 square miles. I figure that the density of Fake Omaha, circa 2000, is somewhere between Pittsburgh (5,626 residents per square mile) and Sacramento (4,668). Let’s use 5,200. That gives the City of Fake Omaha a 2000 population of 473,200. With a new generation of dense, urban development, the density is headed more for the Milwaukee (6,279 people per square mile) to Rochester (5,813) range. I’m expecting a 2010 population of about 546,000.
RG: Why fake “Omaha”? Why not another city? How much does it reflect your home Detroit versus other U.S. cities?
NG: Omaha represents so many averages. It’s not a huge metropolis but it’s not a small town. It has a significant but not spectacular skyline. It’s not a poor city, but it’s not terribly wealthy. It’s in the middle of the continent – a geographical average. In fact, well after I had begun Fake Omaha, I learned that Real Omaha frequently acts as “Test Market USA.” Perfect.
At first, Fake Omaha didn’t have any characteristics especially similar to Omaha, Detroit or any other city. Once I started to pour hours of effort into Fake Omaha, I figured that my hypothetical city may as well have some purpose. That’s when I began to graft real metropolitan issues onto the map.
I’ve been drawing maps since first grade. Since I started, I always had trouble deciding how to focus my energy: map improvements for real places? Or map outright fantasy? The former is more useful, the latter is more fun. Before long, I realized that Fake Omaha presented the perfect balance. I could create my own place, but use it as a laboratory to experiment with real issues. Better yet, it was a great way to address these issues without the usual distractions, politics and stubbornness.
As for Detroit, my frustration with the area is deep and intense. I’m endlessly interested in solving this region’s problems, but the effort is draining. Instead of giving up, I’ve imported Detroit’s problems to Fake Omaha. I will tackle the problems in Fake Omaha using the approaches I’d like to implement in Detroit. Again, the decontextualization will help me to address the problems rather than suffocate in the politics.
RG: I understand you’re naming the streets. Why did you think this was important? How did you decide on street names? How do you hope to present this information in the complete project?
NG:When I originally conceived the project, I always imagined that all the streets would have names. About halfway through the raw mapping phase, I began to question the practicality of that. It meant that every new line I drew needed a name. Once I completed the map, I had already developed a list of 5,100 street names. I decided on a play-it-by-ear approach to naming; I could at least cover part of the region with the list.
Once I started naming, I immediately experienced a whole new dimension of the project. Suddenly, “the spot where that curvy street hits that arch-ish street” became Grandyle Drive & Chaisson Avenue. Every name issued brought the black-and-white paper to life. Lines on paper, that’s a map. Names and features on paper, that’s a place. With about 300 names spent, I concluded that naming was too important to compromise: I’d aim for 95 percent name coverage, with the anonymous streets mostly cul-de-sacs and very short connecting roadways. I began issuing names off the list at the same time that I was expanding it. I’ve set up an Excel spreadsheet which makes that easy. Currently, the street name list stands at 11,766; about 36 percent of those are issued. Of the 17 panels of the map, 10 are mostly covered. However, the remaining panels include denser urban areas, which absorb street names at a different rate than suburban areas. I wanted to finish the suburbs first, thus saving the more exciting central city for last. The only risk in doing that is wasting all the “good names” in forgettable areas. I’ve been careful, though, to save sub-lists of preferred names for certain featured areas.
I drew from a wide variety of sources for the street names themselves. I sifted through my memory for the name of every neighbor, every teacher, every girl I liked, every friend of a friend. I went through a road atlas, and named streets after cities, counties and villages. I looked up the names of plant species, golf courses, saints, constellations, fine wines, baseball players, explorers, physics terms – those all made it to the street index. And of course, no satire of suburbia would be complete without names like “Oak Mill Run” and “Deer Meadow Glen.” With regards to numbered streets, I refrain from using them in most of my works. It feels like cheating. But as part of the aim for realism, many of the north-south streets in the City of Fake Omaha are numbered. Also within the city, I borrowed the Washington, DC convention for east-west streets: higher alphabetically as they radiate from city center, first two syllable names, then three syllable names.
Indexing comprises a major part of the street naming phase. As soon as I completed the raw, nameless mapping, the first move was to grid the entire work (props to my pals Jason Polan, Mara Cazers and Fritz Swanson for helping me). Then, as I issue names, I reference them to a quadrant. Instead of recklessly labeling “Ace Falls Drive” and forgetting where I put it, I tag the name with its quadrant and municipal division. This way, I can look in the index and see “ACE FALLS DR — VE/P34,VE/P35”. When the project is complete, I’ll be able to locate any street in any area. This will be especially useful to show my friends and acquaintances where “their” streets are.
I sometimes use the street names to leave myself hints. For instance, after passing through The Woodlands, Texas, I decided to include a large, remote, self-contained exurb in Fake Omaha. When naming streets there, I labeled one “Fannin Drive.” Fannin is a street in Downtown Houston. I can read “Fannin,” think “Houston,” see “exurb,” and remember what I had in mind for that area of the map.
RG: You’ve said you are seeking to create the most realistic fake city possible. What’s an example of the “realism” reflected in the city plan? Most creators of imaginary cities have created ideal forms, why are you interested in creating something as flawed and idiosyncratic as a real city?
NG: I am something of an idealist – what planner isn’t? My previous maps are far more ideal and far more interesting than Fake Omaha. They feature original street configurations, ample green space, elaborate water crossings, exotic traffic patterns, abundant public transit, and textbook urban design.
Fake Omaha differs considerably from those maps. I’ve sacrificed the “shattered glass” street layouts for a blocky, Northwest Ordinance-style arrangement. On the fringes, there are signs of unchecked sprawl. In the inner suburbs, there are dead malls. In the city, there are clear examples of 1950s-era freeways and urban renewal projects.
Like you mention, real cities are not perfect. They do contain disappointments and mistakes and challenges. For 50 years, millions of people blithely accepted the idea that suburbs would flourish forever and cities would all die. Let us not underestimate the demise of that conventional wisdom. It’s a very exciting time to be involved in planning. Today, we have a unique chance to re-create vibrant, sustainable cities and regions.
That won’t, however, happen in one step. What intrigues me is the transition. How do we come to terms with decades of poor planning? Where do we make the best of existing infrastructure – and where do we have to start from scratch? How do we learn from prior attempts at redevelopment? What do we want our cities and regions to look like in the future? Why is the need to think ahead so obvious to some and so lost on others?
The “flaws” built into Fake Omaha are exercises in dealing with these questions. In transforming our metropolitan areas — particularly stubborn ones like Detroit — we’ll have to face challenging and unpredictable circumstances. It will take a portfolio of small victories before an entire metro area turns the corner. That’s exactly what I’m doing in Fake Omaha. At 60th Street and Fallbrook, what was once a faltering strip mall is now a farmers market. Along Bishop Street and Charlotte Street, neglected four- and five-story buildings are being renovated into mixed-use commercial and residential space, in the same neighborhood that used to bulldoze those very buildings to make a few more parking spaces. Through all of this, the transit system has risen to the forefront: what was formerly a bus service for the poor and the weak has become an undisputable driving force of smarter, more valuable regional development.
RG: I understand you plan to take the city to through several “iterations.” What will types of events will happen in between the iterations to impact the city?
NG: When Fake Omaha leapt from fantasy mapping to fantasy planning, I understood the need to work incrementally. I wanted to start with a stagnant, conservative, intolerant, backwards-thinking metro area. I want to culminate in a diverse, dynamic, cutting-edge metropolitan atmosphere with a future wide-open. The iterations involve describing what the region looks like after each of the steps toward that goal.
The events encompass several different genres. Some regard planning: successful, high-profile examples of good design like those described above pave the way for continued urbanism. Other events are economic: innovators launch programs to promote a more vital regional economy. Some milestones are political: city-suburb bickering eventually reaches a breaking point. Many advances are related to the public dollar: Fake Omaha finally sheds its futile anti-tax mentality and begins to make lucrative public investments; a new wave of private investment follows. Still more events are demographic: spokespeople for black interests and white interests stop pointing the finger at each other, Fake Omaha enjoys tremendous prosperity under a female mayor who’s neither black nor white.
Those are big events. Obviously, none of them “just happen” – they’re all part of one sticky web of interlocking issues. I haven’t figured out how I will set the context or tell the story, but physical changes to the cityscape will accompany each iteration.
An odd part of creating the iterations is placing them on a timeline. That will be the first step, then I suppose I’ll write a narrative. I’m open to include new twists and concepts as the story unfolds.
RG: Some writers have described how it’s possible to “lie” with maps, pointing out their limitations. What type of information are you not able to show in the map? What other materials will you create to flesh out the story of Fake Omaha?
NG: That statement is true absolutely, though the “lies” are not always malicious. My favorite example is a standard street map of San Francisco. On certain parts of the map, you can let winding streets clue you in to hills and mountains. But other parts of the city are just as hilly, and there’s nothing in the street grid to suggest that.
I don’t really have any details to hide in Fake Omaha. If anything, I wish I had tools to map more descriptively. Remember, a map of a real place can only lie so much: the map reader can visit that place and see the reality. Not so in Fake Omaha. It’s not a real place. The closest it comes to “real” is confined completely to my imagination. I can’t call a Fake Omahan to ask what’s in the big open space at the northwest corner of Racetrack Road & Quicksand Road It might be a corporate headquarters campus, it might be a driving range, it might be a landfill. To remember those nuances presents its own challenge.
That’s good news: Fake Omaha provides a blank slate to develop every little detail. I like adventurous dining: I can color a whole neighborhood by placing eclectic dining destinations along the same street. I like concentrations of proactive young people: I’ve designated a few spots for universities and community colleges. Most of all, I like major improvements in levels of transit service: I’ve drawn up specific transit routes and created realistic schedules for them. All of those details came with their own materials: menus, course catalogs, and public timetables.
RG: What’s the relationship between Fake Omaha and your day job as a bus scheduler? What can real-world urban planners learn from the exercise?
NG: As Fake Omaha improves as region, I will use it as an outlet for my pent-up potential as a transit scheduler. At my real job, I manage bus routes that desperately need frequent service. But all we can afford is hourly. I might create similarly underserved routes in Fake Omaha, and then find creative ways to add more service. As that happens, the transit routes become part of the community as much as they’re part of the transit network. As I mentioned before, the steady improvement of the transit system is a cornerstone of regional growth.
But what about the other cornerstones? Education, environment, industry, so on. I’d love to bring in other passionate but frustrated thinkers to adopt a “layer” of Fake Omaha. My interest, of course, is transportation. I will use my ideas to improve that layer. I’d like to include parallel improvements to other layers. For instance, Fake Omaha might start with a troubled public school system. It ends with a dramatically improved system. How did that happen? What were the challenges and how did we overcome them? I don’t know enough about education policy to write that story.
It’s about learning as you go. Each layer involves less-than-ideal circumstances, strong opposition, and complex challenges. The idea is not to ram through major changes in an easy environment. It’s about proving the need for change in a climate adverse to it. It’s about understanding the small steps that eventually add up to big strides. It’s about taking a tiny leap of faith, and imagining what would happen if the ball started rolling.
Photos are courtesy Neil Greenberg. He can be reached at ngmetro at yahoo.com.