Jed Moulton – urban design manager for the City of Omaha
What drew you to your particular field?
I’ve always been drawn to very large, messy, complicated problems. Because I’m ultimately an optimist, I feel that through applying yourself to any problem we can come up with solution…I’m equally fascinated with the political process and how the public engagement process is intended to function within the city and that has direct implications as far as the quality and character of your city. The area of urban design is about the livable quality of urban places.
What has changed most over the years in your particular field?
I think what’s changing is the resurgence of the interest in living in urban environments. It’s called the Great Inversion. For 65 or 70 years or so we moved out to the suburbs and now it’s the opposite trend, everybody’s moving back in. It’s not going to be the same city, we do things differently, we have new technology, we have different understanding of how things function, we have new transportation ideas. It’s really the next generation of cities so it’s kind of the forefront of this new livable urban lifestyle that includes places for children and families.
Where do you turn for design inspiration?
You start by looking at older cities and older parts of our city. They were all originally designed and structured for pedestrians…It’s about physical space. Don’t presume that I’m against automobiles, what I’m against is satisfying the spatial requirements for automobiles by sacrificing all the other modes of transportation. The next evolution of a city includes organizing into a systematic whole.
Why do aesthetic qualities matter as much as practical qualities in design?
I think the choice between practicality and aesthetics is a false dichotomy. I think everything we do in terms of pursuing preference is an aesthetic; everything is an aesthetic decision because we are drawn to things we associate with and are attracted to. I think everything is aesthetic and we just have different personal aesthetics.
Specifically to what I do, I don’t focus on style, I focus on form. That’s an important distinction…
What are the benefits of good design?
(With) good urban design, there’s physical health (walkability). There’s also economic benefits; if you actually design better, more compact, denser environments in existing parts of the city you grow the tax revenue pie and your infrastructure costs are much less.
What are the primary influences on design in Omaha?
It’s public, it’s political, it’s regulatory. Your public governance influences (urban design) significantly.
What are some classic examples of good design locally?
Classic examples are the older parts of the city. One interesting example are these little commercial nodes that are there because the streetcars used to run through them.
What are some good examples of contemporary design locally?
A lot of the shopping centers out west, they look the way they do because a lot of time and energy was put into creating them (Midtown Crossing and Aksarben Village).
If Omaha had a design aesthetic, how would you define it?
If Omaha had an urban design aesthetic: grassroots. It starts from the ground up.
Where do you see Omaha’s design aesthetic going?
I think we’re improving and we’re always doing good things.
The challenge I want Omaha to consider is do we want to be followers or do we want to be leaders? I think we’ll improve because everything ultimately comes to Omaha that starts somewhere else, but it takes 15 years. Do we want to continue that or actually show by example what we can do?
How do the different design disciplines interact?
We can do great things in Omaha. Agency coordination is the most significant hurdle.
What do you wish non-designers knew about design?
Cities are the way they are not because of randomness but because of very well-established sets of policies, regulations and practices.