The Green Column #49

Centennial Mall: The difference between green space
and green, green urban space

June 8, 2011—In 1948, the Journal of the American Institute of Architects polled 500 American architects in an attempt to identify the finest buildings of all time, and Nebraska’s Capitol was ranked fourth on the list, ahead of such monuments as the Parthenon at Athens and the Cathedral at Chartres (France).—John Q. Magie, Historic Sites Curator for the Nebraska State Historical Society, 1970.

In 1968, the Centennial Mall, formerly North and South 15th Street between the Goodhue designed State Capitol on the south and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln at R Street on the north, was opened and dedicated as one piece of Lincoln’s long-awaited landscape recognition of the urban setting originally conceived by Mr. Goodhue. Thanks to the long, dedicated and skilled design efforts of Lawrence A. Enersen, architect and landscape architect, the installation and partial closing of 15th Street became Lincoln’s first downtown “urban green space.”

Urban landscaping of the times called for trees that would frame vistas along long, linear corridors, beds of ornamental plantings, fountains as foreground settings for the important architecture or monuments and contrasting textures of building materials with manicured lawns and grasses. Lincolnites and visitors have had the privilege of enjoying this landscape along Centennial Mall for more than forty years. But now, we know that as this type of landscape grows and changes over time it naturally morphs into space that is impossible to maintain, except at great expense.

Under guidance of the Nebraska Capitol Environs Commission, membered by joint appointees of both State and City government, the Lincoln architectural firm of Clark Enersen has been commissioned to form a design team for new plans for the remaking of Centennial Mall. Plans have been approved, fundraising is underway, and construction will soon begin on Lincoln’s new green, green urban space along the length of Centennial Mall.

Under the design coordination and guidance of Dennis Scheer, landscape architect/partner in the Clark Enersen firm, the plans and designs are being carefully coordinated with the property owners along the mall, including state government, city government, the federal government, the university, businesses, utilities, food service companies, the Children’s Museum, the State Historical Society, and nonprofit agencies.

According to Scheer, the design intent for this retrofit of the Mall is “a sustainable, low-maintenance, but pedestrian and user-friendly urban green space.” THIS design must be handicapped-accessible, energy- and maintenance-efficient, attractive to people and public activities, be respectful of the downtown master plan and urban form of the city, enhance the adjacent buildings and properties, and provide the best setting and vistas for the magnificence of the capitol architecture.

The sustainable features of the new Centennial Mall will be:

Environmental Characteristics   Drought-tolerant and native plants and grasses; pervious paving (water penetrating) walks and ground surfaces to control water runoff, flooding and provision of more natural irrigation of plants and trees; drip irrigation systems for water conservation; water features that do not require pooling of water; tree plantings that will benefit from pervious paving structures for healthier, longer life.

Socio-cultural Characteristics   No steps along the entire length of the mall, totally handicapped- and wheelchair-accessible; events and public gathering accommodations at specific locations (temporary street and walkway closings provisions); theme-oriented cultural/heritage information along the mall; information about Nebraska, people and events; front-yard qualities for the buildings and occupants along east and west edges.

Technologies   Strategically located photovoltaic systems to provide the energy required for lighting, fountain pumps and other maintenance or entertainment equipment; low-maintenance construction materials durable to Lincoln’s seasons and weather stresses; rainwater harvesting installations on some of the adjacent properties for irrigation uses.

Economics   The project is budgeted at $7.5 million for construction and $1.5 million for a maintenance endowment. The financing/fundraising will be accomplished with shared resources from both public and private sources, in accord with the property responsibilities along the mall, together with business, private, and grant funds and donations. At this date more than 50 percent of the funding is either pledged or in-hand.

Public Policies   New coordination and agreements are required for some revisions to City design standards for specific materials and construction conditions. New maintenance agreements will be necessary for long-term sustainability and less cost to public budgets.

Lynn Johnson, Director of Lincoln Parks and Recreation, believes this project will set a new standard for urban green space and urban design standards. He said, “We have learned much from 40-plus years of maintaining the original Centennial Mall, and now the new green and sustainable concepts for conservation-based design will make this space more useable, more maintainable, and less costly over the coming years. We can apply these new lessons in many other projects in Lincoln.”

Susan Larson Rodenburg, campaign organizer/consultant, is directing the fundraising on behalf of the Lincoln Parks Foundation and the City of Lincoln. She said, “We are finding great enthusiasm in Lincoln and across the state for this project. Its sustainability features and its extension of the information and educational opportunities from the Capitol building onto the grounds of the environs is capturing the imagination and appreciation of Nebraska citizens, as well as, corporate and government leaders.”

Lincoln is doing its part to integrate Centennial Mall with the historic importance of the Nebraska Capitol.

More information is available at

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