Practice :: Shifting Thresholds

Shifting Thresholds

Investigating the relationships among people, land, ownership, and development at the city’s edge.

Shifting Thresholds was a multi-faceted approach to understanding the unique landscapes comprising the suburban/ rural edges in the Great Plains. With few natural boundaries (mountains, ocean, forests, etc.) to restrict expansion, growth is propelled by a sense of infinite land resources. The relentless orthogonal grid of the Public Land Survey System of 1785 is the only concrete framework structuring growth. These purely legal boundaries of survey and ownership shape development patterns and form. As a result, development and agriculture co-exist in a continually changing patchwork of ownership and use, where intersecting natural systems become more fractured, truncated, and engineered over time.

Bordered by the city of Omaha and the Missouri and Platte Rivers on three sides, Sarpy County has undergone rapid suburbanization and quickly changing forms of settlement over the last 40 years. Although many family farms have given way to housing and commercial developments, Sarpy County still contains some of the state’s richest soils, a key piece of the I-80 corridor connecting Omaha to the State Capital in Lincoln, rich river floodplain ecologies, and persistent remnants of its agricultural heritage. These attributes are important to the future of the Omaha metro area.

By documenting and visualizing this multi-faceted land history, we can better understand how external factors have shaped the landscape over time, and whether the current stewardship practices remain suitable. Documentation of development from pre-settlement to present was conducted through historical and analytical ownership mapping, aerial photography, driving interviews with suburban residents, farmers, and the development community, and a categorical timeline of generational responses to tax code, agricultural innovations, and familial circumstances. The recorded driving interviews added an additional layer of personal perspective. All documentation then shaped an interactive engagement trailer that traveled around the county, stopping at malls, churches, parades, and other disparate gathering places. All final documents now live at the Sarpy County Historical Museum.

Shifting Thresholds led to several other Emerging Terrain initiatives, including impacts on natural corridors and species endangerment (Migration Station) and the impacts of land trade through tax code resulting from suburbanization (Glacial Shifts).

The following links provide downloads of all Shifting Thresholds material. Documents are very large and take time to download. Use the back button on your browser to return to this page:

1. Project Overview

2. Introductory Maps

3. Ownership Maps Pre-Settlement to 2011

4. Aerial Photography Composite

5. History of Shadow Lake Towne Center Grid Section

6. Interpretive Timeline

7. Interview Transcripts

Watch Interviews Here

And More Interviews Here

Project Partners

Sarpy County Board of Commissioners; Sarpy County Tourism; Sarpy County Historical Society and Museum; Rural Futures Initiative; University of Nebraska-Lincoln, College of Architecture, Community and Regional Planning, and Landscape Architecture.

Driving Interview Participants

Alan Linnen,  Amanda Geezer,  Angie and Jason Lauritsen, Ann Marie Melia Cook, Marilyn Miller,  Barb Mills, Bill Kittner, Bob Dreessen, Bob Ryan, Bruce Fountain, Charles Fricke, Noah Fricke, Dan Bunch, David and Rachel Fraeling, Dean Paulsen, Deb Grayson Reinard, Dee and Keith Barkley, Denny Wilson, Dick Wardel, Ed Shaffer, Gary Garbrandt, Geoff Stewart, Matt Circo, Helen Barber, Jack Round, Jacob Landfer, Jim Miller, Josh Helig, Collin Felthacker, Lyle Johnson, Larry Gold, Loren Johnson, Lorraine Lienemann, Lowell Iske, Man on Tree Board (name withheld),  Mark Scherer, Mark Wayne, Mel Hewit, Mike Mrannigan, Nick Andre, Sarah Learman, Susan Tiffani, Virginia Miller, Wendy Binegno.

Advisors and Contributors

Mark Scherer, Associate Professor, Nebraska and Great Plains Legal & Political History, University of Nebraska-Omaha; Sarah Thomas, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Emily Andersen, Principal, DeOld Andersen Architects;  Sloan Dawson, Planner, Metropolitan Area Planning Agency; David Karle, Associate Professor of Architecture, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Brad Lubben, Agricultural Economist, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Scott Hankins, Real Estate Specialist, Keller Williams Greater Omaha; Ben Justman, Executive Director, Sarpy County Museum; Stuart Chittenden, Public Engagement Specialist; Mark Wayne, Administrator, Sarpy County; Scott Bovick, Deputy Administrator, Sarpy County; Linda Revis, Director, Sarpy County Tourism; Drew Seyl, Master of Architecture Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Design; David Nelson, Transportation Associate, Project for Public Places,; Anthony Campbell, PhD Candidate in Urban Studies, University of Nebraska-Omaha; Bob Trempe, Professor of Architecture, Temple University; Amy Chittenden, Community Volunteer; Tim Trumble, Public Engagement Trailer; Sarpy County GIS Department; RED Development; Jessica Pfeffer, Intern Architect, Studio Outside; Mike Henrichs, Intern Landscape Architect, Olsson and Associates.

Aerial Photography by Alex MacLean

All 253 grid sections of Sarpy County were flown in September 2011. Thank you Alex, we had a stupendous time with you!

Design Fellows Team

A special thanks to 2012 Design Fellows, Sara Lum (Project Lead), Nick Rebeck (Engagement Trailer and Historical Timeline), and Kayla Meyer (Interview and Transcription), for putting all the pieces together in such a communicative way.


Thank you to the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town and the Nebraska Humanities Council for making the project possible.