Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2009 | Features

Sustaining Small-Town Iowa

By Kathryn Howe
UI graduate student planners bring big ideas to local communities.

In the small eastern Iowa town of Anamosa, crowds of people gather one Saturday to enjoy the traditional delights of a pumpkin festival. Among them are several University of Iowa students. They're not here to pick jack-o'-lanterns, though, but for the sake of their master's degrees and the community's future.

As part of a UI educational outreach initiative, 28 graduate students in the urban and regional planning department's yearlong "field problems" course are midway through their promise to deliver workable sustainability plans to four Iowa communities: Anamosa, Columbus Junction, Decorah, and Wellman. Instead of a thesis, the students' capstone achievement will be the completion of this class.

"After this, we unleash them on the world," says UI associate professor Paul Hanley, an affable East Coast native, who oversees the student-led initiative. "Through our real-world exercise, students realize that not everything they've learned in school works neatly in a community or with the people who live there. They get to apply their knowledge and understand the flexibility necessary in solving real problems."

The course began earlier this year in the planning department's home at Jessup Hall, where Hanley devoted the first few weeks to debriefing students on each community's sustainability goals, which request improvements in areas such as economics, energy, and the environment. Each goal presents a particular challenge in the department's four main concentrations: transportation planning, environmental/land use planning, housing/community development, and economic development. Once Hanley presented the towns' needs, students divided into consultant groups based on their interests.

In short, sustainability is responsible progress. It takes the welfare of future generations into account, along with the stewardship of environmental resources. While the UI has offered a field problems course since 1986, it has traditionally addressed just one planning concentration. A few years ago, students focused on transportation issues for the city of Fairfield, developing a new parks and trails plan. Another time, the class collaborated on a neighborhood revitalization project around a local Iowa City school.

This is the first time "field problems" has focused on an umbrella topic like sustainability with all specialty areas represented in some way—coinciding nicely with the university's sustainability priorities outlined by President Sally Mason last year. The innovative approach developed after urban and regional faculty participated in a spring program called the Engagement Corps that sends professors on a three-day tour around Iowa to discuss achievements and obstacles in specific regions. When issues of sustainability in small-town Iowa dominated conversations, faculty realized they could really contribute to these communities' goals. More and more, sustainability is emerging as a 21st century buzzword, but Hanley says it's a concept that's been around throughout urban and regional planning's 100-year history. To the planner, human progress should always take the long-view. Says Hanley: "It's great to see the rest of the world wake up to this idea."

Columbus Junction community development director Mallory Smith is thrilled to take advantage of students' skills and expertise. Coincidentally, just as the UI asked the town to participate in the field problems course, Smith was moving forward on two important long-term projects: a poverty-alleviation program called "Horizons," and a project funded by the national Keep America Beautiful organization to help redevelopment after the 2008 flood. Both projects include sustainable plans for a community center, parks, and recreation amenities, and the revitalization of various neighborhoods, as well as improved access to resources such as medical care.

"The timing is absolutely perfect and the students will make the difference between us muddling through this process and really being able to function in high gear," Smith says. "To build strong working relationships with planners while they are still students is a tremendous thing."

By early October, with their draft proposals complete, the student groups prepared to meet with city leaders to discuss their ideas and, more importantly, how to implement them—knowing their effectiveness will be determined by how well their plans match what the communities actually want. While Hanley meets regularly with the class and serves as a liaison with community leaders, overall, the outcome of the course rests in students' hands. The groups will make at least eight trips to their sites for data collection and local meetings before producing a professional-level report. By May, in order for students to receive a final grade, a plan must be in action.

As far as Smith's town goes, it appears the two projects have merged into one overall concept: Keep Columbus Beautiful. Smith's priority is to get residents in this transient, meatpacking town invested and involved in the process. Students have suggested a series of town hall meetings and events to educate citizens and hear their feedback on ways to address poverty and beautify the city. They'll also host an instructional event on how to develop a successful small business in Columbus Junction.

In Anamosa, city leaders want to revitalize their downtown area, maximize opportunities for sustainable economic development, and exploit ties to the natural environment through potential recreational activities. Wellman hopes to maximize its proximity to the Iowa City-Coralville area to implement a sustainable economic/residential growth plan. Finally, Decorah has charged students with developing a model for energy sustainability, including improved storm water control and refuse removal. Students decided to focus on what each individual home owner can do to improve the energy consumption of the entire community—such as installing energyefficient windows (through possible city-supported programs that encourage weatherization through tax credits).

"Because each member of our group has a different planning concentration, we should be able to help with the issues Decorah is facing," says team member Spencer Schoonover, 09BSE*. "It should be a great learning experience and a preview of what the planning profession is all about. By the end of next spring, I hope we'll be helping the community become a more environmentally friendly and welcoming place to live."

Grad student Molly Fleming, also a member of the Decorah planning group, believes her future career depends on interactive field experiences like this: "Opposition, dissatisfaction, financial roadblocks, and dissonance of values all interfere with the order of a theoretical strategic plan," says Fleming. "When we recognize our own capacities to adapt, to respond to complications with insight and skill, then we move beyond being planning students to actually becoming planners. We need to step outside the theory-box to create action plans, hold community engagement meetings, and personally grapple with the politics."

In previous classes on planning theory, Fleming learned how the decisions of past planners greatly impact life today. She's now discovering that modern planners also wield the power to dramatically influence the quality of life for entire communities. How many lanes on the highway? Where to locate the city dump? How to make available affordable housing that doesn't perpetuate social divides? These decisions prove critical, yet the planning behind them is anything but direct, simple, or even theoretical.

Through this course, Fleming and her colleagues realize that the business of planning communities—like much in life—doesn't always go according to plan.