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Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities: Making Use of a Research University’s Greatest Strengths
Since 2009, more than 800 graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Iowa have participated in hands-on sustainability projects as part of the university’s Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities (IISC). What began in the Field Problems graduate course taught by Charles Connerly, professor and director of the university’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, is now a campus-wide initiative. In the 2014–15 academic year, IISC counted 267 students, 11 academic departments, and 50 community partners working on economic, environmental, and social sustainability projects in rural and urban communities across the state. Among the projects that IISC has completed in the past five years are a market study for what is now a successful kayak park in Charles City and a plan for the city of Muscatine that integrates flood control with downtown redevelopment — projects that, due to the cities’ strapped budgets and limited capacities, might not otherwise have been realized.
Applying Academic Strengths to Build Better Communities
The University of Iowa, home to 31,000 students, has a strong research profile. Through IISC, the university is harnessing that research prowess to meet the needs of Iowa communities. Of the state’s 960 cities and towns, only 11 have populations of 50,000 or more. Communities under 15,000 tend to lack planning departments, and the cost of hiring outside consultants can be prohibitive. Nick Benson, IISC’s director, points out that even large cities with greater capacities are facing tight budgets in the current fiscal climate.
The University of Iowa’s other strengths are also a good match for the state’s sustainability challenges. Flooding has been a problem throughout Iowa in recent years, particularly the historic floods in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and other cities in 2008. The university’s IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering is well known for its research on flooding, hydraulics, and water management, says Benson. Flooding is of such concern to local governments that flood control and mitigation are often incorporated into projects that do not specifically focus on flooding, Benson says. For example, redevelopment plans for Wellness Park in Washington included stormwater runoff and flood control facilities, and a plan for downtown redevelopment in Muscatine included flood controls that are slated to be installed in 2016.
A Concentrated Impact
During each of its first two years, IISC worked on projects in a handful of cities. In 2011, Connerly decided to focus IISC’s efforts on a single city in order to increase its impact. So for 4 semesters, 70 students worked in Dubuque, a city that for a decade had devoted resources to transforming itself into a sustainable city. The students completed five wide-ranging projects that provided tools and baseline data that the city has since applied to additional projects. For instance, one class teamed with Cori Burbach, the city’s sustainability coordinator, who works in an office of one. The students developed sustainability metrics based on a review of more than 1,000 sources and indicators in 40 other communities, which Burbach says she would not have had the time to undertake on her own. The project won a 2013 Student Project Award from the American Institute of Certified Planners, and Burbach has used the metrics to create the city’s first report card for the STAR Communities program.
Other students researched and analyzed data on housing, poverty, inequality, and city services with the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. The students’ Portrait of Poverty Study helped inspire Inclusive Dubuque, a network of civic, governmental, faith-based, private, and nonprofit groups committed to making Dubuque more inclusive and equitable. The foundation is also using the data to prepare an equity profile, and the city has used the data for housing initiatives, neighborhood programs, and other projects. Similarly, another student project on local food initiatives resulted in recommendations to food-producers seeking to sell their food locally, suggestions to nearby colleges interested in offering local food on campus, and marketing materials to generate awareness about the availability of locally grown food.
From Field Problems to a Campus-Wide Program
A $91,000 grant from the provost’s office in 2012 enabled IISC to expand its reach beyond the School of Urban and Regional Planning to nine other academic departments, including art history, communications, engineering, law, and public health. Cities approached the campus with potential projects, for which Benson and colleagues sought faculty who might integrate them into their classes.
In 2014, IISC formalized the community selection process by issuing a request for proposals to identify cities and sustainability projects that would extend over two years. Of eight cities that expressed interest, six submitted proposals and three were selected: Sioux City, Iowa City, and Decorah/Winneshiek County. In addition, the participating cities are now paying for IISC’s assistance, which will supplement continued funding from the provost’s office.
University and Community Benefits
Sustainability and community engagement are two goals that have recently become top priorities among the university’s leadership. Within months of her assuming the presidency of the University of Iowa, Sally Mason announced the school’s commitment to sustainability on Earth Day in 2008. Adopted two years later, the university’s strategic plan calls for “Better Futures for Iowans” and focuses on community engagement. IISC’s activities are major contributions to achieving those goals.
IISC offers university faculty fresh alternatives for teaching. “It provides them with a new excitement and a sense of doing something different with their courses,” Benson says. IISC’s projects have also provided opportunities for faculty members to meet their teaching goals. Some professors “believe students should have a really good quality, professional capstone experience,” Connerly says. “The best way to do this is in the real world.”
Students gain new experiences, such as working with local property owners affected by municipal policies and projects. During the Dubuque projects, for example, students ran numerous public meetings to get residents’ opinions about alternative scenarios for developing the city’s South Port waterfront. Laura Carstens, the city’s planning services manager, recalls, “The students learned to think about things from someone else’s perspective,” and those perspectives helped shape the recommendations of the final report.
The students’ work benefits the community, says Eric Dregne, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. In Dubuque, for instance, the students’ Portrait of Poverty Study addressed poverty and inequality across the city. Dubuque has since used the study’s baseline data to inform housing initiatives and neighborhood programs. More generally, these multi-year student efforts unite diverse stakeholders from across the community. Burbach notes that such concentrated activities “create a chance for synergy” that can motivate the community to take decisive action on major projects.
Interview with Nick Benson, IISC director, 9 April 2015; Interview with Charles Connerly, 6 April 2015.×
University of Iowa. 2014. “Research.” Accessed 25 March 2015; Interview with Nick Benson, 9 April 2015; Interview with Charles Connerly, 6 April 2015.×
Interview with Nick Benson, 9 April 2015; U.S. Department of the Interior, Geological Service. 2010. “Floods of May and June 2008 in Iowa,” Open File Report 2010–1096, 1. Accessed 22 April 2015; Colleen Brehm, Yu Chun Chen, Rachel Cortez, John Lodewyck. 2014. “Regional Stormwater Control for Washington, Iowa,” 14. Accessed 22 April 2015.×
Interview with Charles Connerly, 6 April 2015; Interview with Cori Burbach, 8 April 2015.×
Interview with Cori Burbach, 8 April 2015; Interview with Eric Dregne, vice president of strategic initiatives, Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, 28 April 2015.×
Interview with Nick Benson, 9 April 2015; University of Iowa, Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities. n.d. “IISC 2013–2014 Annual Report.” Accessed 6 April 2015.×
Interview with Nick Benson, 9 April 2015.×
Interview with Nick Benson, 9 April 2015; Interview with Charles Connerly, professor and director of the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning, 6 April 2015; University of Iowa. n.d. “Sustainability: Our Vision.” Accessed 25 March 2015; University of Iowa. n.d. “Renewing The Iowa Promise: 'Great Opportunities — Bold Expectations': The Strategic Plan of The University of Iowa, 2010–2016.” Accessed 7 April 2015.×
Interview with Nick Benson, 9 April 2015; Interview with Charles Connerly, 6 April 2015.×
Interview with Laura Carstens, 8 April 2015.×
Interview with Cori Burbach, 8 April 2015; Interview with Eric Dregne, 28 April 2015.×