Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Students in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning are bringing sustainability to small-town Iowa through an educational outreach project.

Twenty-eight students in the yearlong field problems in planning class are developing sustainability plans for four Eastern Iowa towns: Anamosa, Columbus Junction, Decorah and Wellman.

These second-year master's degree students will serve as consultants to city administrators in the towns, working with them to address each community's respective needs in the areas of economics, the environment, equity and energy.

"This (course) is really our first test bed to see how we can bring small-town sustainability planning to Iowa. That's our commitment as a program, and we're implementing it through field problems," said UI associate professor Paul Hanley, the course instructor.

Wellman city officials want to take advantage of their town's proximity to Iowa City -- 25 miles southwest -- by implementing a sustainable economic plan assuming a regional wind farm is developed in the area.

"This is a great opportunity for the city to receive valuable assistance from graduate students who have the potential to provide much-needed information to help our economic development effort," Wellman City Administrator Dave Ross said. "It's a great way for them to get real-world experience in an area they are pursuing as a career. We're glad to help out in that area."

Meanwhile, Anamosa is focusing on downtown development and deciding what to do with its floodplain. Columbus Junction is seeking advice on a land-use issue after experiencing flooding the last two years. And Decorah is interested in energy sustainability planning.

The educational outreach project supports the UI's sustainability initiative, announced last year by President Sally Mason.

"We want to use this opportunity to help bring sustainable development to communities in Iowa while at the same time providing an important opportunity for our students to enrich their professional education," said Chuck Connerly, director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning.

The students' development plans are screened by UI faculty and city administrators and are consistent with the respective towns' planning aspirations. Teams of seven students make at least eight trips to the site for data collection and meetings with townspeople before producing a professional-quality final report.

"What work they do has to benefit their client. This is not just an academic exercise," Hanley said.

Graduate students in the program study issues such as affordable housing shortages, urban sprawl, neighborhood revitalization and traffic congestion. Areas of specialization include economic development, land use and environmental planning, housing and community development, geographic information systems (GIS), and transportation.

The field problems course has been offered since 1986, and many towns have benefited from having students come to their communities. For example, three years ago, students developed a parks and trails plan for Fairfield. Through their work, the city has received grants through the Iowa Department of Transportation and other trail planning programs.

"This year each project is under the umbrella of sustainability," Hanley said. "We're doing sustainable planning for small towns and small regions, which is kind of a neglected area right now."

The School of Urban and Regional Planning's sustainability initiative was inspired in part by faculty participation in the Faculty Engagement Corps, a program that sends a group of faculty on a three-day tour of one region of Iowa each May to meet with Iowans and discuss the achievements and challenges in their communities.

This year's program focused on sustainability in several small towns in Iowa. Connerly and fellow Urban and Regional Planning faculty member Jim Throgmorton went on the trip.

"When we came back, we realized we needed to help the university meet the sustainability needs of Iowa, especially its small towns," Connerly said.