Graduate students in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning have received national recognition for their groundbreaking sustainability project in the city of Dubuque.
The students received the award April 16 at the American Planning Association's (APA) National Planning Conference in Chicago. The American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), the professional institute of the APA, has honored the students with the 2013 Student Project Award for Contribution of Planning to a Contemporary Issue.
The student project—Sustainability Progress Report, 2012—was completed during the 2011-2012 school year as a partnership between the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities (IISC) and the City of Dubuque. IISC is the outreach brand of the School of Urban and Regional Planning.
“This is the highest honor that the American Planning Association and its professional institute, the American Institute of Certified Planners, can bestow on a planning student project. The students should be very proud of their outstanding and nationally-respected work,” says Professor Charles Connerly, director of the UI School of Urban and Regional Planning.
Measurable sustainability indicators
As part of the project, seven graduate students worked with a group of community and municipal leaders in Dubuque to develop a set of 60 specific indicators intended to help the city benchmark and track the progress of its 11 sustainability initiatives. The students examined over 1,200 indicators from 44 indicator systems to help identify these measurements.
In addition to defining metrics, the students worked with the city and its partners to create a model for collecting data, measuring progress, and reporting that progress to the community in an engaging and user-friendly way. To assess Dubuque’s progress on the 60 indicators, students gathered data for the last five years from Dubuque and recent data from four peer cities.
This project is one of the first sustainability indicator studies conducted for a small city in the U.S. The plan includes extensive documentation of how the indicators are measured, including information on how long it takes to collect the data. This feature makes the study highly transferrable to other small- to medium-sized cities.
Sustainability plan encompasses whole city
“This project is important because addressing sustainability at the city level is essential to creating a better future,” says group member Medora Kealy. “To effectively address sustainability, we need to define it clearly, quantify it, and track the progress. It was so rewarding to work on this project, because we were able to work with stakeholders in Dubuque to focus and improve sustainability efforts.”
“The project was successful because the group had effective leaders and all seven students stepped up and did excellent work,” says group member Tim Christensen. “What makes the project award-worthy was our attention to detail in every facet of the project. We looked at hundreds of indicators, talked to dozens of people, and constantly improved and refined our indicators to make sure they were meaningful, measurable, comparable to other cities, and advanced Dubuque’s sustainability goals.
“Moreover, the report has detailed steps on how the measurements can be replicated not only in Dubuque but across the country. The way in which this report can be replicated is what makes this student project a major contribution to the contemporary issue of measuring sustainability.”
Transferring research to real life
The City of Dubuque and the Sustainable Dubuque Collaboration Committee are using the report's recommendations as they begin looking at next steps toward improvements to Dubuque’s sustainability plans.
In June, 2012, the Sustainable City Network hosted a webinar on the project. Over 1,200 individuals registered for the webinar, which was the highest turnout for any webinar hosted by the Sustainable City Network. The audience included planners, elected officials, and others from across the country.
“The Sustainable Dubuque Indicators report created by the University of Iowa students has gained national recognition for its quality, and I have been asked by sustainability directors and communities from across the country to share our work,” says Cori Burbach, sustainable community coordinator for Dubuque, in a letter of support on behalf of the students. “Communities are taking advantage of this resource and avoiding recreating the wheel. The more communities use similar indicators, the more we are able to compare our progress to others and measure regional and national progress towards sustainability.”
Graduate students involved in the project are Christensen, Kealy, Naana Amonoo-Neizer, Emily House, Emma Papworth, Lindsay Salvatore, and Lindsay Whitson. UI faculty members Connerly, Paul Hanley, and Aaron Strong supervised the students.
“The School of Urban and Regional Planning has been doing outstanding work in Dubuque and other communities in recent years, so it’s rewarding to get this kind of national recognition,” Christensen says. “The faculty has raised the bar in terms of what is expected and the students have all responded, and it’s satisfying to see that our hard work will be recognized.”