Nick Benson serves in a number of roles these days, but his favorite is probably matchmaker.
As coordinator of the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities (IISC), Benson is making new connections between the University of Iowa and Iowa communities. “I joke that I’m a matchmaker because I match cities in Iowa with UI professors and students to work on community sustainability issues,” Benson says.
The beginning of the IISC
The IISC, originally founded in 2009 by Charles Connerly, director and professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning in the UI Graduate College, is an effort at the UI to enhance the capacity of Iowa's communities to address the economic, environmental, and social-cultural issues they face today and build a more sustainable future. The effort was prompted in part, says Connerly, by UI President Sally Mason’s declaration on Earth Day 2008 that the university would place its highest priorities on the promotion of sustainability, both on campus and off. Since its founding, graduate students in urban and regional planning have worked with numerous small and medium-sized communities in Iowa to advance sustainability across the state, including past projects in Anamosa, Burlington, Charles City, Columbus Junction, Decorah, Oskaloosa, Wellman, and currently, a two-year project in Dubuque that will culminate at the end of the spring 2013 semester.
Because of the success of these projects and interest from communities across the state, Benson—a Cedar Falls, Iowa, native who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations, a law degree, and a master’s in urban and regional planning from the UI—has been working to expand the program campus-wide and statewide since he began in the position Sept. 1. In his role, he meets with interested partner cities in Iowa to understand what their specific needs are and then connects those needs with UI classes and professors who are teaching and working in those fields of expertise.
“We’re trying to create a civic engagement model on campus that is going to be beneficial for the university and also beneficial for cities in Iowa,” Benson says. “If you think of sustainability as a triangle of economic development, environmental protection, and social-cultural equity and vitality, that means that you involve not just urban planning, but engineering, business, arts, public health, and education, to name a few. They all fall into this larger picture of sustainability. I think the communities are excited about us being able to touch on so many different issues.”
Benson says that the success of the Dubuque project sparked the expansion of the IISC into a campus-wide initiative.
“We recognized that there was a significant community need for help with sustainability and that sustainability is broader than just urban planning,” Benson says. “Because we were successful in Dubuque, other communities in Iowa have been hearing about what we’ve been doing and see that we really can do great work as a public university in the state. It’s a win-win for both parties that are involved.“
We estimated that in the 2011-2012 academic year, just the five groups from urban and regional planning in Dubuque contributed almost 9,000 hours of work to the city alone. If you take that and multiply it by the additional classes and all the other departments across campus, these cities are going to see significant benefits and that also translates into better experiences for more students on campus.”
Connerly says IISC’s work in Dubuque has gotten a lot of attention on campus, both from administration and from other faculty. This makes it much easier for us to start a conversation with a faculty member about doing a class project on sustainability in Muscatine, for example," he says. "More broadly, it means that IISC can be an important leader on campus, in the state, and the nation for broader university-community partnerships.”
The initial expansion
The expanded IISC is already working on three projects this spring.
- The IISC is working with Muscatine's Blue Zones Project leaders to implement two health-related projects this semester. Thirty-five students from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' (CLAS) School of Journalism and Mass Communication's Risk Communication course, taught by Assistant Professor Kajsa Dalrymple, will work to develop communication plans related to Blue Zones objectives such as complete streets, comprehensive smoke-free public areas, community gardens, and Walking School Buses. A second project will involve 12 students from the dietetic internship program in University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics working in six Muscatine restaurants to improve menu nutrition and provide healthier options for patrons.
- In Dubuque, a geoscience class led by CLAS assistant professor Adam Ward is working with the City of Dubuque and the Catfish Creek Watershed Management Authority to do testing on the Catfish Creek Watershed. They will be installing a gauge along a walking path that the public can read and then text in the information to a database that will track data for the watershed.
"Our partnership with the City of Dubuque provides an opportunity for students to apply the skills they are learning in the classroom—including measurement of stream flows, water quality, and habitat quality—to support of watershed management activities in Dubuque,” Ward says. “Engagement of our students with practitioners provides mentoring and exposes students to potential career paths after the university.”
Plans for the future
The IISC recently formalized agreements with four Iowa communities for the 2013-2014 academic year—Muscatine, Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls, and Washington.
- Muscatine's Community Improvement Action Team, currently completing a comprehensive plan, is working alongside the IISC to develop projects that implement the goals and objectives of the plan. These projects will likely include students and faculty from the School of Urban and Regional Planning, the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Tippie College of Business, the College of Engineering, and the College of Public Health.
- Cedar Rapids has done tremendous work to recover and re-develop after the devastating flooding in 2008 that inundated much of the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. The IISC is looking forward to working with community partners such as the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District. UI partners could include the College of Engineering, the Tippie College of Business, the School of Art and Art History, the College of Public Health, and the School of Urban and Regional Planning.
- Cedar Falls was selected as one of the first four Blue Zones demonstration sites in Iowa in 2012. The IISC is partnering with Cedar Falls to help implement Blue Zones objectives. Potential projects include the development and implementation of a comprehensive smoke-free public areas policy and the development of a farm-to-school program for Cedar Falls primary and secondary schools. It is expected that faculty and students from the College of Public Health and the School of Urban and Regional Planning will be involved in this partnership.
- Washington has invested significantly in its community and infrastructure over the last 10 years. Now Washington seeks to build upon these improvements through enhanced marketing, communications, and public relations. The IISC is partnering with the Washington Chamber of Commerce to develop projects that may include market research and development of new marketing materials, a "branding" campaign for the community, and the development of a marquee event celebrating Washington. Students from the Tippie College of Business, including the Marketing Institute, will likely be involved in this project. Also, the Washington Public Library and the School of Library and Information Science in the Graduate College will work on several projects that will revolve around enhancing the children’s and young adults sections of the library.
“Sustainability is an issue that is really coming to the forefront of cities today because they understand that the environment is important, they understand that their bottom line is important, and they understand that they’ve got to provide a livable community for their residents. We can help them do that.
“The IISC reinforces the university's commitment to the public,” Benson says. “We are a public university and it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to take what we’re already doing in classes—professors are already teaching this material, the students are already learning it—and giving them an opportunity to actually make a difference in the community.”