Why I Support the Proposed School Bond

[Note: This post initially appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on July 27, 2017. Available at: http://www.press-citizen.com/story/opinion/contributors/guest-editorials/2017/07/27/mayor-throgmorton-why-support-school-bond-iowa-city-schools/515108001/ ]

The School District’s Facilities Master Plan (FMP) and proposed bond issue are not perfect. Both of them contain specific elements that any particular individual might reasonably dislike or oppose. When considered as a whole, however, and considering the extensive planning, public engagement, and negotiation that went into development of the FMP, the end result is a remarkable synthesis.

In what follows, I look at that remarkable synthesis as a taxpayer, resident of Iowa City’s North Side, parent of former students at Longfellow and Mann, mayor of Iowa City, and voter in School District elections.

For years, residents of Iowa City rightly complained that the District was using our dollars to fund new schools in nearby cities while failing to maintain and improve in our older schools or build any new ones. By adopting the FMP in 2013, however, the School Board explicitly recognized the importance of investing in Iowa City’s schools.

And it has followed through on that commitment. The School District estimates that the 10-year FMP will cost a total of $347 million. Roughly 54% of this total will have been directed toward our city’s schools if the bond referendum passes.

In the past 3 years alone, the District has invested roughly $76.9 million toward completing major additions and/or improvements at Twain, Lucas, Weber, Hoover, and City High; building two new elementary schools (Alexander and New Hoover); and making additions and upgrades at Longfellow and West.

If enough voters check “yes” on the bond referendum, the District will invest another $111.2 million in Iowa City schools. This will include: major renovations and/or additions at Mann, Lincoln, Shimek, Horn, Grant Wood, Alexander, and Lemme; an addition to Southeast Jr. High; a renovation at West High; and additions and upgrades to City and Tate High Schools.

In my judgment, completion of these planned investments is absolutely necessary to ensure the long-term viability of Iowa City’s older neighborhoods and to accommodate population growth in newer parts of the city.

Moreover, I think that very few of the planned investments will be made if at least 60% of the voters do not vote “yes” on the referendum. Much to our regret, we will find ourselves returning to the days of fighting over the District’s much more limited dollars.

Some opponents emphasize the magnitude of the bond issue. I agree that it won’t be trivial. The District estimates that paying off the bonds will require a property tax increase of 98 cents per $1,000 in assessed home valuation. But what this really means is that property taxpayers in Coralville, North Liberty, Iowa City, and other parts of the School District will be investing in our children, our schools, our neighborhoods, and our cities.

For Iowa City taxpayers, this increase in the School District’s property tax levy will be partially offset by a reduction in the City’s levy. When Iowa City’s Council adopted the City’s Fiscal Year 2017-18 budget, it reduced the City’s property tax levy rate by 25 cents per $1,000 in assessed value. Since FY 2012, this constitutes a $1.51 per $1,000 reduction in the City’s property tax levy.

I also recognize that some Iowa Citians (many of whom are good friends of mine) are dismayed that the FMP calls for closing Hoover Elementary without clearly indicating how that site would be used in the future. If the bond referendum passes, I would like to see District officials work with Hoover and City High neighbors to develop and refine 3 or 4 alternative plans for City High’s use of the Hoover site. The process could be modeled after the one that has recently been used to decide how to improve Mann Elementary. I would be eager to assist in this process.

For these and many other reasons, I will be voting an enthusiastic “yes” on September 12 for our students, for our schools, for our neighborhoods, for Iowa City, and for our School District.

Jim Throgmorton is Mayor of Iowa City. This column represents his personal opinions and not necessarily those of Iowa City government.

Posted in Iowa City, Newspaper columns | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Paradise in the Wreckage of War

[Note: This post is a slightly modified version of “Paradise in the Wreckage of War,” Iowa City Press-Citizen (May 13, 2017), p. 7A.]

On April 25-29, Chris Merrill of the U. of Iowa’s International Writing Program and I were in Baghdad, Iraq, attending that city’s Festival of Flowers. We made this trip after receiving a surprise invitation from Baghdad’s first female mayor, Dr. Thikra Alwash, and the Director of Baghdad City of Literature, Sadek Mohammed. I can’t begin to convey what an extraordinary experience this was, but I do want to share some highlights with you.

Mayor Alwash has a very difficult job, one that is vastly harder than mine. Her city has been devastated by two invasions, a decade-long trade embargo, and violent internal conflict. But her city has been bouncing back from those traumas and now shows significant signs of recovery. That Dr. Alwash has been appointed mayor might be one of those signs.

We could see evidence of devastation almost everywhere we looked: destroyed buildings, roadways bordered by concrete barriers, pervasive security checkpoints, horrendously congested traffic, and streets lined with posters of “martyrs” who have died fighting against ISIS.

But Baghdad is also a city in which life and hope survive. This we felt in the warmth and generosity shown to us by Mayor Alwash and her staff, Sadek Mohammed, Sheik Ibrahim Hawash, and many ordinary Baghdadis. We saw it during our guided tour of the Iraq National Museum – officially reopened in 2015 after being looted immediately after the 2003 invasion – and its stunning array of archaeological artifacts extending back 5,000 years. We could almost touch it during our guided walk through dense crowds of ordinary Baghdadis on “Booksellers Street” and other parts of old Baghdad. And we heard it in the voices and tones of the traditional Baghdadi singers and musicians we witnessed in the Baghdad City Museum.

Unquestionably for me, the high point of our visit was attending the Festival of Flowers’ opening ceremony in the Garden of Ridvan on the banks of the Tigris River. There – surrounded by the wreckage of war – we joined a few thousand Baghdadis (including small children) in walking around, hearing music, seeing fireworks, admiring beautifully designed flower gardens, and visiting an array of booths in which various kinds of handmade art were displayed.

At one point during the festival, Sadek introduced us to a young man named Ahmed Raheem Kadhim whose dream is to visit the U. S. and learn how to become a jazz saxophonist. We asked him to play for us, which he did with friends and news media photographing him. You should have seen the joy in his face!

I awoke the next morning thinking that, in relation to the surrounding wreckage of war, the festival in the park felt like an earthly paradise. It signaled that recovery was taking place and that Baghdadis were experiencing a rebirth of hope and wonder.

But as we were speeding back in an SUV to our tightly guarded Hotel Babylon the following night, and just after Chris Merrill said “We could be driving down any street in the world,” a massive car bomb exploded at the entrance to a police station maybe 500 meters to our left. With ISIS later claiming responsibility for the deaths of 4 and wounding of 8 that it caused, this explosion clearly asserted that Baghdad is not yet free of violent sectarian conflict.

Why is Baghdad so damaged? What role have we Americans played in producing and continuing that damage? What should we in America do now? I pondered those questions while in Baghdad, partly because I was just finishing Andrew Bacevich’s 2016 prize-winning book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East.

Bacevich reviews America’s military involvement in the Middle East from the early 1970s through 2015. He tells a tale of the U. S.’s effort to, initially, ensure unimpeded access to Persian Gulf oil, and, later, to use our country’s military power to maintain America’s privileged position in the global order. With considerable credibility, Bacevich claims the effort has failed abysmally and future efforts to impose order militarily are unlikely to succeed and might well make things worse.

Rather, he argues the War for the Greater Middle East is “a diversion that Americans can ill afford…[W[hether the United States is able to shape the Greater Middle East will matter less than whether it can reshape itself, restoring effectiveness to self-government, providing for sustainable and equitable prosperity, and extracting from a vastly diverse culture something to hold in common of greater moment than shallow digital enthusiasms and the worship of celebrity” (p. 370).

For me at least, Bacevich’s message was clear: for Mayor Alwash to succeed in Baghdad, we need to repair our own house.

Posted in Baghdad, Newspaper columns | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

[Note: This is the text of a State of the City speech I delivered at a formal meeting of the Iowa City City Council on February 21, 2017.]

Good evening, friends. It’s my great honor to present this year’s State of the City address.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way”.

Although Charles Dickens wrote those words for a different place and time, they resonate with our experience in 2016. We had a year filled with good news and great progress, but also a year that ended with an array of traumatic challenges.

Let’s first celebrate the best of the year, beginning with quick overview.

Iowa City has been experiencing an unprecedented construction boom.

It has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country at 2.4%, just half the national average.

The City’s property tax levy declined for the 5th straight year while the City also maintained its Aaa Moody’s bond rating.

The city’s cultural core continued to pulse with life due primarily to the University, the Englert, the City of Literature, Film Scene, the Summer of the Arts, the Juneteenth and Pride Festivals, and many others.

And the city continued to be blessed with thousands of residents who strongly believe in the value of democratic governance, and who enact that belief by serving on our many boards and commissions and by participating in a broad array of not-for-profit organizations including the League of Women Voters, Friends of Historic Preservation, the Chamber of Commerce, the Center for Worker Justice, Shelter House, the Downtown District, the Rotary Club, the Affordable Housing Coalition, and many others.

Your City Council and staff have also been very productive.

We adopted a new Strategic Plan. It established seven priority areas of action, which collectively intend to foster a more inclusive, just, and sustainable city. While we still have quite a way to go, I am very pleased with what we have accomplished so far.

The first Priority calls for the City to “promote a strong and resilient economy.” I am happy to report that the city has witnessed a tremendous amount of new construction over the past year. In 2016, 794 building permits were issued at a total value of slightly over $388M. This reflects a very big jump over 2015 when 645 permits valued at $138M were issued. The University opened its new Hancher Auditorium, Voxman Music Building, Art Building, and will soon open the Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Construction of The Rise at Linn and Court, the Hilton Garden Inn, The Chauncey, several projects in the Riverfront Crossings District, and many other smaller but important projects is well underway. The School District’s new Alexander Elementary school completed its first full year, and the new Hoover Elementary is not far behind. The completed 1st Avenue grade separation project is proving to be a resounding success. Major improvements to Washington St. downtown were all but finished, and substantial progress was made on the flood-related Gateway Project and new Park Road bridge.

As part of this effort to ensure our local economy remains strong and resilient, we have also been working with the County to strengthen the local food sector. By providing additional community garden space, holding nutrition education programs in local neighborhood parks, and supplementing the Farmer’s Market effort to “Double Up Food Bucks,” we are introducing local fresh foods to a new audience. And, as many of you remember, last summer’s “Farm to Street” dinner with locally-grown dishes prepared by local chefs was a delightful way to spend an evening.

Additionally, we have taken major steps toward updating our economic development and Tax Increment Financing policies. One update requires that 15% of residential units must be affordable in any new project that requests TIF support. After receiving advice from over 60 diverse stakeholders, we are also very close to recommending other specific changes to our TIF policies.

Priority 2 encourages “building a vibrant and walkable urban core,” and Priority 3 seeks to “foster healthy neighborhoods throughout the city.” Last year the City hosted nationally-recognized experts such as Jeff Speck and Jay Walljasper to facilitate discussions about best practices for community design and walkable cities. And we hired a nationally respected urban design firm headed by Dan Parolak to help us prepare new development standards for the Northside and Alexander Elementary neighborhoods.

We also took major steps towards improving the bicycling and pedestrian experience. We set a goal of raising our bike-friendly status from silver to gold by the end of this year and ultimately achieving platinum status. We began updating the City’s Bicycle Master Plan so that we could expand our systems, increase accessibility, and ensure that traveling within and between neighborhoods is safe and easy. Street projects such as the ones on 1st Avenue and S. Sycamore included substantially improved infrastructure for bicycling. And let’s not forget the hugely successful UCI Cyclo-Cross World Cup race, which was held here last September and televised internationally.

To foster healthy neighborhoods throughout the city, we have also been making major investments in our neighborhood and community parks. These investments include playground installations and improvements at Highland and Mercer Parks, along with ones planned for Cardigan, Frauenholtz-Miller and Pleasant Hill Parks this spring. The Parks Department and Parks & Recreation Commission completed their Master Park Plan, which also addresses ADA accessibility at park facilities. The City’s first tree inventory is underway. It will help us sustain and develop our urban forest and be more strategic in responding to the Emerald Ash Borer infestation.

Priority 4 seeks to “maintain a solid financial foundation” for the City’s operations. The very good news is that our Aaa bond rating continues, and that the City is secure enough financially for our proposed FY18 Budget to reduce the City’s property tax levy for the 6th straight year, this time by 25 cents.

We have also been increasing our emergency fund so that we can respond effectively to natural disasters and periods of financial distress. We are acutely aware that the State Legislature might eliminate promised “backfill” payments for commercial and industrial property tax cuts enacted in 2013. Preparing for this possibility enables us to avoid or alleviate possible adverse impacts, such as service cuts or increases in the tax levy.

Our 5th Priority is to “Enhance Community Engagement and Intergovernmental Relations.” We have tried very hard to improve collaborative relationships with other local governments, and we have improved our ability to connect with diverse parts of the Iowa City community. As part of this effort, City Councilors conducted 5 listening posts in diverse parts of the city, and I took 5 “Mayor’s Walks” through our city’s neighborhoods. Our City staff dramatically improved its public outreach efforts through Cable Channel 4 and other media, including televising Council work sessions. And we hired a new Community Outreach Officer in the Police Department.

The 6th Priority, “promoting environmental sustainability,” is woven throughout our Strategic Plan. In addition to the bike amenities and plans mentioned earlier, City staff put on a Monarch butterfly festival and various educational conservation programs, created an edible classroom with Backyard Abundance, and introduced improvements to the City’s recycling and solid waste programs. For the first time, the Parks and Recreation Department gave itself a “Million Gallon Challenge” to conserve water, and we exceeded the goal by saving over 1.5 million gallons. Staff also integrated the STAR Community Rating program into the City’s Budget, which allows us to quickly analyze our status with regard to specific sustainability measures.

We also initiated an ambitious Climate Action and Adaptation Planning effort by taking three steps: first, we adopted the challenging goals of reducing carbon emissions 26% by 2026 and 80% by 2050; second, we are on the verge of hiring a consultant to advise us about how we can achieve those goals; and, third, we created a Climate Action Plan Steering Committee, which will play a major role in building community support for key climate-related actions.

Not many issues have gained more attention recently than the concerns of social justice and racial equity. These concerns are the subject of our 7th Priority.

To promote social justice and respond to the pressures our residents feel in finding housing they can afford, we approved a comprehensive Affordable Housing Action Plan. This Action Plan intends to improve the overall affordability of housing in the city, to increase the supply of housing that low-to-moderate income households can afford, and to help the School District achieve better socio-economic balance among its schools. City staff issued construction permits for 1,080 new dwelling units. We adopted a new “Inclusionary Housing” ordinance for the Riverfront Crossings District, and we adopted an ordinance which will facilitate establishment of a new “Housing First” facility for chronically homeless individuals. We allocated $500K to the Johnson County Housing Trust Fund. We also authorized transition payments for former tenants of Rose Oaks Apartments who had been displaced unexpectedly by the new owner’s desire to renovate that complex. Through various measures, not only are we diversifying affordable housing geographically but also by housing type.

In addition to these housing affordability efforts, we also initiated use of a Racial and Socioeconomic Equity Toolkit within five City departments on a one-year trial basis, and we empowered our Human Rights Commission to recommend how to allocate funds contained in our new Social Justice and Racial Equity Grant Program.

Our Police Department hired a new Community Outreach Officer and three new black officers. This will improve the Department’s ability to serve and protect the city’s diverse neighborhoods and ensure that our city remains a safe and welcoming place for all its residents. Furthermore, having recently hired a new Police Chief, we can now respond more fully to disproportionality in police contacts and arrests.

Considered as a whole, this set of 7 priorities constitutes a pretty ambitious agenda. Achieving them requires that we provide sufficient resources through our budgeting process.  Tonight, we will be setting the date for a public hearing on our proposed budget for FY18 and our 5-year Capital Improvements Program.

In addition to reducing the City’s property tax levy by 25 cents, the proposed budget allocates $650K to the Affordable Housing Fund, and provides funds to restore parts of the Englert Theater and to preserve elements of Film Scene’s existing operation. It provides funds to compete work on developing Form Based Codes for the Northside and Alexander neighborhoods. It provides funds to conduct an Emerald Ash Borer Response Plan and to improve our neighborhood parks. It continues the very successful UniverCity program with up to 5 new units per year. It assigns $150K for complete street improvements, and increases the annual pavement rehabilitation budget to $1.5M. And, of course, the Budget provides funds to complete work on the Gateway Project

Due to the success of new programs this year, the proposed budget also increases funding in several areas, including from $100K to $150K for carbon emission reduction projects, from $25K to $30K for a local foods project, and $40K for a new residential historic preservation assistance program. The Capital Improvements Program also includes funds for streetscape improvements and a tunnel for pedestrians along S. Riverside Dr., further development of Riverfront Crossings Park, reconfiguring the intersection of Clinton and Burlington Streets, and converting part of Clinton St. to a 3-lane street with bike lanes. In 2018, we will begin work on Phase I of a new public works facility on Sand Road, and will begin making important incremental changes to downtown’s Pedestrian Mall.

Let me turn now to the second half of the Dickens quotation.

In a January 2016 op-ed for The Gazette, I wrote, “we are not completely the masters of our own fate. We will encounter unexpected events.” Sure enough, we have had to respond to several such events, including the departures of our City Manager, Police Chief, and City Clerk. The good news is that we were able to hire an a truly outstanding young City Manager, an impressive new Chief of Police, a terrific new Assistant City Manager and Director of Parks & Recreation, and to recruit a highly-respected individual to become our next City Clerk.

But the political context for our work will be quite different in 2017.

Few observers anticipated the outcome of last November’s election. That election consolidated political control in the hands of one political party, the priorities of which are quite different from those of our Council. Consequently, we must adjust to new realities without losing our moral compass.

Already we have seen the new President issue an array of executive orders concerning immigration and refugees that undermine the values that have made Iowa City such a great place to live: openness, diversity, inclusivity and creativity. Thousands of immigrants, refugees, non-Christians, and others are especially at risk, and we stand in solidarity with them.

Already we have seen the State Legislature approve new legislation that tramples upon the long-established rights of public employees to have a say in their working conditions. Hundreds of dedicated men and women work hard for the people of our city, and we fully support them.

No doubt there will be more executive orders and legislation that run directly counter to our objectives. Despite this somewhat discouraging prediction, I take heart in the ability of our Council and staff to carefully weigh options before us, adjust quickly to adverse circumstances and unexpected opportunities, and do what is best for the people of Iowa City.

But we cannot do this alone. We will need help from all of you, especially with regard to protecting the most vulnerable of our residents. Acting together, we can—and will—ensure that this city we love continues to thrive long into the future.

Thank you.

Posted in Iowa City, sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Governing for Inclusivity, Justice, and Sustainability

[Note: This post is a lengthier version of “Governing for Inclusivity, Justice, and Sustainability, ” The Gazette (January 1, 2017), p. _.]

In a guest opinion for The Gazette last January, I wrote, “First you campaign and then, if elected, you have to govern.…The four people who were elected to Iowa City’s City Council on November 3 [2015] campaigned on themes orienting around the idea of creating an inclusive, just, and healthy city.…But what actually gets adopted and what City government actually does in 2016 will affected by the context provided by Iowa City’s Council-Manager form of government and the existing set of City policies, codes, budgets, plans, and personnel. Very little of this context can or will be changed overnight.…Change will instead proceed incrementally…in a way that builds on what is already great about Iowa City but also leads in a creative new direction.…”

So, what has Iowa City’s City Council accomplished over the past year? And what do we hope to accomplish in the coming one?

A Very Productive 2016

We have had a very busy and productive year. The most significant actions include the following:

We adopted a new Strategic Plan, which highlighted actions we would take to forge a city that is inclusive, just, and sustainable.

We amended the City Manager’s proposed FY17 budget to make it incrementally more consistent with our Strategic Plan. The budget also reduced the City’s property tax levy for the 5th straight year, this time by 7 cents, while also maintaining the City’s AAA Moody’s bond rating.

We responded to the departure of Tom Markus by hiring a truly outstanding young man, Geoff Fruin, as our new City Manager. Geoff later hired an outstanding young woman, Ashley Monroe, as our new Asst. City Manager.

We began televising our work sessions and Economic Development Committee meetings to be more transparent about how City government works.

We conducted 5 listening posts in diverse parts of the city, and I conducted 5 “Mayor’s Walks” through our city’s neighborhoods.

We recently initiated a search for a new City Clerk to replace the irreplaceable Marian Karr.

We approved a comprehensive Affordable Housing Action Plan to improve the overall affordability of housing in the city, to increase the supply of housing that lower income households can afford, and to help the School District achieve better socio-economic balance within its schools.

We amended the City’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) policy to require that 15% of units in new developments that request TIF assistance must be affordable, and, with the help over 60 individuals representing diverse interests, have nearly completed a rigorous review of our overall TIF policy.

We adopted a new “Inclusionary Housing” ordinance for the Riverfront Crossings District, and we adopted an ordinance which will facilitate establishment of a new “Housing First” facility for chronically homeless individuals.

We provided transition payments to former tenants of Rose Oaks Apartments who were displaced by the new owner’s desire to renovate that complex.

We initiated use of a Racial and Socioeconomic Equity Toolkit within five City departments on a one-year trial basis, and we created a new Social Justice and Racial Equity Grant Program, which will be administered by the Human Rights Commission.

We responded to the retirement of Police Chief Sam Hargadine by approving the City Manager’s recommendation to hire Jody Matherly.

We strengthened the Police Department’s ability to serve and protect the city’s diverse neighborhoods by hiring a new Community Outreach Officer and three new black officers.

Our Police Department responded very skillfully to an alleged hate crime.

We approved the hiring of a consultant to help us begin devising new “Form Based Codes”—which will help us ensure that new or infill developments are inclusive, affordable, walkable, and compatible with existing surroundings—for the Northside neighborhood and the area around Alexander Elementary.

We took major steps toward making Iowa City a Gold Bike Friendly City. This will be facilitated by the hiring of a consultant to help update the City’s Bicycle Master Plan, and we authorized the staff to convert parts of Mormon Trek, 1st Avenue, Madison, and Clinton Streets to 3 lanes with bike lanes on both sides.

We adopted a new ordinance requiring multi-family units to include recycling facilities, and to begin collecting household organic wastes at the curbside.

We initiated an inventory of trees on city property, which will help us be more strategic with our tree planting efforts in light of the Emerald Ash Borer infestation.

We hired consultants to help us update our Parks Master Plan and prepare a new Natural Areas Master Plan, and we approved plans for the development of Frauenholtz-Miller Park on the east side of town near St. Patrick’s Church.

We adopted a goal for reducing city-wide carbon emissions, and are very close to hiring a consultant and appointing a community-based advisory committee to help us determine how to achieve that goal.

We helped celebrate completion of the University’s new Hancher Auditorium, Voxman Music Building, Visual Arts Building, and (almost) Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

We have almost finished construction of the 1st Avenue railroad overpass and the reconstruction of two blocks of Washington St, and are on schedule toward building the new Park Rd. bridge and reconstructing/elevating N. Dubuque St.

We have supported a tremendous amount of construction, including “The Rise at Linn and Court,” the Hilton Garden Inn on Clinton St., townhouses and a new parking structure on S. Dubuqe St, and many other locations; we supported a Workforce Housing Tax Credit application for a proposed 7-story building at 7 N. Linn St., and we have been honoring the prior Council’s contractual commitments to “The Chauncey” on College and Gilbert Sts.

We rezoned a significant stretch of the west side of S. Gilbert St to a new zoning designation that is consistent with our Riverfront Crossings District Plan, and we supported Big Grove Brewery’s renovation and reuse of a building within that stretch.

We adopted a new storefront design and signage ordinance for the downtown.

We co-sponsored an enormously successful UCI World Cup Cyclo-Cross Race.

We extended MidAmerican’s gas and electric power franchises for another 10 years.

And we adopted an ordinance permitting companies like Uber to operate in Iowa City.

 Looking ahead

Looking ahead to the coming year, we plan to proceed step-by-step toward fulfilling our Strategic Plan priorities. Key elements of our Affordable Housing Action Plan will be enacted. We’ll work with the City Manager and new Police Chief to reduce disproportionality in traffic stops, searches, and arrests. We will work with other key stakeholders to provide homeless people with stabilization and recovery services in a single “Access Center.” With the help of a consultant and a community-based advisory committee, we will determine how best to achieve our carbon emission reduction goal. Several major development projects will be (or nearly be) completed, and we expect to see several major new development proposals come our way. We look forward to working with the developers and the public to ensure that their projects will serve Iowa City well.

But the political context for our work will be quite different in 2017. In my January 2016 op-ed, I wrote, “we are not completely the masters of our own fate. We will encounter unexpected events.” Sure enough, just such an event took place on November 8. The shift in political control produced by that election will present us with major challenges over the coming year. Like former heavyweight boxing champ Mohammad Ali, we’ll have to be nimble on our feet, adjusting quickly to adverse circumstances and unexpected opportunities as they arise. And we will need the help of this beautiful and diverse community of which we are a part, especially with regard to protecting the most vulnerable of our residents.

Posted in Iowa City, Newspaper columns, planning theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Statement Supporting a Diverse and Safe Community

[NOTE: What follows is a public statement I made as Mayor on behalf of the City Council of Iowa City. It was issued as a press release on November 17, 2016.]

Over the past week, a number of intimidating acts have been directed toward definable groups of Iowa Citians. Monday’s incident involving an intimidating message being posted on the door of a Sudanese family exemplifies the point. As a result of this and related acts, many residents are feeling increasingly fearful and threatened.

We on the City Council understand that Iowa City residents have strong feelings about the results of the November 8 election. Some Iowa Citians are feeling profoundly shocked and grief-stricken; others are feeling pleased.

Thoughtful and respectful dialogue and debate about controversial issues is appropriate. It is part of the democratic spirit of engagement that has long been part of life in Iowa City.

Verbal and physical acts that threaten or intimidate people with whom one disagrees are not part of our culture. They do not reflect who we are.

We celebrate our community’s diversity, and we welcome all residents who live here, regardless of their national origin, color, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

We are committed to our City Charter, the human rights provisions of our City Code, and the provisions of the U. S. Constitution that protect civil liberties and provide equal protection under the law.

We strongly condemn any political rhetoric, regardless of viewpoint, that involves threatening or intimidating language.

We strongly condemn any actions that involve the threat or fact of physical harm to others.

On behalf of the City Council, I urge every member of our community to uphold our shared values of compassion, inclusion, respect, and dignity, and to continue building an environment in which everyone is valued and everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Posted in Iowa City | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Berlin in America

[Note: This is a short unpublished paper I wrote in 2002. It related to a “Berlin in America” symposium I had organized at the University of Iowa concerning the interrelationship between urban public spaces and the long-term sustainability of democracy. Although now quite dated in some ways, the themes and concerns it addresses seem no less significant now.]

In Billy Wilder’s 1948 film, A Foreign Affair, a Congressional committee flies into war-ravaged Berlin seeking to assess the morale of the American occupying force. One of them, a Republican Congresswoman from Iowa, finds herself becoming romantically involved with a Captain in the U. S. Army, who in turn is romantically involved with a former Nazi entertainer (played by Marlene Dietrich). At one point, Dietrich’s character plies the Congresswoman with one too many drinks, and the inebriated politician begins leading a cabaret crowd into singing, of all things, “Ioway, Ioway, state of all the land, joy on every hand. We are from Ioway, Ioway. That’s where the tall corn grows. Everybody sing.” It was Iowa in Berlin.

On June 21 and 22 of this year [2002], an interdisciplinary group of scholars also sang “Ioway, Ioway.” They sang it, not at a cabaret in Berlin, but in the Jefferson Building in downtown Iowa City midway through a “Berlin in America” symposium I had organized. And they sang it, not as Americans in Berlin, but (with one exception) as Americans who sought to discuss the relationship between urban public spaces and the long-term viability of democracy. They did so by looking at U. S. cities through the “lens” provided by Berlin. It was Berlin in Iowa.

As a professor of urban planning and a former elected city councilor in Iowa City, I already had a keen interest in the sustainability of American cities. Conducting a “sustainable cities” study abroad course in 1998 and participating in a 1999 German Studies Seminar sponsored by the Fulbright Commission had deepened my interest. Both of these activities led me to suspect that the sustainability of democracy itself was tightly linked to the physical design of urban places. And then I made two lengthy visits to Berlin in 2000 and 2001. There I found a city of unintended ugly beauty, a city filled with ghosts, a city whose built environment almost literally groaned under the burden of painful memories.

Walking amid the ghosts in Hackesche Markt, in the Tiergarten, along Oranienburger Strasse, in Potsdamer Platz, and along Karl-Marx-Allee, I continually encountered juxtapositions of the old and the new, the renovating and the deteriorating, the ugly and the beautiful, the joyous and the horrific. Time and again I saw Ossis and Wessis (former east and west Berliners), Muslim Turks, foreign tourists, migrants from the former Soviet Union, global investors, and a range of familiar and unfamiliar strangers mixing with one another, with varying degrees of comfort and security. The more I walked, and the more I saw and read, the more confident I became that Berlin had something important to tell us about the relationship between physical design and democracy. I started envisioning a symposium that would give an interdisciplinary group of scholars, all knowledgeable about Berlin, a chance to probe that relationship. A major projects grant from the U. of Iowa’s Office of International Programs made it possible. The scholars made it come alive.

At the outset of the symposium I argued that Berlin helps us understand that, if we want to sustain a vital democracy in the U. S., we need to simultaneously design inclusive places and construct inclusive processes.

Consider any one urban place you know well, whether in Berlin, in the U. S., or elsewhere. What does it mean to be connected to that place? Surely it means, in part, thinking of it as home. It means feeling an emotional attachment to the house in which you live, to the familiar surroundings of your neighborhood, and – with decreasing intimacy – to your city, your region, and perhaps even larger areas. But as literary critic Lawrence Buell observes, there are at least four other ways of being connected to a place.

One type of connection might be thought of as a scattergram or archipelago of locales, some quite remote from one another. “Tenticular radiations” connect your home to those other locales. Think, for example, of the electric power transmission lines that lead away from your home, of the carbon dioxide that billows from your car’s tail pipe, or of products you use that are fabricated in distant places.

Places also have histories and are constantly changing. These changes superimpose upon the visible surface an unseen layer of usage, memory, and significance. In almost every place, some people display an acute awareness of this invisible layer. But whose “unseen layer” should be remembered, and how should that memory be embodied in the built environment?

A fourth type of connection derives from the fact that people are constantly moving into or departing from places. Thus any one place contains its residents’ accumulated or composite memories of all places that have been significant to them over time. When Muslim Turks move to Kreuzberg or Prenzlauer Berg, or when migrants from Central America move to Iowa, they bring with them memories of those other places.

Lastly, fictive or virtual places can also matter. Past imagined places such as Ludwig Hilberseimer’s 1924 Hochhausstadt (skyscraper city), Albert Speer’s Germania, the cacatopian cityscape of the film Bladerunner, and many others have influenced thought and action, for good and for bad.

These five dimensions combine in diverse ways for diverse users. Consequently, as American studies scholar Carlo Rotella puts it in October Cities, urban dwellers live in diverse “cities of feeling” as they traverse through the “city of fact.”

To gain a deeper understanding of the connection between these diverse cities of feeling (democracy) and the design of urban places (the city of fact), it is helpful to focus on the concentric areas of affiliation which begin in one’s home and neighborhood. One could view such a place purely in physical terms as, for example, the coalition of architects, planners, and others known in the U.S. as the New Urbanists tend to do.

Over the past decade or so, the New Urbanists have been having brilliant success in arguing that we should transform American cities into a more compact and diverse pedestrian-friendly form that facilitates face-to-face community. Indeed, many of them claim that a sense of community cannot emerge without physical places where people can come together. It cannot emerge, they would say, in east Berlin’s Marzahn district, which lacks well-designed public spaces and is designed only to house large numbers of workers and transport them efficiently to and from their sites of labor. But it can emerge, they would say, in a well-designed place like Kirchsteigfeld, a new development located near Potsdam just outside of Berlin. They imply that a well-designed public realm of streets, squares, and parks will, by itself, engender a harmonious community. To state their claim most baldly, cities construct people.

Their focus on physical design blinds these New Urbanists to the four other dimensions of place and the cities of feeling associated with them. Design of the built environment does indeed structure human interaction and shape public realm social life. But, as sociologists like Lyn Lofland argue, the physical design of a public space (of the new Marlene Dietrich Platz in Berlin, for example) cannot determine precisely who will use that space, what they will do there, or who they will talk with while in it. Nor, I would argue, can it determine how the actual users of a place will redesign the place over time. If one draws on this kind of sociological research, one is likely to conclude that people construct cities.

Many people in the U.S. actively dislike, indeed fear, the very kinds of encounters that could be facilitated by New Urbanist designs. In the U. S. at least, such people worry that the public realm contains the wrong kind of people who don’t behave properly. In their view, the public realm should be avoided or cleansed. Moreover, such people often find the uncontrolled character of mingling within the public realm to be especially noxious or politically threatening. As I can attest from my prior experience as an elected councilor, such people express their dislike, fear and loathing of unfamiliar strangers, of being polluted by “flawed” people, to locally elected officials. They press these local officials to control where certain people can be or activities can take place, to construct environments that provide virtually no room for public interaction, and thereby to discourage the formation of a public realm.

Where successful, this effort to control by design and regulation produces a “privatized city” of autostreets, autoresidences, megamononeighborhoods, antiparks, and megastructures. It also produces “counterlocales” in which both entry and behavior are monitored and controlled so as to reduce the possibility for discomforting interactions. Counterlocales like Peabody Place in Memphis, a privately-owned enclosed shopping mall which simulates vital street life but turns its back on the actual public space of the debilitated downtown that surrounds it.

That some fearful people believe the urban public realm should be cleansed of contaminated people evokes memories of the most problematic aspect of Berlin’s history and thereby reveals the entwined character of physical design and democracy. Prior to World War II, Berlin was eminently compact, walkable, and full of vibrant public spaces. It afforded ideal space for the art of taking a walk, or flanerie. And it is this walkable pre-war city that city building director Hans Stimmann sought to recreate in the early 1990s with his Planwerk Innenstadt (master plan for the central city) and his policy of “critical reconstruction.” “We must bring this city back so that when we look in the mirror,” he said, “we will know that it is our face” (emp. added). But who is the “we” Stimmann refers to? It was in these very public spaces that the Freikorps crushed the revolutionary Spartacists in 1919 and Nazis battled communists and terrorized Jews. So Berlin tells us that, when not supported by richly democratic processes, even the most beautifully designed public spaces can become sites of gruesome oppression and control. It also tells us that, when conceived too narrowly, physical design can enable ethnically homogenous native-born residents to design cities that reproduce a singular, essentialist notion of national identity.

Berlin helps us understand, therefore, that good design is important but also that, for democracy to thrive in “cities of difference,” such designs must presume and accommodate a diverse range of people. To remain vital and viable over the long-term, democracy requires well-designed urban places that enable unfamiliar strangers to encounter one another routinely and safely. People must be able to routinely rub shoulders with persons of whom they disapprove or with whom they disagree, maybe even fear just a bit. To sustain a vital democracy and public realm, the city must have a hard edge and not be a cleaned-up, purified, Disneyland kind of place like Seaside or Celebration, Florida.

But such places will not be created unless democratic processes enable diverse unfamiliar strangers to influence design decisions at both the local and regional scale. These processes must enable the diverse users of such spaces to negotiate their fears of one another. This negotiation of fear among unfamiliar strangers requires, not just public participation and the formal procedures of representative democracy, but also a democracy rooted in talk, negotiation, mediation, and social interaction. In a word, it requires inclusive political spaces that facilitate discursive democracy.

The problem for the long-term viability of democracy is this: people can overcome their “fear of otherness” by safely encountering unfamiliar strangers in public places, but they won’t create such public spaces until they overcome their fear of otherness.

What this points to is the need to create, gradually and simultaneously, both inclusive processes and inclusive spaces. The processes of spatial planning in U. S. city-regions must be transformed into more open, inclusive, and deliberative processes that include all of the city-region’s relevant residents, citizens, stakeholders, and users. And the privatized city must be transformed into a city-region full of public spaces that enable people to engage in public realm social life. If diverse people have the opportunity to walk within public places, they will have the opportunity to have unscreened encounters with people who differ from themselves. They will be able to hear diverse stories of everyday practice, to learn that they live in different cities of feeling, and to learn that the meaning of buildings and places (and hence what should be done to them and within them) depends on the narratives and social orders of which they are a part.

Conversely, if public policies continue to develop the built environment of a city such that diverse unfamiliar strangers will not encounter one another routinely as part of their everyday lives, those people will grow apart and become increasingly ignorant, fearful and distrustful of one another. When struck by deeply felt emotions, such as fear, anger, loss, grief, and greed, they will have no (or at least highly atrophied) informal public means for understanding why they have such different views, for processing their emotional reactions collectively, or for resolving the conflicts that come with them. They will find themselves crying and shouting at one another in formal public hearings, completely unable to understand their differing points of view. Blinded by these impoverished understandings of one another, they will continually pass through familiar places, seeing them through familiar thoughts, forever trapped in a “walled” landscape of banal repetition, and they will never be able to find what they do not know they are looking for. They will end up designing cities that, to paraphrase Berliners, reproduce “the walls in their heads.”

Posted in Berlin, planning theory, sustainability, Unpublished manuscript | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stepping out of Our Comfort Zones

[Note: This is the text I used when making a keynote speech on October 16, 2016, as part of a “Building and Crossing Bridges Together” event sponsored by nine human rights-related organizations in Iowa City, Iowa.]

It is a great pleasure to be here today, and especially to share the stage with former Congressman Jim Leach.

This event seeks to focus on ways to combat hate speech and fear-mongering tactics and rhetoric, perhaps by promoting dialogue and listening to voices that are often silent or silenced.

Let me begin with free speech. Timothy Garton Ash (2016) offers four familiar arguments for it in a recent book entitled Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. “First, unless we can express ourselves freely, we will never know ourselves; we’ll barely have selves to know. Selves are formed and found through give and take with others. Second, no-holds-barred discussion is the best way to find the truth, and limiting such discussion may prevent the emergence of truths. Third, free speech is essential to good government, by criticizing the government, by exposing official misconduct, and by enlisting the wisdom of the multitude. Fourth, hearing all voices teaches us to live with diversity in our cosmopolitan world” (cited in Luban, 2016, p. 36).

Free speech is under attack in much of the world. And yet, at the same time, vile, violent, and deceitful speech has never been more prevalent. All of this, Ash emphasizes, is complicated and exacerbated by the internet and social media. “[T]he internet is”, he claims, “…history’s largest sewer” (cited in Luban, p. 36) Terrorist incitements are frequent; lies and disinformation abound; trolls and haters are everywhere.

According to David Luban, who recently reviewed Ash’s book in The New York Review of Books, “offensive speech” constitutes a crucial test case for advocates of free speech. Ash insists we have no right not to be offended, and his advice is blunt: grow a thicker skin. (As Jim Leach probably knows far better than I, elected officials need to grow pretty thick skins simply in order to remain sane.)

But what about “hate speech”?” “Unlike personal insults or mockery of cherished ideas,” Luban writes (p. 38), “hate speech…incites hatred of people on the basis of group membership—race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexuality.…The aim of laws against hate speech,” he writes, “is to ward off what Garton Ash calls ‘a constant drip-drip of dehumanizing abuse of a particular group of human beings.’ Such abuse, he warns, ‘can eventually incline people to violence against that group.’”

Ash would ban such speech only when violence associated with it is “‘intended and likely and imminent’” (quoted in Luban, p. 40). On this point, he identifies several factors that would increase the likelihood free speech will incite violent action: an influential speaker, a susceptible audience with grievances, a recognizable call to violence, a social setting conducive to violence, and an influential medium.

In my own work, both as a scholar and as a public official, I have long believed it is important to use one’s First Amendment right to advocate for what one values or believes to be true. But I don’t just blather away. I begin by learning before I start talking about any particular topic. Beyond that, years of experience have taught me it is not possible to know what I truly think or value about the topic without testing my ideas against what other people think and value. Likewise, I strongly believe that, in a well-functioning democracy, proposed policies and actions must be vetted through public debate. Done well, public debate gives us the opportunity to invent a better course of action than any one participant could imagine by her or himself.

But I am very cautious about how I use the internet and social media as a means of debating in public. I distribute information about major topics coming before the Council. I report events in which I participate as mayor (such as this one). And I praise individuals and organizations for the good and important work they do. But I do not engage in public debate on line. As Garton Ash states, the internet is full of incitements, lies, disinformation, and hate. If I dive too deeply into that rabbit hole, and if I linger there too long, I risk becoming ignorant, immersed in anger and hate, and deeply sad.

When debating public issues, I strive to inspire people, treat everyone with respect, and open gateways or build bridges that connect rather than divide people. My own personal strategy for doing this is dialogical: I talk with people who seemingly are on the other side, listen actively to what they say, ask questions, try to understand the story that underpins their beliefs and actions, seek the “emotional truth” of any factually-suspect claims they make, look for interests and experiences we share, express my own views, hear the others’ response, restate my views in a way that takes their views and “emotional truths” into account, and be open to self-transformation after fully engaging the other person’s point of view.

I don’t want to sound naïve. Almost 40 years ago, I found myself flying in close quarters next to a man who had a swastika-shaped earring. I see you have a swastika on your ear, I said. Why do you wear it? I was horrified to hear his response.

Let me make my general comments a little more real by connecting them to one of the several controversial topics Iowa City’s City Council has confronted over the over the past 5 years.

A little over six months ago, the new owner of a 410-unit lower income housing complex named Rose Oaks informed its tenants, many of whom were people of color, that the owners would be renovating the deteriorated complex substantially. The tenants would have to vacate their apartments NLT the expiration dates on their leases. The announcement caught residents by surprise. In some cases, they would have to move within a few days; others had more time. But they all had to move. And it was very difficult for any of them to know where they could go in a context where the vacancy rate for rental units is less than 2%. The situation quickly blossomed into a contentious political issue. Hyperbolic rhetoric abounded, especially at our Council meeting in early April.

During our meeting on June 5, a Congolese man who lives at Rose Oaks described his family’s situation. He spoke French, so we scurried to find someone who could translate for him. Luckily, someone in the audience volunteered. The Congolese man told us that he and his family are refugees and that he works at one of the industrial facilities just across Hwy 6. Although he is employed, his family’s income is quite low. Their children attend a nearby elementary school. But now they’ve been told they must move. He has no idea where they will live, whether they’ll be able to afford the rent, how he will get to his job, and where his children will go to school. Like other residents, he asked City government to help. They need public housing, he said.

I tell you this story to highlight a few key points.

First, the population of Iowa City is far more diverse than it was 20 years ago, and far more diverse than the State of Iowa as a whole. Roughly 12,000 of Iowa City’s ~68,000 residents are either Hispanic, black, Chinese, Korean, or subcontinental Indian. We also have large and growing populations of Sudanese and Congolese refugees. For many of these new Iowa Citians, language and cultural barriers can be formidable. Moreover, if they are African-American, Muslim, Hispanic, or recently arrived refugees from Africa or the Middle East, they know that people like them have been the subject of virulent verbal attacks and are at great risk of being arrested and deported. Many of them feel threatened and silenced as a result.

Second, the Council is also very aware of the need to respond effectively to tensions between the police and black residents. There have been several major public demonstrations in Iowa City over the past 4 ½ years, including: the protest against the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida; the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and most recently the fatal shooting of Keith Scott, by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer.

Although Iowa City has not been the site of any such shootings recently, their occurrences have elevated the significance of other police-community interactions here. Thus when an Iowa City police officer was filmed forcing a black teenager to the ground in the Lee Recreation Center last June, or when an African-American student reported he had been the victim of a hate crime in late April, protests ensued almost immediately.

Third, recognition of this increased diversity and heightened tension are two key reasons why the City Council adopted a new Strategic Plan in March. That new Plan intends to foster a more inclusive, just, and sustainable Iowa City. And one of its key priorities is to advance social justice and racial equity. If you are interested, I would be happy to provide you with details.[1]

Last, many of the City’s long-standing policies and procedures were designed for conditions that differ substantially from the ones we face now. Constructed with white Iowans, professionals, and property owners in mind, many of those policies and procedures are poorly designed to facilitate the involvement of lower-income people, people who speak a language other than English, or people who come from another culture. We’ve made many important changes in City government over the past couple years, but more remains to be done.

Let me sum up. Protecting free speech and engaging in dialogue are necessary, but they are not sufficient. What can free speech mean when you are not yet able to speak or understand English? What can it mean when you do not yet understand the structure and processes of local government? What can it mean when those governmental processes treat renters differently than property owners? What can it mean when expressing your views in public puts loved ones at risk of being deported as undocumented residents?

If we want to combat hate speech and fear-mongering, to build and cross bridges together, and “to live with diversity in our cosmopolitan world,” we need to step out of our comfort zones, talk with people who differ from ourselves, change some of our long-standing procedures, and be open to becoming something new.

Thank you. I look forward to responding to any questions you might have.

References:

Ash, Timothy Garton. 2016. Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Luban, David. 2016. “Say What You Will?” The New York Review of Books 63, 14 (September 29): 36-40.

[1] For information about the City’s progress toward achieving the goals expressed in the Strategic Plan, see the October 2016 Strategic Plan Update. Also, for detailed information about actions the City has taken to promote racial equity over the past 2-3 years, see the City’s quarterly Diversity Initiative updates and annual Equity Reports.

Posted in general interest articles, Iowa City | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment