Small World: Practicing Sustainable Planning and Politics in the Heart of America

James A. Throgmorton. 2003. Unpublished book length manuscript.

Small World is a first-person narrative (or practice story) about what happened when a small group of people tried to make their city (Iowa City, Iowa) more sustainable. The tale covers the period from 1991 through 1995. It begins by introducing readers to the city’s main features, points of view, and topics of conflict.  It then takes readers “off the road” and “on the path,” seeking to convey an “ecological sensibility” by meandering through the city’s largest park.  Chapter Three follows that path into the city and then to the University of Iowa where I worked, seeking to present familiar ideas about “the American Dream” and urban planning in an unfamiliar way.  The next chapter escorts readers from the university through the city to my home, seeking to connect utopian visions of urban development to the actually existing features of the city.  Chapter Five goes more deeply into the city by describing our effort to articulate and advocate an ecologically sustainable vision of local and regional development.  Then comes a rapid-paced look at my successful effort to run for election to the City Council, especially how I had to translate my scholarly ideas into a rhetoric that would resonate with the city’s voters.

In order to reduce the complexity of that experience to manageable proportions, I focus the next four chapters on four particular cases.  All four of these cases would, on first glance, seem vary familiar to anyone who has studied the “rough waters” of urban planning and development.  But each of them takes an unfamiliar turn when they are told from the point of view of one who promoted sustainability.  The first, Chapter Seven, guides readers into the city’s Civic Center and offers a careful look at a year-long debate over whether to build a new drinking water plant and, if so, how to pay for it (and a related sewerage construction project).  The next takes readers into the Near Southside of Iowa City and describes a year-long effort to negotiate a compromise response to a local businesswoman’s redevelopment proposal.  Chapter Nine details the community’s response to four successive efforts to locate affordable housing in the city, and it does so by conducting an imaginary bus tour of those sites.  And the tenth tells about our Council’s effort to articulate a new economic development policy in the context of economic globalization and a Council election campaign, and it does so as if I were being interviewed in the present day by a well-known Italian oral historian.  The last chapter takes readers to the river’s edge, where I try to make theoretical, practical, and personal sense of the overall experience.

Though appearing simple on the surface, this tale can also be read as a complicated interweaving of several diverse threads, all of which accent how important balance and integration are to the project of constructing a sustainable city and way of life: (1) a scholarly argument for thinking of planning as a flow of persuasive argumentation within a complex web of relationships rather than as a purely intellectual matter of applied technical expertise; (2) an argument for incorporating an ecological sensibility deeply into urban and economic development practices, and for incorporating social justice and economic development concerns into environmental thought and action; (3) an argument for whole-body learning based on balanced integration of emotion, reason, and thought, and for learning through action-in-the-world rather than exclusively through scholarly classroom conversations; (4) a personal narrative of trauma, loss, grief, change, and growth; of learning about the importance and power of emotion; of discovering what is really important in one’s life; and learning how to negotiate emotionally-charged relationships with relatives, friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens.

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