Promote Long Term Sustainability

[Note: This post can also be found on Facebook at “Jim Throgmorton for City Council” ( in the Notes section of the left hand column.]

Throg4IC Position Paper #4

When I served on the Iowa City Council back in the mid-1990s, I repeatedly drew attention to the importance of promoting long-term sustainability. Iowa City has made important strides in this direction over the past 15 years, but we can do a lot more. To make significant progress, we need a combination of vision and leadership that will position Iowa City as the dynamic core of an affordable, sustainable and resilient region.

By sustainability, I mean actions that will enable Iowa City to thrive over the long term, and do so without dumping its wastes and problems onto future generations or onto other people in other places. This kind of sustainability involves a combination of economic vitality, social justice, and ecological health.

With this in mind, I see three key actions that can be taken in the present.

  • First, strengthen Iowa City’s downtown as a safe and diverse place for creativity, innovation and fun;
  • Second, maintain and improve our older neighborhoods, while also developing new neighborhoods (such as the “River Crossings” area south of Burlington Street) as compact, walkable, diverse places;
  • And third, help businesses and residents save money, create good new jobs, and reduce carbon emissions by becoming less dependent on fossil fuels.

Strengthen Iowa City’s downtown as a safe and diverse place for creativity, innovation and fun

Although our downtown no longer serves as the retail center of the Iowa City area, it remains the heart of our town. It is the key place where the city and the university meet. It is full of great restaurants. It is the site of many great outdoor activities: the Jazz Fest, the Arts Fest, the Friday Night Concert Series, Sand in the City, and many others. It is the key place where young and old can gather, meet old friends, and encounter new ones. It is crucial for the university’s ability to recruit good new faculty and staff, and achieve its educational mission. The long term health of the downtown and our city are tightly interconnected.

But the heart of our city has been abused over the past several years, given over to binge drinking and an excess of bars. This has alienated many residents of the Iowa City area. I supported the new 21 ordinance in order to turn things around. But I also know that the bars are the primary place where young people socialize in Iowa City, and that the ordinance has had some negative effects on the music scene. With this in mind, I think we need to continually monitor the positive and negative effects of the ordinance, and consider making incremental adjustments when appropriate.

We also need to attract new businesses and provide an array of appealing new activities to replace excessive dependence on bars and drinking. Important steps are being taken, most notably the University’s commitment to building its new music school and performance facility just south of Burlington Street. As I wrote in my May 13, 2009, Press-Citizen column, “reconfiguring space to bring musicians into the ordinary spaces of the city’s core has the potential to dramatically alter the whole vibe of the Near South Side. Nearby property would become far more valuable, and the new structures on Court Street would become far more enticing for retailers and residents. Moreover, I can easily imagine people coming by Amtrak from the East, getting off at a renovated station, and quickly being escorted only four blocks north” to downtown and the new Voxman/Clapp complex. Another potentially important step is the proposal to create a Self Supported Municipal Improvement District (SSMID) for the downtown. If well-crafted and broadly supported, this SSMID would facilitate recruitment of a diverse mix of attractive businesses.

But we also need to provide some appealing new activities. One possibility comes from my high school student advisory committee: to install every winter a temporary ice skating rink on the Ped Mall near the fountain. Financial and technical feasibility remains to be assessed, but in principal I think this is a great idea.

Maintain and improve our older neighborhoods, and develop sustainable new neighborhoods

A sustainable city would be full of healthy neighborhoods that are compact, walkable, diverse, full of lively and well-designed public spaces, and linked to one another by an efficient and attractive transportation system (including great bike trails and an outstanding public transit system). For those neighborhoods that include large numbers of school-age children, a healthy neighborhood would also contain a high quality elementary school to which kids could easily walk. Some of our existing neighborhoods exemplify these qualities quite nicely, including large parts of the Northside. As a candidate and elected council member back in the mid-1990s, I advocated maintaining the quality of existing historic neighborhoods and building new neighborhoods that are healthy in the way I’ve just described. I still do.

Maintaining and improving our older neighborhoods will require collaborative effort on the part of homeowners, landlords, renters, businesses, city government, and the school district. As a City Council member, I will work to strengthen neighborhood associations and provide landlords and tenants with strong positive incentives to improve the condition of buildings. As mentioned in my position paper about ensuring that Iowa City maintains a strong tax base, I think the city government could issue General Obligation bonds to create a self-sustaining revolving loan fund designed to build on the success of the UniverCity Neighborhood Partnership. This fund would improve the condition of older single-family structures (whether rented or owner-occupied), strengthen older neighborhoods, and enable people who work in the city to live in the city.

Building sustainable new neighborhoods is a challenging task, primarily because existing institutions, policies, budgets, ordinances, and public subsidies facilitate more conventional subdivision design. As a City Council member in the mid-1990s, I strongly supported developing The Peninsula with “New Urbanist” design principles. After a slow start, that neighborhood now seems to be filling out. And although there are some flaws in its design, it provides an important alternative to more conventional subdivision designs.

Perhaps the most important site for a sustainable new neighborhood is the “Riverfront Crossings” area south of downtown. As a result of the 2008 flood, this area will need to be redeveloped substantially; for instance, existing structures located in the 500-year flood plain (including the city’s North Sewage Treatment Plant) will be removed and replaced by riverfront parkland. I strongly support the Iowa City Planning Department’s current plan for that area. But I would emphasize a few key points: new buildings in the area should be designed to use less water and energy, produce less carbon dioxide, generate less construction waste, and provide healthier indoor air quality and greater occupant satisfaction at much lower cost over the lifetime of the building. Moreover, the area should shimmer with well-designed individual buildings, public spaces, and streetscapes that enable a diverse mix of people to feel inspired and fully alive when they walk. As a member of the City Council I will do everything I can to see that Riverfront Crossings is developed well over the long term.

Help businesses and residents save money, create new jobs, and reduce carbon emissions by becoming less dependent on fossil fuels

The scientific evidence is very strong that we humans on this planet face dire consequences over the next generation or two if we do not take large steps now to reduce our emissions of global warming gases, primarily CO2. Despite that evidence, many people think the threat of global climate change is a hoax. Moreover, some reputable economists argue that investing too heavily or too quickly in CO2 reduction will be harmful to the long-run health of the economy.

We in Iowa City could ignore this long-term challenge, let other people reduce their emissions while we do nothing, or disregard the passion with which people disagree over this topic. Any one of these actions would be a mistake. We need to invent a practical course of action that makes sense to us in the here and now.

Rather than debating the scientific merit or political legitimacy of claims about global climate change, we need to focus upon points of likely agreement. In brief, we need to devise strategies that enable our businesses and residents to save money, create new jobs, and reduce carbon emissions by becoming less dependent on fossil fuels. How can we best do this?

Some important progress has been made toward answering this question. In 2009 Iowa City produced a baseline inventory of greenhouse gases comparing emissions in 2008 with those in 2000. This inventory shows that, although Iowa City achieved some significant improvements, total CO2 emissions in the city and total expenditures on energy by city government both increased, not decreased, from 2000 to 2008. And it shows that most of our carbon emissions derive from our use of electric power generated outside Iowa City.

The 2009 inventory concluded, “The next steps should be to form a community-based climate action task force to determine emissions reduction targets, list specific methods to make these reductions, and develop an action plan to achieve these goals.” However, little action has been taken since then.

As a member of the City Council, I will advocate creation of such a task force, and I will encourage it to use a collaborative planning process that involves all key stakeholders in the city. The primary purpose of this task force would be to help residents and businesses save money, create new jobs, and reduce carbon emissions by becoming less dependent on fossil fuels, especially coal-fired electricity and imported petroleum. One key action worth exploring is to have the city issue General Obligation bonds that would be used to help residents and businesses make more efficient use of electric energy.

Meanwhile, as we work to reduce our carbon emissions, we could follow the lead of Birmingham, England, and organize a multi-day “Climate Change Festival” of music, dancing, informative walking tours, performances, and other activities that enable us to celebrate how good life can be in a well-designed, low-carbon city.

These three actions (strengthening our downtown, maintaining our older neighborhoods and building sustainable new ones, and helping residents and businesses save money, create new jobs, and reduce carbon emissions) would be investments in our future. And they would position Iowa City as the dynamic core of an affordable, sustainable and resilient region.

This entry was posted in 2011 City Council campaign, Iowa City, sustainability and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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