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.

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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[Note: This is a short unpublished paper I wrote in 2002.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.”

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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.


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.

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Planning for Floods at the University of Iowa: A Challenge for Resilience and Sustainability

[Note: This post refers to Charles Connerly, Lucie Laurian, and James Throgmorton. 2016. Planning for Floods at the University of Iowa: A Challenge for Resilience and Sustainability. Journal of Planning History 1538513216646131, first published on May 6, 2016. A complete version of the paper can be found at: ]

Why does a large institution build in a flood-prone area and how does it respond when flooding causes great damage? This is a case study of a major flood event—the 2008 Iowa–Cedar River flood—and the University of Iowa, whose recovery is expected to cost about US$750 million. The case explores the factors that led a major institution to invest so much of its infrastructure into a flood-prone river shed and then describes and evaluates the decision-making process the University has undertaken with the goal of becoming a more sustainable and resilient campus.

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Enhancing Iowa City’s Long Term Prosperity and Sustainability: A Progress Report

[Note: This report reflects my own personal summary of key actions Iowa City’s City Council has taken during the first six months of its term. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Iowa City government or City Council as a whole.]

As Mayor of Iowa City, I am pleased to provide this summary of what the City Council has done in the first six months of its term.

Several major public statements, plans, and policies have been presented or adopted in the past half year. They include the Mayor’s State of the City speech on February 16, a new Strategic Plan, and an amended version of the City Manager’s proposed budget and Capital Improvements Program, the last two of which were adopted on March 1. These documents record our continuing commitment to producing a just, inclusive, and sustainable city.

Responding to City Manager Tom Markus’ decision to accept a position elsewhere, we appointed Assistant City Manager Geoff Fruin as Interim City Manager and promised to decide within 3 months whether to conduct a national search to fill the position. After careful consideration and wide consultation, we voted on June 15 to appoint Geoff Fruin as permanent City Manager. We look forward to working with Geoff over the coming years.

In addition to these important general actions, we have been taking several specific steps to fulfill our Strategic Plan and respond to unexpected events.

Community engagement

Seeking to enhance community engagement and make Iowa City government more open, we have begun televising the work sessions in which much of the Council’s work gets done. We have also begun televising meetings of the Economic Development Committee (EDC) and conducting them in a more accessible public setting. In general, we have sought to create a more welcoming atmosphere at our formal public meetings. You can watch any of the Council’s recent formal meetings and work sessions, including ones mentioned below, on line at:

We have also been conducting Listening Posts more frequently and in more diverse parts of the city. In addition, as mayor, I have been conducting monthly “Mayor’s Walks” in various neighborhoods of the city.

Social justice and racial equity

The Council has taken several actions designed to advance social justice and racial equity in Iowa City. Most notably, we have been directly engaging the challenge of improving the affordability of housing within the city, especially for low-to-moderate income households.

On May 3 we amended the City’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) policy as it pertains to new developments that contain 10 or more residential units and which request TIF support from the City. We now require that 15% of those residential units must be affordable.

In our June 21 work session City Manager Geoff Fruin proposed an affordable housing action plan: It included an impressive range of actions, all of which will require extensive public review prior to formal adoption.

On July 5 we adopted a new “inclusionary housing” ordinance for the Riverfront Crossings District. This requires designated types of residential or mixed-use projects to contain a specified percentage of units that are affordable to households whose incomes fall below specified levels.

On that same night, we amended the Zoning Code to create a new land use (Community Service – Long Term Housing). Adoption of this ordinance will enable establishment of a new “Housing First” facility for chronically homeless individuals.

As we were developing these new policies and actions in the spring, some members of our community encountered a trial that speaks to the challenges of affordable housing in Iowa City. Residents of the Rose Oaks apartments were notified that the new owners of the complex wanted them to vacate their apartments at least by the expiration dates of their leases. Although most of the 400 units were already unoccupied, many of the residents who remained were among the most vulnerable in Iowa City. And they confronted a housing market with a vacancy rate of 2% or less.

City government has very limited legal leverage in this kind of individual situation; the owners had a legal right to take the actions they did. We were able to provide funding to Shelter House to help displaced tenants find new housing, and we have strongly encouraged the owners to display greater flexibility. The owners have modified their initial requirements, and have provided some additional financial assistance to Shelter House. We are now considering ways to avoid similar situations in the future, along with the possibility of providing financial assistance directly to displaced residents as we continue to work on policies and plans to help alleviate the pressures on affordable housing in the city.

In addition to challenges of socioeconomic diversity, we have taken some steps toward improving racial equity. Consistent with our Strategic Plan, the City Manager has initiated use of a Racial and Socio-economic Equity Toolkit within five City departments on a one-year trial basis. With our support, the City Manager has also budgeted for a full-time community outreach position in the Police Department.

In an effort to reduce disproportionality in traffic stops, arrests, and searches, we received an update of the “St. Ambrose study” during our work session on April 19. The update revealed that some improvement has occurred over the past 18 months, but that some disproportionality remains.

Several police officers and other city officials attended Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) in San Antonio, where they learned CIT skills to manage potentially volatile situations that involve people who have a serious mental illness, are in crisis, are suicidal, or are emotionally unstable.

And, consistent with our Strategic Plan, City staff has been conducting a series of five well-attended workshops for budding entrepreneurs, including women, immigrants, and persons of color.

Much more needs to be done to improve racial equity in our city, especially in light of recent events in other parts of the nation. We will be considering the possibility of creating an ad hoc committee on social justice and racial equity. And the topic of racial equity will be high on the agenda when candidates for the position of Police Chief are being recruited and interviewed.

A vibrant and walkable urban core

Another important challenge is to make Iowa City a more walkable and bikeable city, and thereby to develop the local economy while also maintaining the city’s distinctive character and sense of place.

We took one significant step in this direction on July 5 when we directed the staff to begin developing a new Form Based Code (FBC) for two specific parts of the city: the southern part of the city, especially around Alexander Elementary, and existing neighborhoods that are most directly impacted by the University. By using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for regulating development, a FBC is much more likely that conventional zoning to produce neighborhoods that are healthy, inclusive, and walkable, and to ensure that new projects are compatible with the character of existing neighborhoods.

For advice on this topic, we invited Dan Parolek (a nationally-recognized architect/urbanist) to discuss how to build such neighborhoods. You can view his May 24 “Missing Middle” presentation under “Categories” and then “Community” at:

After reviewing the results of a traffic modeling study on May 17, we authorized the staff to convert Madison and Clinton Streets to 3 lanes with bike lanes on both sides. We also directed staff to conduct further analysis and public outreach pertaining to possible changes on Gilbert, Market, and Jefferson Streets.

Environmental sustainability

No city can thrive unless it is sustainable environmentally. On June 6 we instructed the Staff to prepare a new ordinance requiring recycling in multi-family buildings, to begin collecting household organic wastes at the curbside, to move toward single-stream recycling, to ban cardboard from the landfill, and to ban single-use plastic bags.

As authorized by the Council, I signed the “Mayors Compact” on Climate Change, and on July 19 we will consider setting a goal for carbon emission reductions. Also on that date we will consider appointing a Climate Change Task Force to recommend how the goal can best be achieved, and we will consider approving a significant carbon emission reduction project for Fiscal Year 2016-17.

A strong and resilient local economy

Iowa City’s economy is thriving, and we have taken several actions to ensure it continues to thrive in a sustainable and inclusive way. The FY17 budget we adopted in March reduced the property tax levy for the 5th consecutive year and enables Iowa City to maintain its Moody’s Aaa bond rating.

In late May, the City sold the former St. Patrick’s Church parking lot to the developer of “The Rise at Linn and Court.” This sale includes $1 million for the City’s affordable housing fund.

 We have approved rezoning of the Unitarian-Universalist Church site and City parking lot, as well as approved conditional sale of the parking lot, to enable construction of a new building (with rowhouses on the north side) while also preserving the church building.

Although some of us opposed “The Chauncey” in the past, the Council is fully honoring the City’s contractual commitments toward that project. The same is true for all other development projects for which development agreements have been signed.

We have authorized the City Staff to proceed with several major construction projects, including The Gateway, Washington Street from Clinton to Linn, and the Pedestrian Mall.

We have also initiated a process for considering possible amendments to our overall TIF policy, and for making the decision process much more transparent. This is one key reason why we started televising meetings of the EDC.

On April 19 adopted a new ordinance that permits Uber and other “Network Companies” to provide service in Iowa City, and just a few weeks later we amended the taxicab ordinance to level the playing field.

We chose not to commit $50,000 to the Downtown District for hiring a fundraiser for a proposed art project on the Ped Mall (“The Lens”). And we voted 4-3 not to support a proposed 14-story building at 7 N. Linn Street.

Long story short

We have had a very busy and productive first 6 months. We look forward to working with Iowa Citians and all others who want to enhance the city’s long-term prosperity and sustainability, and to extend that prosperity to all the residents of our great city.

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Vote for Equity within the School District

[Note: This post pertains to an important election in the Iowa City Community School District. For readers who do not know the Iowa City area, the School District includes the cities of Iowa City, Coralville, and Hills, part of North Liberty, and certain unincorporated parts of Johnson County.]

On July 19 voters will elect a new member to the Iowa City Community School District’s Board of Directors. Three fine people have put themselves forward as candidates in this important election.

To decide who I personally should support, I have had lengthy one-on-one conversations with Paul Roseler and J. P. Claussen, as well as having lengthy background conversations with almost all Board members and principals of two key schools. I regret that Janice Weiner — who has considerable potential as a future candidate — and I have not yet been able to schedule a time to meet. [See note below.]

In those conversations I have listened carefully to determine what Claussen and Roseler advocate. I have also made sure they understand the concerns expressed in a letter I sent to the Board on behalf of Iowa City’s City Council.

The letter emphasized the importance of achieving relatively equal balance in Low SES and ELL student ratios at the three major high schools. Large disparities at the high school level risk producing significant differences in the quality of learning and educational achievement at those schools. Moreover, large disparities are very likely to encourage higher-income white families with children to prefer living in Liberty’s attendance area over living in City’s or West’s. Large disparities will also encourage developers to build upper-end housing to attract those new residents, especially on currently vacant land adjacent to new schools in Liberty’s attendance area.

The letter also expressed the Council’s concern that approval of large disparities at the high school level would depart significantly from the Facilities Master Plan, which the Board had approved after a lengthy public process and which Iowa City’s Council had publicly supported quite strongly. Board acceptance of large disparities at the high school level will, in our view, make it much less likely that a majority of Iowa City voters will support passage of that much-needed referendum.

Claussen basically counters that efforts to achieve reasonable balance at the high school level by assigning Kirkwood students to North Central and Liberty High and Alexander students to Northwest and West puts unnecessary and costly transportation burdens on kids from high-poverty areas. Drawing upon personal observation and experience, he also argues that a great majority of Kirkwood and Alexander parents think such assignments would not serve their kids well.

I’ve known Claussen for more than 20 years. I like him a lot and think he has the potential to be a fine Board member. Likewise, I think the Board would benefit from having a teacher among its members. That said, I believe he dramatically understates the long-term negative consequences of permitting one new high school to open with a student body that is substantially whiter and wealthier than the two existing ones.

To deny that perceived school quality strongly affects parents’ decisions about where to live and to deny that white parents have fled neighborhoods and cities that have, in their judgment, become too poor and too black is to deny evidence provided by the past 65 years of suburbanization in the U. S. Moreover, in a 2006 study, Bayoh and co‐authors found that a 1% increase in school quality (as measured by test scores) caused a 3.7% increase in the likelihood of relocation to that school enrollment area. And in a more recent study, Billingham and Hunt (2016) found that white parents chose to relocate away from schools with a high number of black students, and that this effect is independent of housing values, poverty, and crime rates.

These are facts which we ignore at our peril.

I’ve known Paul Roseler for a much shorter period of time, but I know he has been attending Board meetings regularly for quite some time. And I’m convinced he is already up-to-speed on the issues confronting the District. More important, I’m persuaded that Roseler supports the key elements of the Facilities Master Plan, will work hard to help pass the 2017 bond referendum, and will vote to ensure balance among the three high schools.

For these reasons, I will vote for Paul Roseler on the 19th. If he is elected, I hope Roseler and other Board members will reach out to Alexander and Kirkwood parents and students, listen to their concerns, treat them with love and respect, and make adjustments that respond to their concerns while also ensuring that Kirkwood students attend Liberty and Alexander students attend West.

Note: On July 15, I had an opportunity to speak at length with Janice Weiner. She has a very impressive body of education and experience, is completely committed to ensuring that all students receive a high quality education, and has very compelling ideas concerning vocational and language education. With one more year to establish and strengthen relationships within the larger community, she will be well-positioned to be an outstanding School Board member.

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State of the City

[Note: This is the text I used when delivering Iowa City’s “State of the City” speech during the City Council’s formal meeting on the evening of February 16, 2016. A video of the delivery can be viewed at: ]

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

Before reporting how our city is doing, I first want to thank you, the people of Iowa City, for expressing your opinions, for participating in the democratic life of our city, and for keeping your elected representatives’ feet to the fire.

Out of our 72,000 residents, more than a hundred currently serve on our 17 boards and commissions. They too warrant our thanks. Their work is rarely acknowledged in public, but it is important and greatly appreciated.

I also want to thank my fellow Council members for their dedicated service. To be a good Council member requires committing time away from one’s family, frequently attending nighttime meetings, and finding a way to fairly represent the diverse opinions of our engaged residents.

Last, I want to thank the hundreds of City staff members – police officers, firefighters, street cleaning crews, water and sewerage plant operators, clerical staff, engineers, lawyers, and everyone else – who help keep our City running day in and day out. I’ve accompanied several of them in the field, and I have nothing but the highest respect for the good work they do.

Due largely to all those I have named, our city is very strong and healthy. We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country at 2.2% – less than half the national average. Our Aaa Moody’s bond rating is the highest a city can have; we’re one of only two cities in Iowa that can claim such a high rating.

Healthy as it is, our city keeps changing in ways that demonstrate both the vitality of our local economy and the public’s passionate commitment to this place. Prominent examples of recent change include the University’s new Hancher Auditorium, Voxman Music Building, Art Building, and Children’s Hospital, all of which will be completed later this summer. Alexander Elementary opened last fall. Sabin Townhomes on S. Dubuque is under construction, as are the Hilton Garden Inn on S. Clinton and an innovative apartment project on Riverside Dr. The 1st Avenue grade separation project should have traffic back on schedule by December. The Gateway Project will begin this summer, and construction of The Rise at Linn and Court is likely to begin in the very near future.

As the face of our city continually changes, so too does our cultural core pulse with life. And it does so partly because City government financially supports a wide range of cultural organizations and activities, including The Englert, the City of Literature, the Summer of the Arts, and many more.

For these and related reasons, national rating services routinely recognize our city for being a great place to live, work, and raise a family. In the last year alone, we have been named one of the country’s smartest cities, the least-stressed city, the best city for college graduates, and the best place to age successfully, to name a few.

In brief, there is much for us to feel good about. But these accolades do not tell the whole story.

Not everyone shares equitably in our prosperity. Our city does have an incredibly low unemployment rate – but over 27% of our residents live below the federal poverty line, and over 33% of the School District’s students participate in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. Sixty-five percent of renting households pay more than 30% of their income on housing. As our city has become more diverse racially and ethnically, it has also become more segregated. Some of our neighbors do not feel welcome because of their race, ethnicity, or faith, and we’ve seen worrisome disproportionality in race-related traffic stops and arrests. Some of our neighbors find parts of our city to be physically impossible to access. And there is compelling evidence that our way of life (especially our reliance on carbon-intensive fossil fuels) risks undermining our grandchildren’s future prospects.

In short, Iowa City is a great place to live but not such a good place for all its residents. And because our city is so strong and healthy, we have an opportunity to extend this prosperity to all Iowa Citians and to ensure it lasts well into the future.

This is the message voters sent in last November’s election. They want their City Council to lead the way toward making Iowa City a more inclusive, just, and sustainable community.

In our strategic planning meetings over the past six weeks, the Council has discussed a number of policy initiatives that respond to the voters’ call. In brief, we intend to focus on the following seven priorities: (1) developing a strong and resilient local economy, (2) building a vibrant and walkable urban core, (3) fostering healthy neighborhoods throughout the city, (4) maintaining a solid financial foundation, (5) enhancing community engagement and intergovernmental relations, (6) promoting environmental sustainability, and (7) advancing social justice and racial equity.

Considered as a whole, these seven priorities constitute a pretty ambitious agenda. But we are not here to simply envision a better future; we are here to get good things done. This starts with setting realistic goals and providing the resources necessary to achieve them.

We intend, for example, to identify goals for (1) reducing race-related disparities in arrests, (2) increasing the supply of housing that people can afford, and (3) reducing our citywide carbon emissions. We have set a goal of raising our bike-friendly status from silver to gold by 2017 and then to platinum. We intend to enhance our support for the local foods culture. We have already begun to televise Council work sessions in an effort to be more transparent and accountable.

While necessary, adopting ambitious goals is not sufficient. The goals must be reinforced by how the City collects revenue, allocates resources, and invests its capital. Tonight we are scheduling a public hearing on our proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2017 and our 5-year Capital Improvements Program. As initially proposed by the staff and amended by the Council, the budget provides funds to conduct an Emerald Ash Borer Response Plan, to facilitate development of a climate change mitigation plan, and to improve our neighborhood parks. It continues the UniverCity program with 5 new units per year and provides funds to update our bike master plan. It assigns $50K for a complete streets study and $250K per year for complete street improvements, and it increases the annual pavement rehabilitation project to $1.5M. It includes funding for a full-time community outreach position in the Police Department. It doubles capital funding for the ADA curb ramp project, includes $50K per year for bus shelter improvements and expansion, and establishes a $50K endowment for a new Iowa City Community Fund.

There is more. When amending the staff’s proposed budget, the Council also decided to put $1M from The Rise at Linn and Court into an Affordable Housing Fund, to provide $25K for a new racial equity funding program, and to allocate $50K for business incentives for persons of color and youth employment. We dedicated $100K for a carbon emission reduction project, $25K for a local foods project, $75K for a street tree inventory/planting program, and $190K for development of Frauenholtz-Miller Park. We set aside $150K to develop a new Form Based Code for at least one part of the city and $70K for a housing market analysis of the University impact zone. And more.

We added these elements while still reducing the City’s overall tax levy for the fifth straight year, this time by 10 cents, and ensuring that our Moody’s Aaa bond rating would not be endangered.[1]

Adopting our new Strategic Plan and revised budget constitute important steps, but not everything can be done at once. More steps are likely to come. As we engage in this great work of building a more just and sustainable place, we will pragmatically build on our city’s great strengths and let additional changes unfold step by step.

In fact, several additional actions are already built into our Strategic Plan. Here are but two examples: we intend to review and consider amending the City’s Tax Increment Financing policy; and we intend to develop and implement a toolkit for reviewing racial/socioeconomic equity.

Transforming our city into a more inclusive, just, and sustainable place is challenging work. Part of the challenge stems from the basic truth that we are blessed with living in a lively democracy.

Though challenging, this is also good work. And we Iowa Citians are up to doing it well. Our city is full of creative and energetic people. It’s full of businessmen and women who are deeply invested in our community. It’s full of people whose life experiences provide deep insight into the lived reality of the challenges we face. And it’s full of creative designers, builders, realtors, and developers who are eager to engage in the great work of incrementally transforming the city we and they love into a place that residents will cherish for generations to come.

So, as we reflect back on all the ways Iowa City is praised – it is the best place to be young, the best place to retire, the best place to find a job and start a family – remember that we Iowa Citians built all of it. If we built a city that is so already so strong and healthy, so too can we – if we commit our minds and hearts to it — build a city that is more inclusive, more just, and more sustainable.

And by leading the way for Iowa City, we can lead the way for the region and the state.

Thank you.

[1] Subsequent to the drafting of the speech, Council determined the levy rate would be reduced by 7 cents.


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