A citizen-led movement to create an Iowa City that’s not just less bad for the environment, but actually contributes to its vitality, is at a crossroads. After two years of residents pushing for more ambitious climate policy, it’s up to the city council and mayor to take up the cause — or not.
Jeff Biggers, writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa’s Office of Sustainability, founded Ecopolis in 2014 as a multimedia storytelling event featuring folk band the Awful Purdies. The aim: Envision Iowa City as it could be in 2030 if it adopted regenerative city principles. That framework, developed in 2010 by the World Future Council and Hamburg University for Architecture and Urban Development, proposes urban development that is based on a restorative, mutually beneficial relationship between a city and its surroundings.
With 95 percent of Iowa’s food imported from elsewhere, and Iowa City still reeling from the effects of a devastating 2008 flood, Biggers saw the opportunity to promote a new urban planning model that accounts for climate change. “The flood really to us was sort of a messenger,” says Biggers. Residents filled over 6 million sandbags to try to stave off the waters. “Of course it was all in vain. So what we do is try to use the same sort of narrative to say, let’s fill 6 million sandbags with ideas for a regenerative city,” he says.
Ecopolis became a clearinghouse for those ideas. Not a formal organization, it evolved into a series of forums about renewable energy, community gardening, permaculture, bikes and other low-carbon transportation and more. In fall 2015, a slate of Ecopolis supporters, including one of the initiative’s founders, took the majority on the city council.
Ecopolis show with Jeff Biggers and Awful Purdies (Photo by Miriam Alarcón Avila)
And in spring 2016, new Mayor Jim Throgmorton passed a “Regenerative City Day” proclamation, declaring that Iowa City “must take decisive action” to “significantly reduce community-based greenhouse gas emissions.” The proclamation recognized regenerative city goals to “replant native prairies and trees to store carbon in the soils; expand urban agriculture; to power our city and neighborhoods efficiently through green building designs and renewable energy; to expand city-wide recycling and composting through a zero waste ordinance; to make low-carbon transportation choices; to grow green jobs and support companies actively greening their operations.”
But a proclamation isn’t an ordinance or a resolution or a plan. Council has announced they will create a new Climate Action Plan to implement in 2018, and members are considering sticking with the city’s current STAR Community sustainability rating system. Biggers considers that insufficient to the urgency of the situation. He’s set forth an Iowa City Climate Action Plan of his own.
“This is the choice, a very stark choice they have,” he says. “They can either continue with what they’re doing, which is from the previous administration [or] they can build on this two years of a citizens-led initiative and transform the regenerative city proclamation into an action plan.”
He wants to know: How much legislative and policy support are Iowa City leaders willing to give?
“I personally support the idea pretty strongly,” says Throgmorton, “but the fact that we adopted a proclamation does not mean that the regenerative city is a formal goal or policy of Iowa City.” He does point to several initiatives he calls “fully consistent with the regenerative city idea.”
Those include new community gardens, pushes to improve recycling and an effort to reduce carbon emissions citywide. Iowa City has a goal to graduate from a silver- to a gold-level designation from the League of American Bicyclists by 2017. The city has installed more bike racks, and converted several streets from four lanes to three, with dedicated bike lanes on either side.
“For our part of the world, that’s a pretty good step. Not dramatic, but it’s a pretty big step,” says Throgmorton. He recognizes it still falls short of Biggers’ and Ecopolis’ vision. “We’ve not gone as far as he wants, and that’s frustrating for Jeff, but that’s just part of the political life of our city.”
Biggers recognizes “we’re obviously pushing something that’s quite ambitious.” His climate action plan would include planting 400,000 trees over the next four years, promoting net zero energy buildings, requiring that public and private institutions that receive city funding purchase 40 percent of their food from local sources, and instituting a zero waste ordinance.
He also wants to see the Riverfront Crossings District, which was devastated during the 2008 flood, transformed into an EcoDistrict. Ordinances would mandate walkability measures, cycling projects and transit, plus edible landscaping, requirements that new buildings be carbon neutral and more. The neighborhood — “the ruins of not just flooding but extreme weather,” Biggers calls it — could become a prototype for the rest of the city to follow.
“In terms of vision and inspiration and all that, pretty powerful stuff,” says Throgmorton. “But in terms of practical politics, there are all sorts of people in our city who do not agree.” The main source of opposition, he says, is from “a large number of very successful and prominent business people and business-related organizations that believe that the most important challenge is to grow the economy.”
“I think [that opposition is] terribly shortsighted because there doesn’t seem to be much thought about what the longer-term consequences of continuing economic growth would be,” he continues. “It doesn’t seem to take into account the interaction between natural resources and economies.”
With or without council action, Ecopolis and the momentum around it continues to grow. An anthology of Ecopolis-related writings will be published by the University of Iowa Press in 2017. Biggers and folk band the Awful Purdies continue to take the Ecopolis show on the road, helping other cities envision their regenerative futures. And Biggers is quick to point to successes first, in the other cities where he works and in Iowa City. An Ecopolis cofounder helped institute a virtually pesticide-free approach for the Iowa City school district. The council passed an inclusionary zoning ordinance earlier this summer. Now he wants to see similar ordinances mandating solar energy, bike infrastructure and more.
“We’re entrusting our city leaders with this whole regenerative city movement, and asking them to make the right decisions,” he says.
But Throgmorton is cautious. “We’ve taken on a lot and I don’t think there would be support on our council to state that we’re explicitly going to achieve regenerative city goals,” he says. Getting economic and political leaders to move in a more sustainable direction? “That cannot be a fast process. We cannot snap our fingers and make that happen.”
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.