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Architects Discuss Strategies for Making Iowa's Cities Cool

Carol Hunter

Des Moines Register

May 7, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

For much of Iowa's history, city residents could visit most places to satisfy life's needs shops, workplaces, schools, churches by taking a walk. For farmers, such places were a horse or wagon ride away.

But as the 20th century progressed, Iowans and the rest of America became ever more dependent on automobiles. Bigger cities and their suburbs grew outward. Distances lengthened between homes and jobs. In the countryside, productivity increases and changing economics meant fewer farmsteads to support small towns.

Gasoline prices nearing $3-a-gallon remind us of the hard costs of such a car-dependent lifestyle, let alone the time and stress it adds to daily life and the filth it pumps into the air.

Experts in planning and architecture think cities in Iowa and around the globe would be wise to return to their village roots, reinventing themselves as places where homes, jobs and services would be a walk or a bike ride away. They use terms like livable and sustainable to describe the most inviting cities of the 21st century.

Such cities will be the focus of the annual spring conference of the American Institute of Architects, Iowa Chapter, to be held Friday in Des Moines. The theme: Designing Cool Communities. Happily, attendees won't have to look far for examples.

If there's a single criterion that determines livability, it's diversity, according to Kate Schwennsen, president of the national association, associate dean in the College of Design at Iowa State University and a keynote speaker. That includes differences of types of buildings, their uses and scale; transportation options; and ages and incomes of residents.

Downtown Des Moines is one of the places in Iowa gaining livability, Schwennsen said. "I think in a decade we're going to see it as a very vibrant neighborhood."

The conversion of aging buildings to lofts, apartments and luxury condominiums is adding diversity of housing styles in varied price ranges. Services, like a grocery store, and more retail will follow the residents, she said.

Iowa City, too, rates high on the livability scale, with its "great old buildings, interesting new buildings and different-scaled spaces." Dubuque boasts the advantage of hilly riverside topography and 19th-century buildings, plus the National Mississippi River Aquarium & Museum, which opened in 2003. Ames has potential, she said, if it resists putting in another mall and focuses on "the bones" in place that could become lively retail centers Campustown, North Grand Mall and especially Main Street, which has inviting residential areas nearby.

Beyond livability, the next step is making communities more sustainable more considerate of the environment, energy-conscious and resources-stingy. An example: keeping growth compact in the rapidly growing Des Moines metro area and Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor, rather than consuming more farmland.

Another keynote speaker, Kevin Nordmeyer, partner in RDG Planning and Design in Des Moines and chair of the U.S. Green Building Council, is a leader of the movement. His firm is helping build a three-bedroom high-energy-efficiency home in Fort Dodge for $180,000, including the lot. Using such techniques as passive solar and geothermal heating and cooling, it's expected to use 65 percent less energy than a typical like-sized home.

Other noteworthy work that he cites: Ladco Development is mixing single-family homes, townhouses and condominiums in a range of prices, plus restaurants and a plaza in its Village of Ponderosa project in West Des Moines. Hubbell Realty is building a handful of residential developments in the metro area using conservation-design techniques, which minimize hard surfaces such as streets and driveways and channel water runoff to green spaces. That filters out contaminants and cuts down on soil erosion.

Plus, there's the Abundance Ecovillage outside of Fairfield, where homes are being built off the power grid. Energy comes from wind and solar power. Residents also buy and eat food grown locally.

That sounds like 19th-century Iowa, when necessities of life were close at hand and traffic jams had not yet been imagined. What's old is new, and it could make Iowa cities very cool.