Wednesday, August 3

Iowa City: City of Tomorrow--Today?

With the construction cranes whirling about in the skies near downtown and the earth movers and construction barrels on Dubuque street, you'd have to be both blind and deaf to not notice the growth and renovation occurring in our Iowa River city/town center. It seems that with anything that people find value in and with apologies to W.P. Kinsella, if they come, we will build it. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. How we grow, though is open for discussion and has serious repercussions.

As with all places, people cannot agree on what constitutes good growth. For instance, in the free market world, all growth is good and any attempt to control that growth is sacrilege. For people of social conscience, growth that creates more equity is desired and believes the levers of government should be used to accommodate that.  People craving environmental justice believe that growth that uses more inputs or does not encourage reuse, recycling, and reducing is an unsustainable model and also believe that policy and law should be used in making decisions. And, of course, there are moderations between all of the mindsets. Still, how would you like to be the City Council who has to address those concerns around growth?

So first, it is important to articulate the priorities around growth so that at least we can understand how decisions might or should be made. For instance, if the environment is given top priority, what does that mean to social equity or to unrestricted growth concerns? If growth for growth sake is the rule, what does that mean to the other concerns. If social equity is top-listed, what does that mean to the other philosophies? This is why commissions and boards were created. Ostensibly, they are intended to do the deep thinking that supports decisions that are best for all concerned. However, as these boards are political appointments, they can be swayed to favor certain ideas over others.

To that end, should boards be required to be balanced? Should representatives from the "big 3" interest areas be appointed, as opposed of the x number of applicants? I'd say that is more important than other factors such as gender or racial balance (albeit, worthwhile goals). The more the debate is inclusive of opposing mindsets, the more likely a compromise can be reached that will be less optimal for the special interest and more so for the whole. The city council can choose to implement such an agenda or it can be crafted into the City Charter.

But what else? Typically the city makes changes to master planning documents on 10 year cycles. The public and others are invited to make input to the process. However, this also means that there are prolonged periods when the master plan is static. Would it be better to have a plan that is like moving pieces around a chess board. What I mean is say an environmental goal of the city is to reduce its carbon footprint by 20% by 2030, does this require every project developed to find ways to do this or treat it as a cumulative result. If projects 1 to 10 put the city on a trajectory to reduce the footprint by 1%, could that mean that the remaining projects must make up the remaining 19%?  Policy would help to determine this. Good policy, in this case, rewards good actors and reduces the bad ones.

What if plans submitted for consideration were required to address the priorities that the city has identified as essential for its residents. If a city RFP stated clearly what the environmental, social equity, and growth goals are and the projects submitted would be awarded on that basis? Or better, incentives were laid out with the goal of meeting those goals -- 100% for each project?

Currently, there are organized forces that want things their way with limited intrusiveness and those who want to build a dreamscape without regarding the needs of right now. Surely there is a way to marry these ideas in a way that everyone involved is equally annoyed, not with each other, but with the limits of democracy and technology.

No comments: