Neighborhood Revitalization project

Elaine Godfrey

Iowa State students are wrapping up a semester-long project meant to revitalize local neighborhoods and improve quality of life.

Fourteen students in the CRP graduate program worked on the revitalization project as part of their community planning studio. The class enables students to apply their planning knowledge in real Iowa communities, and this year, it targeted two Des Moines neighborhoods, Capitol East and Capitol Park.

“The goal of revitalization is to improve the quality of life of residents,” said assistant professor in CRP and project manager Jane Rongerude, “but also to connect the community to the larger metropolitan economy.”

Neighborhood plans, which act as guides for the future development of a community, needed to be renewed in both Capitol East and Capitol Park. Each of these communities also has a large Latino population, which seemed to be underrepresented in neighborhood meetings.

So, students began researching the main concerns of community members in order to redesign their neighborhood plans.

“Everybody deserves to have some sort of input,” said CRP graduate student Johnny Alcivar, “and you don’t want to have only one group’s opinion.”

In each neighborhood, Iowa State students visited residents’ homes, organized focus groups, talked to local business owners and spoke with students at high school football games in order to identify their main concerns for the neighborhood.

“In order to get interest from the population, we used alternatives that were not the norm,” said Alcivar. “Public meetings are always held, but you need different ways to approach things, especially with multicultural populations.”

The students pinpointed several priority areas in each neighborhood including improving housing, developing infrastructure, creating youth programs, building community pride and reducing crime.  They also involved community stakeholders in meetings to discuss the resources necessary to address the problems.

“We had over 90 people in the meetings,” said graduate student in CRP and sustainable agriculture Anna Bruen. “It included organizations like Habitat for Humanity, community churches, Lutheran Hospital, the Center on Sustainable Communities, Home Inc. and many others.”

The graduate students spent over 200 hours every week in Capitol East and Capitol Park neighborhoods and met regularly with city planners to create an action plan, with specific strategies to address the concerns of community residents.

The proposed neighborhood plans will be voted on next week by the Neighborhood Association and if approved, will be sent to the City of Des Moines community development department for final review.

“Projects like these are central to the task of planning,” Rongerude said. “We forget that physical issues have everything to do with poverty, with who has a decent chance to succeed in life.”

Des Moines city planner and Iowa State alumna Amber Lynch said that without the partnership with Iowa State, planning the revitalization of the two neighborhoods would have taken much longer.

“Usually, it’s at least a year-long process,” Lynch said. “So with students, it was much more of a condensed process.”

At the beginning of the project, Rongerude said, there wasn’t a lot of support from the city because of budget restrictions, but after they saw the students’ work they became actively involved in gathering resources.

“They changed the system,” Rongerude said. “That’s something people hope to accomplish in their career, and they did it in class.” Rongerude hopes to continue the projects in Capitol East and Capitol Park neighborhoods for future studio classes.

“I think that it only makes sense to connect what we’re doing here with real needs on the ground,” Rongerude said. “It makes the work more interesting, and everybody benefits.”