Graduate students assist in PlanDSM draft

Ashley Green

In an attempt to fix a planning problem in Des Moines, the city brought in ISU graduate students and their expertise to solve the issue.

Jane Rongerude, assistant professor in community and regional planning, teaches a community planning studio that has an ongoing partnership with the city of Des Moines. The partnership is maintained through ISU alumna and neighborhood planner Amber Lynch.

While the studio has focused on neighborhood planning in the past, it has been very involved in the new comprehensive plan for the city of Des Moines, dubbed PlanDSM, this fall.

The studio brought in all of the resources of the university, including the students themselves, to assist with the real-world problem.

Comprehensive plans guide growth and development in a city for the next 20 to 25 years.

“This document really captures the vision that residents of a community have for the place where they live,” Rongerude said. “PlanDSM is the new comprehensive plan that’s intended to guide the city as it grows up until 2040.”

The new comprehensive plan for Des Moines will address a number of different elements about the city, such as physical and economic developments.

In order to present the most accurate data to the city, the studio used an approach that Rongerude calls “taking the meeting to the public.”

“We’ve all heard of public meetings — they just don’t work,” Rongerude said. “This is a mainstay of how planners do their work, but we know that people’s lives are busy, their lives are complicated, and very few people are really able to go to public meetings.” 

Those that do attend public meetings are typically professionals whose jobs involve the topic at hand. With just these opinions, the plans don’t encompass every citizen’s wants and needs.

“So the question is, if public meetings don’t work, then how do we get more people’s input into these really important decisions?” Rongerude said.

That’s where the studio came in. After splitting into four teams, students found ways to involve 15 interest groups and communities that are normally underrepresented.

Two members of the studio, Alec Henderson, graduate student in community and regional planning and design and sustainable environments, and Jonathan Stytz, graduate student in community and regional planning, found the studio’s efforts to be successful.

“I think now the city will be more apt to continue the conversation with people who need to be talked to, the underrepresented people and minority groups. That’s a huge success,” Henderson said.

One way that students connected with a community was through an advanced English class at Oakridge Neighborhood Services, an interim community of immigrant families in Des Moines. The class consisted on a wide range of adults whose first language was not English.

“We had kind of an open-table discussion about different elements of PlanDSM,” Stytz said of the outreach.

Meeting with the English class allowed students to receive feedback from individuals that felt closed off from the rest of Des Moines and gave students vital experience.

“If you’re able to explain yourself well to someone that doesn’t speak English fluently, I think that’s really good training for planners,” Henderson said.

Students ended up with several thousand comments about the different policies for the plan.

“We don’t do work where people’s input doesn’t matter,” Rongerude said. “I made sure that when we started this project the input that we received from people would actually change the plan, and that’s been exciting to see that take shape.”

Students presented their findings in Des Moines in October. The city will work with the findings and finalize the document within the next six months.