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Iowa State students bring broader perspective to PlanDSM draft

October 29, 2015


ISU graduate planning students hosted "have your say" open houses for Des Moines residents to share their concerns and wishes for the city's future development.

AMES, Iowa — Graduate students in Iowa State University's community and regional planning (CRP) program are effecting real change in Des Moines.

Students in the fall-semester CRP 532 Community Planning studio have worked closely with city officials and the PlanDSM Steering Committee—a group charged with helping Des Moines envision its future through 2040—to help develop a new comprehensive plan.

"The comprehensive plan becomes a decision-making tool for the city for the next 20 to 25 years," said Katherine Dostart, an assistant planner working with PlanDSM and the main liaison between students and city officials. "It lays out policies and goals for [land use and community-wide development] in line with what residents want."

How can the city understand the needs of all of Des Moines' nearly 210,000 residents?

Enter the Iowa State graduate planning studio.

"This partnership between our studio and the city has focused on both improving the draft plan and expanding the outreach efforts to include more residents and stakeholders in the planning process," said CRP Assistant Professor Jane Rongerude, who leads the studio.

"We bring an opportunity to deepen the level of outreach to marginalized groups that city officials don't really reach."

Taking the meeting to the public
Second-year graduate students Alec Henderson, Grinnell, and Jonathan Stytz, Channahon, Illinois, said they focused on underrepresented populations such as traditional minorities, recent immigrants, those from lower-income neighborhoods, and others who may feel disenfranchised by the planning process.

"The city was presenting information at public meetings, but only certain people came or even knew about the meetings," Stytz said. This didn't always provide the most accurate depiction of what the majority of residents need and want, he said.

The Iowa State class tried to offer a more accessible environment by hosting open houses in public places where residents could learn about the proposed policies and provide feedback to the students. Because research shows that some groups are less likely to participate in public meetings no matter how accessible they are, however, students also sought more effective ways to reach the people they wanted to involve.

"Sometimes it was going house to house knocking on doors," Henderson said. "It's really about going to the communities and using the resources there, the churches and community leaders."

The studio worked with several African American churches, with Trinity Methodist Church and with nonprofit organizations serving underrepresented groups in Des Moines to help get the word out about the comprehensive planning process and to encourage participation.

"The challenge is that people talk about what they want from the city and for the city in terms of their everyday lives. They don't talk in terms of policies and planning language," Rongerude said. "It was the students' job to translate the concerns that people raised about housing affordability, social justice, economic opportunity and other issues into recommendations that would fit within the plan."

Extending the reach
City officials agree that having the students as a resource gave a new perspective to the outreach efforts and made gathering feedback more successful.

Dostart, who helped update Des Moines' Capitol East Neighborhood Charter Plan as a graduate student at Iowa State, said, "Students are at the core of the project. Working with them extends our reach exponentially. They're reaching a variety of community groups that we aren't able to interact with on a regular basis and involving a greater breadth and depth of the city's population.

"Hearing from as many residents as possible, from students to CEOs, ensures a stronger plan that reflects the vision of the whole community."

The Iowa State students will present the results of their outreach efforts—and their recommendations for the comprehensive plan based on those findings—to the PlanDSM steering committee at 3 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30, in the St. Etienne conference room of the Argonne Armory Building, 602 Robert D. Ray Dr. in Des Moines. The meeting is open to the public. The committee then may consider revising plan policies based on the students' recommendations.

The potential to influence the city's plan is a huge opportunity for students, Rongerude said.

"They're providing new, cutting-edge perspective and research to the city," she said. "They're getting to understand how qualitative research works first hand, and how hard it really can be to do well. There's a thrill in being a part of planning and making that happen, and a power in articulating a shared vision and identifying the steps to help a city."

The presentation comes appropriately timed, as October is National Community Planning Month.

PlanDSM's current draft comprises about 30 pages of goals and policies. The city's "Existing Conditions Workbook," completed at the beginning of the year, is nearly 100 pages long and can be found online at

Katherine Dostart, City of Des Moines Community Development,
Jane Rongerude, Community and Regional Planning, (515) 294-5289,
Alec Henderson, Community and Regional Planning graduate student,
Jonathan Stytz, Community and Regional Planning graduate student,
Patrick Budding, Design Communications,
Heather Sauer, Design Communications, (515) 294-9289,