AMES, Iowa — An Iowa State University community and regional planning class will collaborate with the city of Ames on a project to improve civic engagement in the community.

Students in the fall 2020 community planning studio, taught by assistant professor Alenka Poplin, will research community demographics to identify different populations; study effective engagement methods, strategies and techniques used by other cities; and match those strategies with the different groups of residents in Ames. The project, which evolved from efforts to identify better strategies to communicate with citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic, will emphasize connections with underrepresented groups and ways to engage them more fully in the community.

“Civic engagement is a broad term to describe the methods with which the public can become more informed about and influence civil decision-making,” Poplin said. “Ames has seen limited participation by residents in the area of urban planning, meaning that city leaders do not receive as much feedback as they would like.”

Low public engagement can be caused by “rational ignorance” — when people choose not to learn more or offer input on a topic because the effort involved seems greater than what they would gain by participating. This can lead to decisions that have an unintended impact on the community because residents didn’t share their knowledge and ideas in the planning process, Poplin said.

More sustainable and equitable communities

The studio project is meant to help the Ames community — city officials and residents alike — better understand rational ignorance and explore public engagement approaches that offer clear benefits for participation. After studying successful techniques and technologies used by other cities in the United States and around the world, the class will propose those that may be most effective for different groups in Ames.

The city may then ask students in the spring to help determine how to implement the strategies in Ames, Poplin said. Her goal is to create an ongoing civic engagement partnership among the city of Ames, Iowa State and Ames residents, she said.

As a part of Iowa State’s land-grant mission, courses like the community planning studio benefit Iowa communities while providing students with authentic experiences working with real people to solve real problems, said Francis Owusu, chair of the Department of Community and Regional Planning in the College of Design.

“The collaboration with the city of Ames builds on our efforts to integrate design, policy and engagement to help create more sustainable and equitable communities,” he said.


Alenka Poplin, Community and Regional Planning, apoplin@iastate.edu
Francis Owusu, Community and Regional Planning, fowusu@iastate.edu
Steve Schainker, Ames City Manager, steve.schainker@cityofames.org
Meg Grice, Design Communications, mgrice@iastate.edu
Heather Sauer, Design Communications, hsauer@iastate.edu