Dubuque Comes Back in a Big Way

Sustainability and Resilience are Cornerstones of City's Success

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Roy Buol has been mayor of Dubuque, Iowa, since 2005.

Cori Burbach is the sustainable community coordinator with the City of Dubuque, Iowa.

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Posted: Wednesday, July 8, 2015 2:30 pm

In the 1980s, Dubuque, Iowa, was down and out, or so it seemed. The farm crisis that had swept across America’s grain belt hit Dubuque’s agriculture-based economy especially hard – at one time bringing the city’s unemployment rate to a nation-high 23 percent. Its Mississippi riverfront, arguably the community’s most precious asset, was a tangled mess of scrap yards, rusty oil tanks, shuttered factories and dilapidated warehouses.

By the end of the decade, thousands of people (nearly 8 percent of its population) had left the city for greener pastures and, adding symbolic insult to injury, even the “little old lady from Dubuque” had passed on.

Now fast forward 20 years. In 2010, various organizations, agencies and publications, including Forbes, recognized Dubuque as, among other things: the best small metro for projected job growth; the best small city to raise a family; the third most livable community in the world; the seventh best small U.S. city for economic growth; and one of the 10 smartest cities on the planet. In 2013, for the third time in five years, it was one of 10 U.S. cities honored with the National Civic League’s All-American City Award.

And what about that riverfront? Today, the junk is gone, and in its place, a $500 million facelift that includes a new convention center, hotels, casinos and bike trails; factories converted to high-end restaurants; warehouses transformed into walkable multi-use communities; and the world-class National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, a Smithsonian affiliate that attracts nearly 200,000 visitors per year. In 2014, USA Today named Dubuque the fourth “Best American Riverfront.”

The city had reinvented itself as a “Masterpiece on the Mississippi.” But, how did that happen? In a word, said Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol, “Collaboration.”

Dubuque rallied the troops. Through a series of visioning projects, leaders of the city’s government, business and nonprofit sectors came together to set the community on a path to recovery and prosperity. Job 1 was diversifying the economy and investing in infrastructure, with a focus on sustainability, quality of life and resilience against the outside forces that had nearly brought the city to its knees.

“Citizens have been part of the process from the beginning, and have remained a key part of the process around sustainability,” Buol said. “You don’t see that in a lot of cities, where citizens are a part of the process and they actually feel like they’re making a difference, either individually, as an organization or as a business.”

Buol was a city councilman when he ran for mayor in 2005 on a platform of sustainability. His election, and re-elections since, have been interpreted by many as a mandate to integrate sustainability into every city project and department. A 30-member citizen task force worked for two years to gather and articulate the collective vision of its stakeholders into a list of 11 guiding principles that would serve as the criteria by which all future projects and plans would be judged. In 2013, a 12th principle, on community health and safety, was added.

Dubuque Sustainable Community Coordinator Cori Burbach said bringing health and wellness into the sustainability conversation seemed like a natural fit.

“When you think about that ‘quality of life’ piece, health is a vital element,” Burbach said. “And, when you think about concepts as big as climate change or adaptation, it can be really challenging to explain how those big global issues impact individual people. But, if you say we’re talking about climate change and severe rain events that lead to mold and mildew at home and the increased threat of asthma, well that’s something people can understand. So, explaining it in the context of public health and wellness can be a really powerful way to tell that story,” she said.

In 2008, Burbach became the first municipal sustainability coordinator in the state of Iowa. She works with city staff to incorporate sustainability into the city’s own internal operations and policies, and she serves as a community liaison to help facilitate many of the city’s public/private partnerships on sustainability.

Each year, Burbach plays a lead role in the city’s annual Growing Sustainable Communities Conference, an educational and networking event that now draws approximately 400 attendees from across the country. The 8th annual conference, which is co-hosted by Sustainable City Network, will be held Oct. 6 and 7 at the Grand River Center in the Port of Dubuque.

The city’s “Sustainable Dubuque” initiative began paying dividends right away. In January 2009, IBM announced it would open a new technology service delivery center in a renovated historic department store in downtown Dubuque, bringing 1,300 jobs to the community.

“Our focus on sustainability was one of the three reasons (IBM) gave for selecting Dubuque out of all the other cities they were looking at in the country,” Buol said. The acquisition not only gave a jolt to the local economy, but it introduced Dubuque to IBM’s research team, unrelated to the service center project. At that time, IBM Research was just beginning to ramp up its “Smarter Planet” campaign and was looking for a typical American city that could serve as a test bed for several of its research projects.

Dubbed locally as the Smarter Sustainable Dubuque project, the research studies included Smarter Water, Smarter Electricity, Smarter Travel, Smarter Discards and, currently under way, Smarter Health and Wellness. The common thread running through all the pilot projects has been the use of IBM-developed software that provides the city and participants with data on resource consumption and/or behaviors that could then be used to encourage beneficial interventions.

Some of the pilots turned in to permanent city-wide programs. For example, the Smarter Water pilot proved that having access to online data about household water usage and leak detection helped reduce water consumption by 6.6 percent among the 300 households in the pilot. The city ultimately installed smart meters city-wide and purchased an integrated online system (not developed by IBM) that provides commercial and residential customers with nearly real-time data on their water usage, compares their usage to that of similar customers, and sends leak and back-flow detection notifications to individual customers who download the free application.

The other studies showed similar results, indicating that people respond positively when they can see data on their usage, how their household compares to similar-sized households in their neighborhood and how taking certain actions (fixing a leak, replacing an appliance, biking to work or composting their food scraps, for example) might save them money and reduce their carbon footprint.

David Lyons, a Dubuque area native and former director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development, is now sustainable innovations manager at the Greater Dubuque Development Corp. (GDDC), the city’s independent economic development group. His job is to “apply a business-case analysis to sustainability efforts” and shepherd along some of the city’s partnership initiatives, including the Smarter Sustainable Dubuque projects with IBM.

“The work we’re doing now, in 2015, 16 and 17, is trying to figuring out how to unleash the data,” Lyons said. “Instead of it being six city council members trying to interpret the data to take action, it’s now going to be how our 60,000 citizens are connected and engaged with the data to take the actions they believe are appropriate.”

Dubuque Information Services Manager Chris Kohlmann, who helped connect the IBM researchers with the local data they needed, said her job is now focused on taking the lessons learned by the research to develop practical applications that can help citizens and improve the efficiency of city services at the macro level.

“We’re not there yet, but my hope is to get really granular with that water data to try to pinpoint where leaks are in the system and potentially look at our paradigms for how we repair and replace water mains more proactively, rather than waiting for a major rupture that usually happens in the middle of winter,” Kohlmann said. Her department is now working on implementing systems that improve the transparency of the city’s financial data and give citizens interactive tools to report service needs and track the progress of public works projects.

Buol said connecting citizens with more of these technological tools will be a government priority for the next few years. “Whether they want to save money or help the environment, people will have the information that’s specific to their household or business so they can make informed decisions about how they can accomplish their goals,” Buol said.

The over-arching objective, said Burbach, is to make data-driven decisions at every level.

In 2012, a team of graduate students from the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning worked with a Dubuque task force to develop a set of 59 specific measurements intended to help the city benchmark and track the progress of its sustainability initiatives. The group looked at more than 1,200 metrics from sustainability plans around the world to come up with those that best fit the city’s goals and aspirations.

“We used that report as a stepping stone to join the Star Communities program a year and a half ago,” Burbach said, “and we just announced in May our four-star certification, which has given us a really solid baseline of where we’re at and where we need improvement. It’s also been part of that larger transition toward becoming a more data-driven organization,” she said.

Some of that data came as no surprise to the people of Dubuque:

“In the Midwest, we’re seeing more frequent and more extreme rain events that are really challenging our stormwater management,” Burbach said. That would be an understatement to the people residing in the Bee Branch watershed on the city’s densely populated north end, an area that has flooded seven times since 1999.

The Bee Branch was a tiny creek that had been converted into an underground storm sewer many decades ago. But with each “unprecedented” flood it became more clear that something had to be done. The solution: Turn that “storm sewer” back into a creek.

The Bee Branch creek restoration project has been a multi-million dollar green infrastructure project that, although not complete, has already protected the neighborhood from a 2011 storm that dropped 10 to 12 inches of rain in a single day – twice the city’s previous record. To make room for the creek, contractors for the city deconstructed more than 80 buildings in the flood-prone area, diverting more than 80 percent of the materials from the landfill. Since then, the city now requires deconstruction and a third-party verified diversion rate of 85 percent on all major demolition projects.

Adaptive reuse, historic preservation and affordable housing are also major priorities in Dubuque. The city, with the help of state and federal grants and private-sector investments, is in the process of restoring more than a million square feet of former warehouse space in its historic millworks district into an energy-efficient and culturally vibrant mixed-use neighborhood adjacent to its downtown. The $200 million redevelopment project incorporates a transit-oriented approach intended to appeal to young professionals and the employers they attract.

Nearby, the historic Washington Street Neighborhood, the oldest and most diverse neighborhood in the city, has been a major focus for reinvestment. Programs to encourage home ownership and rehabilitation, community gardens and equitable access to local amenities are ongoing.

The Dubuque Water & Resource Recovery Center is a new $65 million wastewater treatment facility that is using anaerobic digestion to make valuable resources out of wastewater and other “high-strength” fats and oils produced by local industries.

Lyons said, “The first value product is clean water; the second is the heat that comes from the anaerobic digesters, which is used to heat the plant; a portion of the excess gas is burned in micro-turbines to create most of the electricity the plant needs; and the remaining solids are used as a value-added soil amendment on local farms.”

Lyons said the plant is now generating more methane than it can use, so plans are under way to create a cottage industry around the products generated by the waste. That project, he said, is part of a community-wide effort to better understand materials and how they flow into the city, how they are utilized, and how they are ultimately discarded. The GDDC is working with local entrepreneurs to develop business models that will facilitate these circular processes to create local jobs and reduce waste streams and emissions.

Looking to the future, Buol said resiliency will be a key focus, and he foresees solar energy as a way for businesses and residents to stabilize energy costs and protect against disruptions in the electrical grid. Completion of the Bee Branch flood mitigation project will protect many of Dubuque’s most vulnerable neighborhoods from devastating floods, and continued investments in technology will give citizens and businesses the tools to incorporate sustainability into their daily lives, he said.

While the glitter of Dubuque’s riverfront and burgeoning warehouse district generate the headlines, Buol said some of the city’s biggest accomplishments have been less obvious. “The improvements we made to the infrastructure – our Water and Resource Recovery Center, the sewer systems and roads – were made at a time when borrowing was cheap and we had the capacity to make these investments. These are going to give us an advantage when it comes to job creation and quality of life issues in the coming years,” he said.

While no one can predict what forces, good or bad, might weigh on the city of Dubuque in the future, Mayor Buol said he’s feeling better about the prospects for his 10 grandchildren, all of whom are growing up in the city.

“But, there’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done in this country and around the world when it comes to sustainability,” he said. “That’s what keeps driving us forward.”

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