Municipal leaders and staff in large metro areas face ongoing maintenance of roads, bridges, sewers, housing, transit fleets, and other fixtures of urban life. Small towns have infrastructure and amenities to work on, too, but on a smaller scale.
Some projects can be as simple as installing an attractive welcome sign at the city limits and putting a little landscaping around it. Other needs are more complex, like rejuvenating structures on Main Street or making sidewalks compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Small towns aren't simply miniature versions of their metropolitan counterparts. Often, they have far fewer resources and local expertise to accomplish important goals.
Since 1996 a collaboration has helped Iowa towns with populations of less than 10,000 people make their visions a reality. Iowa's Living Roadways Community Visioning program is a partnership of the Iowa Department of Transportation, the Living Roadway Trust Fund, Iowa State University, and Trees Forever. The program was developed as part of an effort to make professional landscape and other design services available to small Iowa communities.
The visioning program has moved towns in 92 of Iowa's 99 counties from the dreaming and planning stages to the implementation and accomplishment stages on a vast array of civic projects. During the last 20 years, 235 communities across the state have gone through a community visioning process, some more than once. Approximately 98 percent of visioning communities complete at least one project, organizers say. Nearly half complete four or more projects.
In 2010, the partnership developed a trails program to help small towns plan walking and biking trails in their communities. Like their Living Roadways counterparts, these towns complete a multi-month visioning process intended to make them more competitive when applying for grants to fund corollary roadside and trailside projects that use native plants. Sometimes communities apply for both programs, but the two processes are independent of each other. Trails Visioning is designed for trail groups or communities that have trails already in place but lack amenities such as wayfinding signage, trailhead enhancements, or other elements that can improve safety or the user experience.
Principal investigator and program director Julia Badenhope established and piloted the participatory planning process that became the Community Visioning Program. She has been a member of the Iowa State University landscape architecture faculty since 1993.
"The Community Visioning Program integrates landscape planning and design with sustainable action to assist community leaders and volunteers in making sound and meaningful decisions about their local landscapes," Badenhope said. "The program empowers local leaders through a planning process that results in a transportation enhancement plan reflecting the values and identity of the community."
Although all Iowa towns of fewer than 10,000 residents are eligible to apply, there is a competitive selection process. Successful applicants must have volunteers, government representatives, and interest groups that collaborate to complete the visioning process. Community visioning applicants are asked how local transportation systems — including sidewalks, trails and streets — enhance or detract from local residents’ and visitors’ use and enjoyment of services and amenities their community offers. They are asked whether these systems allow good access to important services, promote healthy lifestyles and enhance the natural environment. They describe whether all residents, including youth, and the elderly and disabled, have access to desired destinations, and whether the visual quality of the system supports use and reflects community identity.
Leaders from each organization of the partnership meet annually in Ames, Iowa, to celebrate the achievements of the communities that have participated in the program during the current year or in years past. It is also a time when new Visioning communities launch the planning process they will work on in the coming year.
Iowa towns selected for 2016-2017 community visioning include Adel, pop. 3,682; Clarion, pop. 2,800, Granger, pop. 1,350, Greene, pop. 1,135; Humboldt, pop. 4,650; Lester, pop. 296; Massena, pop. 255; Morning Sun, pop. 836; Scranton, pop. 550, and Varina, pop. 75.
The city of Imogene, in Iowa's southwestern-most county, was a Trails Visioning community in 2011. Resident Becca Castle said that due to population loss and other factors, the town had considered the extreme measure of disincorporation. Though the population within city limits hovered around 70 residents, Castle said outsiders interested in the Wabash Trace Nature Trail rallied to help the town. The trail, a 63-mile converted railroad right-of-way, runs through Imogene.
Town leaders formed a group known as the Sons and Daughters of Imogene, that included people from outside the town. Organizers began with Trails Visioning and moved into completing several projects. Castle said ideas started big, then were eventually narrowed to a few achievable goals. These included a better welcome sign for the town and facilities for trail users.
Volunteers located an 18-foot grain bin and converted it into restrooms and showers at the trailhead. Along with that, they added campsites with electrical hookups as well as a primitive area for tent campers.
"This showed the community we were doing something besides meeting and trying to raise money," Castle said. They've found that one successful grant often leads to another project, which leads to positive publicity, which gives weight to future grant applications and brings more interest from tourists. For example, Imogene was pictured on the cover of an Iowa Travel Guide, featuring the trail, a bar, and a restaurant, which increased tourist interest in the town. "This showed us Imogene wasn't dying and we could keep momentum going," Castle said.
Her advice to incoming communities: "Keep it fun. Nothing can be accomplished without volunteers. Sometimes just tell someone that they don't have to go to meetings but tell them, 'We need you and your skid loader to do help us do this one thing.'"
Retired social studies teacher and coach Richard Gruber has been mayor of Pocahontas, Iowa, since 2010. He said the town was named Pocahontas simply "on the whim of a legislator down in Des Moines long ago." The town has found a way to make that whim the centerpiece of its public persona. This northwest Iowa town of 1,732 bills itself as the Princess City, playing on its famous namesake.
In 2014, the Pocahontas Visioning steering committee identified five priorities: beautifying Main Street, improving safety and aesthetics at the intersection of two busy highways, developing a trails plan, enhancing a primary corridor through town, and updating the city parks.
Like many small towns, Pocahontas is full of people who have resources and capability to do hands-on work. Of the town's Princess Park, Gruber said the tall statue of the princess herself turned 60 a few years ago. Residents started saying that she needed a facelift. When Gruber asked local painters for bids he learned it would cost a few thousand dollars. As mayor, he had access to the city boom truck. He got up in the bucket and he and other volunteers repainted the maiden themselves.
After that improvement, it was time to rebuild the long-gone park teepee. Gruber said they received funds from a local casino, found a teepee design on the internet, and constructed a 30-foot tall metal structure with six panels. A local blacksmith figured out a safe and logical way to hoist the panels, so now the Princess statue doesn't stand alone, unsheltered. Also, the town has added a cabin to the tableau, and residents are now determining what should be placed in it; perhaps a museum, an event center, or some other function benefiting the community.
Local school children have been involved in landscaping the park, which Gruber says helps them learn to be involved from a young age. Meantime, the other aspects of the visioning plan are underway. Gruber's message to incoming program communities is that "with energy, enthusiasm and willingness for volunteers to pitch in, almost anything is possible."
Steve Gustafson, from Nashua, Iowa, says he had "a calling" to return from retirement in Florida and help improve his hometown. Despite its small population of 1,663 residents, Nashua is a regional hub of recreational activity in north central Iowa. Most tourism is focused on the Cedar Lake and the Cedar River, and some locally historic sites. In its application to the Community Visioning Program, the Nashua steering committee described Main Street as unattractive, with one of the “lowest occupancy rates in northeast Iowa.”
Gustafson described their visioning process as "more than a program of building trails or improving the downtown. It was the catalyst to reawaken a community. In spite of everything, we were going downhill. A new path was needed."
When he started the application process, Gustafson looked for eight people willing to dedicate 100 hours over an eight-month period as steering committee members. When he got 18, he knew "something special was happening," he said. He estimated that 200 townspeople had contributed to some phase of the community visioning process.
Gustafson had noticed that in the past, projects around Nashua were implemented by disconnected groups, led by "community leaders who kept information for themselves." Gustafson said, "The key is to make information free and involve as many people as possible."
The visioning process led them to develop many projects, including identifying city-owned properties that could be repurposed for development. They are starting with large, not small projects, which he calls a big change in attitude. For example, not long ago Nashua had six unused lots in the commercial district, now there is only one.
"People are stepping forward and there is momentum. Nashua is on its way back," he said.
His advice to communities starting the visioning process: "Information is free, there should be no secret agendas. Publicize. Invite broad participation, listen to your residents, listen to the experts...."
Villisca, population 1,252, is located in southwest Iowa. Teacher and city council member Lee Haidsiak describes his community as a "low income, bedroom community" that's about 15 miles from three county seats, and 30 miles from a larger community. After several years of discussion, in 2013, it entered whole grade sharing with the larger town of Corning, in which Corning's junior high went to Villisca and that town's high school students went to Corning. "In many small towns, the largest employers are the school, the nursing home and farmers' cooperative," Haidsiak said. When you lose your school you lose a large part of your identity."
In the face of these challenges, the visioning steering committee formed in 2012 and through the Community Visioning program identified several areas of focus: updating or improving signage, developing walking trails connecting the town to recreational amenities; improving sidewalks and streetscapes, making intersections more accessible, and revitalizing storefronts.
Haidsiak learned that involving groups who'd long been instrumental in the town's progress was a good idea. In Villisca that meant the Future Farmers of America, the Lions Club, members of the city council, staff from the school, the city supervisor, business people, and citizens of all ages.
"We got all areas of the community involved," he said. They've been able to improve the city's main entryway, which had previously been a dumping ground for old concrete and rebar, smoothed over with dirt. Now the entryway is landscaped and the statue of a pig, an emblem from the town's heyday as the pork capital of Iowa, has had a facelift.
"If you hit a snag there's always something else to do. This thing isn't going away," Haidsiak said. For instance, their current trails project is on hold, because of issues involved with the terrain they'd identified for the location.
Meanwhile, business owners have been motivated to upgrade the appearance of their locations because of improvements they see around them, and the school has expanded its tree planting program to get students involved.
"Do visioning with the idea that you're never going to get done," Haidsiak advised.
Julianne Couch is the author of The Small-town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-First Century.