Underused, flood-prone section of recreation area would become sanctuary for native plants and wildlife
Thursday, May 3, 2018

Early on in the course, University of Iowa urban and regional planning professors Lucie Laurian and Scott Spak asked their students to imagine the perfect landscape. When asked what they saw, many of the students said they envisioned a peaceful place with soft grass, a few shade trees, and a gentle stream or fish pond.

Laurian and Spak told students they were thinking too narrowly. They showed images of natural spaces in China and Japan that depicted jagged mountains, mist-filled valleys, and secluded hermit huts.

Their point was that many people have distorted ideas about outdoor spaces, but they were also getting at the crux of the problem students would have to solve during the Environmental Management and Policy course. They would be tasked with turning an underused and flood-prone section of Terry Trueblood Recreation Area in south Iowa City into an outdoor space that would encourage residents to ditch their own idealized landscapes and immerse themselves in a totally different park experience.

“You are going to create a space that balances human needs and biodiversity,” Laurian told the group of graduate students. “You will have to make the natural process visible: the movement of water in the river, the life cycle of trees and animals, and the slow passage of a thousand years of history. This will not be a typical park.”

The students’ final product—a comprehensive park adaptation plan that will turn what is known as the greenspace at the 152-acre Terry Trueblood Recreation Area into a sustainable wilderness sanctuary for residents to roam and explore—is most likely the first of its kind in the nation. And the reaction from UI President J. Bruce Harreld, who attended students’ final presentation May 2 along with Iowa City Mayor Jim Throgmorton and other city officials, reflected the significance of their accomplishment.

“This is a wonderful piece of work,” Harreld said after the students’ presentation. Harreld, who has made sustainability a cornerstone of his presidency, said he’d like to promote more outdoor spaces as wilderness retreats for students and locals alike. “I feel that many of these spaces are hard to find, and I don’t want to put up neon signs, but there should be a way to indicate that they are there.”

Iowa City officials applauded the plan and said it could serve as a blueprint for future open space projects along the Iowa River. Throgmorton said he and Harreld have talked about ways to improve the riverfront, which winds through both the university campus and city’s center.

“I would also love to see how you could connect the project to other groups of residents,” Throgmorton said, referring to Latino and Sudanese immigrant populations who might not know the park exists. “That will take some creativity, but I’m sure you could come up with something.”

University of Iowa Environmental Management and Policy students tour an underused and flood-prone section of Terry Trueblood Recreation Area in south Iowa City
Lucie Laurian, University of Iowa urban and regional planning professor, and Zac Hall, Iowa City parks superintendent, lead the group down a path in the Terry Trueblood Recreation Area. “Our goal with the project is to bring nature and wilderness back into our public spaces,” says Laurian. “There is ample evidence that residents’ physical and mental health improves significantly with regular access to and contact with nature.” Photo by Tim Schoon.  

The graduate students and their professors took on the project as part of the UI’s annual theme semester, which this year focuses on sustainability, an umbrella term that encompasses environmentalism, social equity, community health, and economic development. The UI’s spring 2018 Climate for Change Theme Semester, which wraps up May 11, includes events, lectures, and discussions, as well as a business sustainability summit at the UI's John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. Besides the UI community, the theme semester involves state and local government officials, and local residents. The annual theme semester is presented by the UI Office of Outreach and Engagement.

The project began in January with a tour of the Terry Trueblood Recreation Area with Iowa City parks officials. Students also visited the greenspace, which includes walking paths and bike trails, on their own to catalog flora and fauna, as well as blocks of concrete, remnants of the quarry once located on site, that have since been covered with graffiti. They scouted out spots for flood-proof signs that would explain the various ecosystems, envisioned the removal of many invasive plant species and the reintroduction of sandbar willows, cypress, and bristly sedge, all native to the region.

“Our goal with the project is to bring nature and wilderness back into our public spaces,” says Laurian. “There is ample evidence that residents’ physical and mental health improves significantly with regular access to and contact with nature.”

Across the U.S. and abroad, people are starting to look at parks in a different way, especially as climate changes alter the physical characteristics of open spaces. This means anticipating environmental changes—both sudden and incremental—and incorporating them into park design and visitor features. The National Park Service, for example, is tracking the onset of spring temperatures (a sign of climate change) and the intensity of wildland fires to better manage and conserve public parklands for visitors and wildlife alike.

Likewise, students had to consider the unique ecological characteristics of the Terry Trueblood greenspace, including its location in the Iowa River floodplain.

“We expect the site to flood at least once every decade, and that the flood waters will linger on site for anywhere from two weeks to twelve weeks,” Kevin Englebert, a graduate student in urban planning from Menasha, Wisconsin, told officials.

The site also has a diverse and intriguing history. It once was home to members of the Meskwaki nation, and was later the location of some of the earliest European settlements in Iowa. Today, the greenspace is dotted with piles of soil and concrete rubble, as well as rusted machinery and DIY bridges used by off-road bicyclists. Students also needed to consider the goals of local parks officials, which meant keeping to a tight budget and including educational elements that would attract new users, including families with young children.

Students also offered a new name for the space, one that will more accurately reflect the site’s natural characteristics and potential uses. The Terry Trueblood Wetland Exploration Trail would promote resilience and ecological regeneration, connect the dots between the space’s past and present, and offer visitors “silent spaces” and “viewsheds” that will calm and intrigue. 

“Adaptation planning is important because we, as planners, are working with a dynamic environment,” says urban and regional planning graduate student Gia DeBartolo of Iowa City, Iowa. “As our population continues to increase and our climate continues to change, viewing plans through the adaptive lens has become more important than ever before. I believe as other cities start to see that these plans are feasible, they will gain popularity.” 

Many public parks and outdoor spaces are “lawn monocultures,” says Laurian, and require significant maintenance in the form of mowing and chemical lawn treatments to kill weeds and keep turf green and lush. Bringing nature back into public parks and outdoor spaces could save time and money, and also help improve soil and water quality.

“I do think these types of adaptation plans will catch on because they save money, which means a lot to public officials in times of tight budgets,” says Laurian. “Also, these parks look great and people will enjoy them and want to spend time in them.”

As they neared the end of the planning process, students had a chance to present their plan to Zachary Hall, a 2015 graduate of the School of Urban and Regional Planning who is superintendent of parks and forestry for Iowa City. Hall encouraged students to keep the area as natural as possible, and to keep signs to a minimum. He said he liked their ideas of turning the space into one where residents could stroll through forests, idle along the river, and reconnect with nature.

“I wish I could have worked on a project like this when I was going through the program,” Hall said.

Students, who enrolled in the UI’s School of Urban and Regional Planning program because of its first-rate reputation, say they were grateful for the opportunity to work on such a unique project. The program is one of a few in the nation to offer an applied environmental planning experience as part of a single course. The program’s faculty includes professors with environmental science training and adaptation planning experience—a rare combination.

“This experience was a great introduction to environmental planning,” Englebert said. “It taught me how to synthesize information from vastly different disciplines and put it all together in one plan for one specific area. … For example, we have examined everything from flooding in Iowa City to habitat requirements for migratory birds and federal agricultural policy.”

For many students, the experience reaffirmed their commitment to working on sustainability issues.

“Prior to this class, I had never worked on any type of municipal plan before,” says DeBartolo. “Having now done so, I'm surprised by how much work goes into these plans. It's given me a greater appreciation not only for those who work in the public sector, but also for those who aren't afraid to say ‘let's try something new.’ I can’t wait to work on more projects like this one in the future.”