Can an alleyway have potential? Geoff Fruin, city manager for Iowa City, thinks so—especially the ones in the Iowa City Downtown District.
“They are traditionally used for back-of-house operations such as waste disposal, but there is a lot more potential to be tapped,” Fruin says. “Potential for public art. Potential for special events. Even potential for alleys to allow businesses to add an additional storefront.”
As thousands of RAGBRAI riders pour into Iowa City Friday, July 27, the city’s downtown district—alleyways included—will serve as an entertainment hub for cyclists, citizens, and other visitors. But that might not have been possible without a partnership between the city and the University of Iowa’s Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities (IISC).
“We challenged them to help us chart a path forward,” Fruin says. “They did a great job for us.”
A program within the UI’s Office of Outreach and Engagement, the IISC does “place-based community engagement,” says Nicholas Benson, director of Community Outreach and Engagement.
“Instead of spreading students across 20, 30, or 40 different communities, we take students—undergrads and graduate students—and place them in one community or one region or one county for one year,” Benson said. “As a result of this program, a community may receive 20,000 to 30,000 hours of work from UI students and faculty.”
In order to work with the IISC, potential participants must take part in a competitive request-for-proposals (RFP) process in which the communities outline the projects they would like completed with help from UI students and faculty.
After Iowa City won the RFP process in 2014, an IISC staff member worked with the city to pair students and faculty with the appropriate projects. Since its founding in 2009, the IISC has paired students from every college on campus with community projects, Benson says.
“We never create new classes,” Benson says. “We always work in courses that already exist. We are just adding or enhancing the element of community engagement in the course.”
The IISC completed a multitude of projects with the city of Iowa City over the course of the partnership, which was also extended for a second year. Graduate students in the Department of English, working with the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, created a website examining the history of Iowa City’s parks and their connection to the community. College of Public Health students created a radon awareness campaign with Johnson County and the city of Iowa City. A class called Urban Ecology studied ways to improve urban habitats for pollinators like bees and other beneficial insects in the city.
And then there were the alleyways. Fruin says city leaders knew they needed to clean up the alleys downtown to make them more accessible. At the recommendation of students in the School of Urban and Regional Planning, businesses downtown worked with the city to competitively select one waste management company instead of each business contracting with different companies. Businesses began using communal trash and recycling receptacles, rather than one for each business, Fruin says.
The end result was businesses recycling more, saving money, and diverting waste from the landfill. The city, in turn, has been able to get more use out of the alleys thanks to fewer waste receptacles and garbage truck traffic. Fruin says that has allowed the city and the business community to use alleys as places to showcase public art or host events, such as movie screenings and fashion shows.
“None of that would be possible if it wasn’t for the IISC program and the students doing the research and showing us a path forward,” Fruin says.
Fruin, who joined the IISC advisory board earlier this year, says the program allowed the city to tackle projects that long had been pushed to the back burner.
“It was kind of a shot in the arm, this jolt of energy that allowed us to do more than we otherwise would have been able to do,” he says.
Adds Fruin, “As I talk with my peers in Iowa, everyone is very, very appreciative of the work that happens in their communities. IISC provides a great partnership that has helped communities, in every corner of the state.”
Benson says that while the partnership between the IISC and communities across the state typically lasts only a year, the idea is to build connections that last for years to come.
“What we try to do is think about that long-term relationship with the community and how we can continue to move forward with that relationship,” Benson says. “Our goal is to make sure communities have strong relationships with the UI and they understand how to tap into all of the resources we have at the university.”