Iowa City Climate Action Plan: Creating a Regenerative City In The Heartland

In the face of the "rapid onset" of 1,000-year floods, as reported by Slate meteorologist Eric Holthaus on the recent deluge in Maryland and West Virginia, should flood-prone river towns like Iowa City pursue incremental and piecemeal sustainability efforts or take the lead in setting out a "regenerative city" climate action plan?

For numerous Iowa City advocates, experts and innovators, who have held public Ecopolis Forums over the past two years on regenerative city initiatives, it's time for Iowa City to rethink, re-evaluate and re-imagine the ways it deals with energy, food, transit and biodiversity restoration--and turn its recently passed Regenerative City Proclamation into a climate action plan.

Eight years after the historic Iowa River flood swamped the city and left behind an estimated $1 billion in area damages, the city of Iowa City is investing $60 million in raising a "gateway" transit route only one foot above the 100-year flood level, and planning to hire an outside facilitator for a newly formed Climate Change Task Force, in order to draw up recommendations for 2018 and build on its STAR sustainability rating. Iowa City earned a 40 out of 100 rating on key Climate and Energy STAR benchmarks.

An Iowa City climate action plan ready to launch in 2016, based on a regenerative city framework, which seeks to create a restorative relationship between cities, local habitat and natural resources, could include some of the following measures:

Bringing Climate Action to the Public Commons
From public art, such as the proposed solar tree by the 100 Grannies, to educational city showcases, such as solar panels on City Hall, pesticide-free signs posted on public commons, orchards planted on city-owned lots, or a Climate Action and Education Center in the Riverfront Park, Iowa City officials need to actively promote public events, workshops and community discussions on how climate action is "a central priority in strategic planning" and daily life, as declared in the Regenerative City Proclamation.

Urban planning must no longer be the exclusive domain of a handful of city staff and stakeholders, but a process for public participation that brings together policy makers, entrepreneurs and the civil society. Transparency is key to this component; for example, while the city of Iowa City solicited a power purchase agreement proposal for a solar energy installation on City Hall nearly two years ago, which included a zero down and zero incremental cost option over 30 years, the proposal was never discussed in public forums.

Climate Action Partnerships
A true Iowa City climate action plan must be developed with the University of Iowa, the Iowa City Community School District, the adjoining city of Coralville, and Johnson County.

Incubating Green Jobs and Green Business
As the home of the University of Iowa, Iowa City should establish green enterprise zones, provide support and assistance for green job clusters and start-ups, and set benchmarks to significantly expand the number of green jobs in the areas of energy efficiency, green building design and construction, local food and farming, technology and design.

Big Grove: Soil Carbon Sequestration Campaign
While Adelaide, Australia planted 3 million trees as part of its regenerative city initiative, Iowa City should work with its area partners to plant 400,000 trees over the next 4 years, led by the expertise of nationally acclaimed Iowa City farmer and permaculture expert Grant Schultz and Versaland, which recently released this video production on planting 10,000 trees:

Establish Riverfront Crossings District as an EcoDistrict
As a follow up to a recent ordinance mandating inclusionary zoning in the Riverfront Crossings District, which was devastated during the 2008 flood, Iowa City should pass a similar series of ordinances for walkability measures, public transit and biking, and requirements for all new buildings to be carbon neutral or include geothermal and photovoltaic solar panels; built-in recycling and composting; integrated edible landscaping; and water infiltration features surrounded by food-bearing plants.

The proposed Riverfront Park, in a city with abundant opportunities for grass and shade trees, should be developed as a showcase for local food, biodiversity and river restoration education.

Net Zero Energy Buildings, Energy Efficiency and Solar Mandates
While Iowa City, like much of Iowa, receives 31% of its electricity from wind energy production, Iowa City should take the lead in promoting Net Zero Energy Building development, and adopt two goals: a requirement for 25 percent of municipal energy use and new building permits to be provided by on-site renewable energy (solar, geothermal) within 2020; and a 2030 Challenge requirement for all new buildings and existing innovation projects to be designed and built to meet energy efficiency standards of 70 percent below the regional average EUI for that building type.

Local Food: 40% by 2020
Given that Iowa City's community gardens can be counted on one hand, compared to Chicago's 800-plus urban farms, and roughly 90% of all food is imported, Iowa City must revamp antiquated zoning policies for urban farming, support the development of a food hub, provide financial assistance for local food business and community garden expenses, and require public and private institutions that receive funding from the City of Iowa City to purchase at a minimum of 40% of their food from local sources.

Similarly, a New Iowans Food and Farm Project could provide city-owned lots and assistance to the growing immigrant community with extensive agricultural backgrounds, such as the Sudanese community, who are actively looking to expand local food markets.

Zero Waste Ordinance
Building on Iowa City's excellent reycling and reuse endeavors, including forthcoming changes in mandatory apartment recycling, Iowa City should pass a Zero Waste Ordinance with the goal of generating new materials and compost from 85 percent of its waste by 2025.

Wheels and Walking: Transit
Iowa City is currently pursuing a goal to achieve a gold-level designation from the League of American Bicyclists. While 20% of commuters in the university town walk or bike, less than 10% opt for mass transit. Iowa City should continue to set walkability and bike-ability benchmarks, like Copenhagen, where 50% of all commute trips are made by bicycle, and bicycles outnumber residents, 560,000 bicycles to 520,000 inhabitants.

UPDATED: Greenhouse Gas Emission Reductions Goals
As temperature records surpass earlier warnings, reaching 1.3C warmer than the pre-industrial average according to NASA calculations in July, any goals for CO2 emissions reductions must be updated, as well. The Chicago Climate Action Plan, passed several years ago, calls for a 25 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020. This summer, in an updated measure, the state of California passed a bill to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels.

As the White House noted this spring, "climate change poses a serious danger to public health -- worse than polio in some respects -- and will strike especially hard at pregnant women, children, low-income people and communities of color."

It's time for cities, like Iowa City, to no longer delay on climate action. It's time for Iowa City to put its resources behind local innovators, overhaul old ordinances, and turn its Regenerative City Proclamation into an action plan.