Johnson County leaders hope to build a new vision for the region in 2030 and beyond by focusing on the environment, neighborhoods, online and offline connections, inclusive economy and reimagined social services.
The Better Together 2030 plan, released Monday, is an initiative by a group of locally elected educational, business and community leaders that aims to implement a set of goals to improve Johnson County communities . The group’s report identifies five focus areas with 11 goals, ranging from making the Iowa River a distinctive attraction for residents and visitors to ensuring access to affordable broadband and childcare.
The report calls these priority areas a “North Star” for the fellowship and identifies them as priorities to be achieved.
This group hails from Project Better Together, the community support effort aimed at helping the community recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The new Vision 2030 aims to continue this work.
The group’s steering committee is chaired by University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson, Iowa City Area Development Group President and CEO Kate Moreland, and South District Neighborhood Association President Angie Jordan. The group hired Rebecca Ryan of NEXT Generation Consulting to help with the project.
Kim Casko, the president and CEO of the Iowa City Area Business Partnership, and Nancy Bird, the director of the Iowa City Downtown District, shared the results of their ten months of work Monday at the Local Governments’ Joint Entities Meeting.
“We have to be responsive to people’s needs and what they need to live in this community, to feel like they have a living wage, they have a great job, they have food, they have basic housing. All of these things are critical,” Bird said.
The facilitators informed the elected officials that they will implement their plan by presenting it to government agencies and community groups, and eventually reaching out to the wider community to implement some of these steps.
Here are some takeaways from the Better Together 2030 strategies and what could shape Johnson County’s future.
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Iowa River becomes “Signature Destination”
The first focus area of the plan is to be champions of the natural environment. It focuses on two areas: making the Iowa River a destination and deepening partnerships within the county to develop and implement sustainable practices.
The plan states that flooding in 1993 and 2008 caused Johnson County communities to turn their backs on the Iowa River. The plan, called The Iowa River Destination Project, is said to “encompass the beauty of the meandering river that cuts through its own heart.”
The plan calls for investment in boat access ramps, hiking trails, amphitheater, a skate park, bike trails, potential white water rafting, zip lines and a pedestrian bridge. The plan states that residents should experience the river through recreational and related entertainment events, but also participate in the care and maintenance of the river through volunteer and civic efforts.
Iowa City has set a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and has made progress toward that goal, but much of that has been due to MidAmerican Energy’s clean energy initiatives and other smaller sustainability efforts. Coralville, North Liberty and other cities in the region have not committed to such a goal.
The plan cites Iowa City’s Climate Action Plan and three other regional initiatives as “ingredients” to being a national example of sustainability. These include:
- The University of Iowa Engineering School and Mubeen Research Group are turning trash into sustainable energy, producing renewable hydrogen from sunlight and water, and working on energy storage solutions to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
- The Eastern Iowa Electric Vehicle Readiness Plan, which could help the region convert its vehicle fleet and reduce carbon emissions.
- Wings 2 Water and other partnerships aimed at reducing nutrient runoff, restoring local water quality and eliminating the dead zone.
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Focus on districts and economic centers
A major focus of the Better Together 2030 plan is to create and strengthen community centers. The plan envisions Johnson County with dozens of vibrant neighborhoods, arts and creative districts, downtown and retail districts, and entertainment districts.
The plan cites two efforts already at play in Johnson County as examples of what can happen: the success of Iowa City’s South District Neighborhood Association and North Liberty’s Neighborhood Ambassadors program.
The plan says the new South District Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District (SSMID) is an example of what’s possible when neighbors work together to define a vision for their own economic prosperity.
North Liberty’s Neighborhood Ambassadors program works with more than 40 volunteer leaders across the city to help residents get involved in local government, nurture future leaders, and engage in neighborhood-level problem-solving with parking, barking dogs, shoveling snow, mowing lawns , noise and fireworks enhance concerns.
The Better Together 2030 plan proposes utilizing community improvement neighborhood centers focused on growth, mixed-use neighborhoods, the Iowa River, the University of Iowa, and industry, research and innovation.
The plan also recommends locating and investing in innovation zones and creative hubs where networks of writers, artists, musicians, educators and entrepreneurs can live and work together.
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Plan aims to connect the community both online and offline
The third point of the plan focuses on connecting the community both digitally and personally through an improved regional transit system and ensuring people have access to high-quality broadband.
One goal of the Better Together 2030 vision is to invest in a regional transit system and points to the Iowa City Area Transit study as a good place to start. These regional transit improvements include:
- Extended bus service on Saturday and evening and added bus service on Sunday.
- Free bus rides for all users.
- On-demand bus service to lower density areas.
- Common and improved bus stops.
- Integration of traffic systems with bicycle facilities.
The plan ranks Iowa 43rd nationwide for internet speed, but shows that much of Johnson County has reasonable speeds. Many residents have a bad internet connection.
The plan aims to ensure Johnson County residents have access to high-speed Internet, but does not provide details on how to improve access to low-speed areas in the county.
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Other goals: Affordable housing, childcare, art in public spaces and social services
The plan focuses on other avenues for bettering society, including affordable housing, childcare, public art and inclusive economic development.
All of these areas have been a focus of elected officials.
For the full plan, visit the Better Together 2030 website at https://icareatogether.com/better-together-2030/.
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George Shillcock is Press-Citizen’s local government and development reporter for Iowa City and Johnson County. He can be reached at (515) 350-6307, GShillcock@press-citizen.com and on Twitter @ShillcockGeorge