Guest Columnists

Exploring new solutions to real-world problems

Photo By Youwei
Photo By Youwei

What comes to mind when you hear the word sustainability? Does it invoke pictures of recycling bins? Or solar panels, maybe? Without a doubt, recycling and renewable energy are important sustainability initiatives, but the broader concept of sustainability encompasses many more societal issues. Scholars and practitioners alike often think of sustainability sitting at the intersection of four core principles: environmental conservation, social-cultural equity, economic prosperity, and public health and wellness.

Many Iowa communities are at a sustainability crossroads today, each with a unique set of challenges that influences their ability to thrive and succeed. For some communities, flooding might be the greatest cause for concern, while others focus on economic diversification so that one or two plant closures aren’t cause for economic turmoil. Cities large and small continue to see significant demographic changes, such as increasingly older and/or more diverse populations, and many face community health challenges related to poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles. All these issues relate to sustainability. Now more than ever, communities must adapt and be proactive in order to succeed in a rapidly-changing environment.

The Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities at the University of Iowa seeks to build a more sustainable future for Iowa by partnering students, faculty and staff with communities across the state. These partnerships address real-world challenges and encourage forward-thinking ideas. Collaboration on projects, like the rebranding of a community or development of a health communications campaign on radon, helps communities take meaningful action on important issues, while also providing students the opportunity to develop applicable professional skills.

The Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities mission is twofold: to enhance sustainability in Iowa and to transform teaching and learning at the UI. For communities, the initiative brings hundreds of talented, hardworking students who have creative solutions to address sustainability challenges across the state. The thousands of hours of work completed by UI students, coupled with the experienced oversight of UI faculty and staff, results in real change for partnering communities in Iowa by providing the communities with the resources, research, and background to take immediate action on issues.

Students benefit by working on real-world projects, proposed by communities to address real community needs. These projects take education outside of the classroom and allow the students to implement their studies in a professional setting. The students gain the opportunity to see their academic coursework in action, while also developing skills such as project management and public speaking.

The city of Decorah’s recent approval of a stormwater utility is a great example of how the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities can positively impact students, faculty, staff, and communities. Decorah has long struggled with flooding during storms in certain portions of the community. Graduate students from the UI School of Urban and Regional Planning spent nine months working with the community and city leaders to create a stormwater management plan and funding mechanism for the northeastern Iowa City. Their hard work paid off; Decorah’s new stormwater utility, approved by the city council this fall, paves the way for improvements to stormwater management that will protect infrastructure and property in Decorah. Students received accolades for their project, including an article in a national publication on water management, and several noted that they referenced the project heavily in job interviews.

Building sustainable communities requires collaboration and partnership, and we look forward to continuing to be an active partner in this effort across the state. I encourage you to visit our website at to learn more about the initiative and the projects we have completed in Iowa, as well as ways to partner with us.


• Nick Benson is director of community development and outreach for the UI Provost’s Office of Outreach and Engagement.



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