116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — After approaching devastating floods, the destructive 2020 derecho and disruptive COVID-19 pandemic with a “build back better” mindset, award-winning journalists Deb and Jim Fallows told a Cedar Rapids audience Wednesday that Iowa’s second-largest city is poised to lead the way among mid-size American cities in defining urban living.
In a public discussion hosted by the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance at the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library, the duo of former journalists for the Atlantic magazine shared some of the traits they see of thriving communities around the country. They said Cedar Rapids is well-positioned for the civic and economic rebirth of American communities, particularly emerging from the pandemic.
The Fallowses in 2018 published “Our Towns,” a portrait of the civic and economic reinvention taking place in towns across the U.S. largely out of view of the national media. The popular book was adapted into an HBO documentary last year.
Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell said the city’s investment in a permanent $750 million flood control system after the 2008 flood offers an example of how the city has rebuilt strategically to help more people. And as the city replants thousands of trees that were downed in the derecho’s hurricane-force winds, she noted that among the first areas to get new trees were neighborhoods that lacked them before the storm hit.
She said those are signs that Cedar Rapids creates its own model for success.
“We create stuff, we build stuff, we start from zero and decide what we want that to look like,” O’Donnell said. “What we've done with the floods and the derecho is we took that adversity, and we decided that we were going to use that as an opportunity and re-imagined not only what we were as a city, but how we can be a better city for everyone.”
Economic Alliance Executive Director Doug Neumann asked about the role natural disasters should play in how the city markets itself and tells its own story, as some seem to have grown weary of the narrative of devastation.
Deb said she was struck by a sense of urgency in Cedar Rapids that is likely driven by the trifecta of natural disasters and other events, and said that urgency will be a driving force in moving the city forward and fearlessly considering new ideas that emerge.
It’s important to acknowledge this part of Cedar Rapids history so that future generations born after these disasters don’t hear about it in “an ugly way,” Deb said, but more as a matter-of-fact statement of the city’s identity. Plus, with the flood only 14 years in the city’s rearview mirror, she said time will likely iron out the story naturally.
“It seems like this is a natural point of transition that it will resolve itself in another 15 years or something … but it won’t be the predominant story and people in the Legislature won’t say, ‘Stop talking about it,’” she said.
Every community by definition is unique, Jim said, but many places such as hurricane-ravaged New Orleans have been through hard times. Cedar Rapids is showing how a new urban life can be built. It is among the leading-edge vanguard of communities trying to take progressive steps to address the climate crisis with something like its Community Climate Action Plan steering sustainability.
“Resilience is very important for the country in its climate future, but newness — you’re making a new city,” he said.
He suggested it matters more that Cedar Rapids is appealing than unique. Jim and Deb Fallows said amenities such as trails and bike trails, a thriving craft brewery scene, public art and other quality-of-life investments are key to attracting people to live and work in a certain place.
Nikki Wilcox, communications and marketing director for the Economic Alliance, wrote in an email that “while we hope Cedar Rapids could be featured in a future Fallows publication, nothing is currently in the works or decided upon.”
“Jim and Deb are nationally known speakers and if another book or documentary isn’t in the works, we hope that the Fallows share our story as they continue traveling to amazing cities across the country and remind people of our story and our innovative attitude,” Wilcox said.
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