Guest Columnists

Design eastern Iowa communities to support communication, interaction and learning

Nicholas Johnson ¬ University of Iowa
Nicholas Johnson ¬ University of Iowa

There were a lot of activists’ movements during the 1960s and ‘70s — anti-war, pro-environment, the rights of women and African Americans, among others — their individual first priorities.

As a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission during those years, the ways in which those movements were impacted by the role of the mainstream media, and the rules by which commercial media operated and was regulated, became very clear. The media reform movement was born and grew out of that awareness. As I put it at the time, “Whatever is your first priority, your second priority has to be media reform” — which ultimately contributed the book title, Your Second Priority (2008).

It was a new way of thinking about reform of government, politics, and public policy.

Today’s Gazette columns focus on our communities’ opportunities involving everything from affordable and integrated housing to health care, from parks and walkable cities to justice and police relations, economic growth to creative communities.

Just as activists can benefit by giving attention to the role of the media, so can those concerned about improving our communities benefit by considering the role of communications. Just as we have environmental impact statements, we might benefit from communications impact statements.

A 400-word column can’t begin to identify the hundreds of categories of cities’ communications opportunities, let alone explore them. But here are three illustrations.

Housing. Urban planning, the arrangement of suburban homes, or common space in apartment units, the availability of sidewalks and bike paths, can tend to increase, or decrease, chance meetings and conversation. Location of housing and schools can produce either the integration, or the segregation, of socio-economic classes, races and religions.

Analytics. The early Greeks spoke of analytics, and most city governments and residents have some access to data about their community and themselves. The movie “Money Ball” dramatized analytics’ relevance to baseball. But the City of Boston has pushed it to a whole new level.

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Learning communities. Learning can be everywhere — not just museums (Iowa Hall), places (Devonian Gorge), structures (Plum Grove; Mormon handcart site). It can also come from watching a sushi chef, or reading a business building’s history on a plaque.

There are thousands more words to be written about our communities’ second priority. And we haven’t even touched on more obvious features, such as public access cable channels, websites, blogs, meeting spaces, and libraries.

Think about it. We can do it.

• Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner, advocates information architecture and visible cities. He maintains nicholasjohnson.org and FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com. Contact: mailbox@nicholasjohnson.org

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