Editorial: Iowa City a model mid-sized town


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According to a recent city report, nearly every Iowa City resident lives within a half-mile of open space in the form of a park, schoolyard, or natural area.

The city’s 2013 Sustainability Assessment found that 99.4 percent of Iowa City’s population lives near such open spaces.

What’s notable about this number is that Iowa City has maintained widespread access to open space despite having the state’s highest urban-population density. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Iowa City’s population density is 2,713 people per square mile. That’s far higher than the average population density of cities such as Cedar Rapids (1,734 people per square mile) and other college towns such as Ames and Cedar Falls (2,435 and 1,366 people per square mile, respectively).

Iowa City has achieved a sustainable balance of high population density and widespread access to open space that should serve as a model for the region’s midsize cities that are too often plagued by suburban sprawl.

The city’s abundant open space is achieved largely by design. The city’s 1994 Open Space Ordinance requires residential developers to provide for the establishment of open space in the neighborhoods they develop.

City Parks and Recreation Director Mike Moran told The Daily Iowan that the city often seeks to add more parkland and open space to reap the economic benefits. Access to nearby parks can make neighborhoods more desirable, and property values rise, for example.

But a high-density city with lots of open space has many benefits beyond appreciating property values that aren’t so easily quantified.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found, for example, that people exercise more when they have access to parks. Increased access to parks and other “places for physical activity” led to a 25.6 percent increase in the percentage of people who exercise three or more days per week.

High-density areas that are more “walkable” also tend to have lower rates of obesity.
Some studies also indicate that access to green areas is highly correlated to overall mental and physical wellbeing.

Beyond the physical benefits, the environmental value of higher-density living is undeniable. In communities characterized by suburban sprawl ­— typically consisting of a seemingly endless chain of strip malls separated by distances that necessitate an automobile — individuals drive approximately 30 percent more than city-dwellers and consume about twice as much land, according to a paper published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

The disparity between higher density living and suburban sprawl is demonstrated locally by Iowa City in the former role and Coralville in the latter. Coralville, with a population density of 1,574 residents per square mile, is highly decentralized and difficult to traverse without a car.

But places such as Coralville, not Iowa City, seem to be the norm among midsize Midwestern cities. This is likely because Iowa City’s relatively high population density is, in many ways, an anomaly.

Iowa City has remained relatively centralized thanks to the presence of the University of Iowa near the town’s center.

Regardless of its origin, however, the benefit of higher-density city with abundant open space is clear. Other cities in the region would be wise to build themselves in Iowa City’s image.

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