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NOTEBOOK: Big ideas for Des Moines via Mario Gandelsonas


Jim Cownie was gracious enough to help connect us with renowned urban planner Mario Gandelsonas, who was all set to fly in from the East Coast to participate on our panel at our Oct. 25 Power Breakfast focusing on Des Moines’ likely march to 1 million residents by 2040. That was until a nasty round of storms canceled Gandelsonas’ flight. Despite his best efforts, he wasn’t able to make it. Gandelsonas has been influencing the city and its planning efforts for three decades, including his involvement in the Des Moines Vision Plan. Although he was disappointed he couldn’t attend the Power Breakfast, he graciously sent over a few ideas that he was hoping to convey at the event. What follows is a lightly edited version of his comments: 


I would like to go back to “The Tomorrow Plan” of 2013 and expand on a few new issues. The plan deals with regional sustainable development planning and describes the region and its progress from 1990 when Des Moines was considered one of the worst places to live, and the current situation where Des Moines is seen as one of the most desirable places to live in the Midwest. I would like to propose three issues that in my opinion will become very relevant in 2040: 

1. The place of downtown in the regional network of towns.

I would like to start with an issue that is understated in the Tomorrow Plan, the particular role of downtown Des Moines as the place that stands as a symbol of the entire metropolitan region. The change of downtown from the 1970s when the regional towns grew while the downtown went through a long period of negative growth, and the present condition where the downtown is in the process of growing a robust residential presence and is developing a unique identity as a cultural center with a plurality of people places. Downtown has been radically restructured through a process that started 25 years ago with the Des Moines Vision Plan of 1990. The plan has fostered the city’s significant urban transformation through several successful projects, including new commercial developments that are reversing the flight to the suburbs, new residential developments that have people flocking back to the downtown by the thousands, new public spaces featuring the best art of our time, new cultural institutions, and an increasing number of exciting events and fairs. This process has enough momentum to keep growing for years to come. The question in my view is how to energize the entire region to produce a network of centers, each with its own identity to be reinforced, that will produce a unique constellation of urban places that will define the future city of Des Moines.  

2. The role of the regional water infrastructure, including greenways, in establishing what I call a “fluvial network” at a regional level.

The fluvial network is a new idea of a greenway as a continuous corridor with the rivers as a “spine,” running near the towns, that would include not only leisure and recreation but also  farming. Not just open-air farming, but also greenhouses that would supply farmers markets and indoor markets. And at the same time it would be a place where actions and events related to health and to sustainability would be staged. The navigable rivers would also be used for the transportation of materials to recycling plants that would eliminate landfills by 2040.

3. The future role of tourism and the development of the hospitality industry based on the historic, artistic and architectural local assets unique to the Des Moines metropolitan area.
Each of the larger towns will showcase its historical, artistic and architectural assets, advanced technology and year-round greenhouses and markets. The Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation, providing the institutional framework for public arts, is a first step in this direction. Downtown Des Moines has been setting an example in the last 20 years with its emphasis on the public display of sculptures by the best international artists, by having its buildings designed by some of the best-known architects of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century, and by developing what is considered one of the best farmers markets in the country.

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