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The Tomorrow Plan: What could Greater Des Moines look like in 2050?

Plan aims to help residents decide what the future holds for Greater Des Moines region


Regional planning isn’t an exact science. Officials working with the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (MPO) The Tomorrow Plan are well aware of that. In public meetings earlier this year, they rolled out a possible “business-as-usual” scenario of what Greater Des Moines could look like in the year 2050, based on current zoning restrictions and patterns of development.

They were quick to issue two cautions: The Tomorrow Plan isn’t pushing for the business-as-usual scenario, or any scenario, and residents have the power to decide how they want to shape the region over the next 40 or so years.

The MPO and its consultants on the plan, which include RDG Planning & Design and Massachusetts-based design firm Sasaki Associates Inc., are trying to create a model for the future, with the input of everyone in Greater Des Moines.

“It’s all about what the people want, and we’re trying to get that collective vision for the region,” said Bethany Wilcoxon, associate transportation planner with the MPO and project manager for The Tomorrow Plan. “We’re trying to balance the interests of those that think the business-as-usual model is great with those who think that it’s just terrible. We’re trying to find a happy medium between the two and really make sure that we are creating choices for people.”

The year 2050: If it’s business as usual

The most immediate visual that stands out in the business-as-usual model in 2050 is the vast amount of suburban residential development on the outskirts of Greater Des Moines.

Consultants estimate that, based on that model, the region’s farmland would be cut in half and parks and recreation space would decrease by 40 percent.

The region is projected to grow to around 750,000 people in the model.

The Tomorrow Plan consulting team members are careful to not give their opinions on the projected growth patterns. The message is simple: If this is how people want the region to look, that will be the plan. If not, it will go in a different direction.

Wilcoxon did point out that there are things to consider with the business-as-usual growth patterns, including things such as infrastructure costs, commute times from suburban areas to the downtown core, environmental issues and what will be best given the future demographics of the region.

General feedback, said Sasaki Principal James Miner after a round of meetings earlier this year, was that people are “concerned about the direction of growth that they see in the baseline model.”

Added Lynn Carlton, a senior associate at Sasaki, “In general, I think people were a little surprised to see how much of the open space that would be taken, but weren’t all that surprised that current trends would lead toward that.”

The public’s choice?

Whether the general public wants to keep the baseline model or shape development a different way, Susaki has developed on an online game called “Design My DSM” to give users an idea of how decisions can affect what the region will look like in the future.

The game, which can take anywhere from five to 15 minutes to play, lets users define their priorities and see how certain decisions would positively or negatively affect those priorities. It also allows users to see trade-offs and relative costs.

For example, if someone values being able to live in the same neighborhood after they retire, but also values keeping the residential density exactly the way it is, it’s possible those two priorities could conflict with each other. The tool is designed to show just how one decision can affect a priority in a way that people might not have anticipated.

“They are not all going to be positive,” Carlton said. “You might think you are choosing something that’s going to be really good, but it could have one negative impact that you didn’t think about. And as people get to the cost page, they’ll realize they might not have enough money for that. So what are really their top priorities?”

Tomorrow Plan officials want to use the data gathered from people’s priorities and use it as input for creating an overall plan to strive for in the future, based on what the region as a whole is asking for. To do that, they are striving for maximum participation.

The goal for how many people they want to participate? “What’s the population in Des Moines,” Sasaki Principal Philip Parsons asked rhetorically. “You need broad participation for this to be valuable. If we get 100 people doing this, it’s not going to tell us very much.”

So far, 505 people have submitted responses from the game, which is open until June 15.

Next steps

By combining the business-as-usual model and the public feedback with another slightly adjusted business-as-usual model that shows higher-density development, a model developed from combining individual city development plans and a best practices model, the team will come up with a preferred scenarios model, which they hope to unveil in July.

That will lead to an actual draft of the plan, which will include short-term and long-term goals, recommendations, action plans and responsibilities.

Because of the nature of the plan, it will take buy-in from all communities involved, Wilcoxon said.

“It’s just a matter of, politically is it possible, economically is it possible, is there enough support behind it?” she said.

She notes that The Tomorrow Plan is working closely with the Capital Crossroads planning initiative. The Crossroads time frame is much shorter, and that effort has tended to have more private-sector involvement. The Tomorrow Plan committee is made up primarily of leaders in the public sector.

“I think it’s important businesses know that these two plans are complementary,” Wilcoxon said. “We’re all trying to make a better region. We’re all trying to make it a better region for our kids, our grandkids, and a better region to attract top talent so our businesses can thrive.

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