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Reinventing Des Moines

Fairly or unfairly, Des Moines has a solid reputation as one of the nation's least interesting cities. But unbeknownst to the rest of us, this quiet working town might become the Midwest's answer to Austin, Texas.
February 10, 2016, 9am PST | Philip Rojc | @PhilipRojc
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Phil Roeder

Most people wouldn't cite Des Moines as one of the nation's rising cities, but according to a surprising number of polls it has the basic DNA to become an affordable, economically vibrant hotspot. Colin Woodard tells the story of how Des Moines fell very far and how it recovered.

After a respectable start as an early 20th-century insurance and agriculture town, Des Moines lost all semblance of downtown life in the 1970s and 80s. Eventually, city leaders sought the counsel of planner Mario Gandelsonas, whose cross-sector approach to revitalization caught on.

Woodard writes, "Gandelsonas' urban planning philosophy was simple: don't treat a city like a map that needs to be redrawn and corrected, but as a living organism with its own purpose, personality and innate characteristics. Successful interventions are ones that enhance and enable the organism's socio-economic metabolism by removing blockages or creating new centers of potential growth."

Harnessing Iowa's collaborative down-to-earth business culture, Gandelsonas and others organized partnerships between the public and private sectors to push major projects through. Today, Des Moines is still no Austin, but it has regained much of the entrepreneurship and cultural vitality it lacked for so long. 

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Published on Thursday, January 21, 2016 in Politico
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