Dispatch from Dubuque: Luring People Back to the Heartland

Posted on: February 24th, 2009 by Patrice Frey 2 Comments
Las Vegas sprawl. (world.mongabay.com)

Las Vegas sprawl. (world.mongabay.com)

For awhile now I’ve been pondering the huge challenge presented by American demographic shifts –- that is, the massive movement of population from the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest to points south and southwest. For the last few decades, Americans have fled the heartland as manufacturing jobs went overseas, for cities such as Las Vegas, Atlanta, Houston, and Phoenix. Ahh the painful, troubling reality of masses of people fleeing smaller, sustainably designed older cities for the sprawling, largely soulless tracts of suburbia -- albeit with the promise of warmer winters and much needed new jobs. All of this while the planet heats up.

And what is to become of these smaller industrial cities? The Pittsburghs, Buffalos, and Clevelands? These paragons of sustainability? Don’t laugh -- I think that these places are paragons of sustainability. Designed before widespread use of the automobile, these communities were built more compactly out of necessity. These neighborhoods tend to be dense, walkable, feature mixed uses, and are very often accessible to public transit. These places contain the very features that are promoted by Smart Growth and New Urbanist advocates today.  And that's to say nothing of their charm and character.

But we have nearly abandoned so many of these special places -– in favor of, well, the photo above. But there’s hope yet.

My colleague Jennifer Sandy and I spent two days in Dubuque, Iowa last week with National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard Moe, attending a conference on Sustainability and Historic Preservation where he gave the keynote speech. We spent some time touring the city and meeting with local leaders and property owners to learn about Dubuque’s plans for the sustainable redevelopment of their Historic Millwork District. This area includes 28 buildings comprising one million square feet that are largely vacant or underutilized.  (See the city's masterplan for the Millwork District.)

The warehouse district in Dubuque.

The warehouse district in Dubuque.

Historic preservation is at the very core of Dubuque’s sustainable redevelopment effort; the city recognizes the need to reuse existing buildings in their efforts to be more sustainable, and is determined to improve energy efficiency, and reduce water usage in these buildings as well. The Historic Millwork project also includes a significant social component, and is connecting disadvantaged youth to jobs produced as part of the project.

And their work is already starting to pay off. Just a few weeks ago IBM announced that it would locate a service center in Dubuque -– bringing 1,300 new well-paying jobs. And the reason IBM chose Dubuque over the 350 other cities under review? That would be because of the city’s commitment to public-private partnerships, and its commitment to sustainable development. Seems the IBM executives are just as enthusiastic about the vision for the sustainable redevelopment of the historic Millwork District as many of us nerdy preservationists…since the warehouse district revitalization will produce highly desirable (and affordable) housing in a dynamic and vibrant historic setting. That makes it a whole lot easier to attract talent to fill those jobs.

I left Dubuque optimistic –- thinking that perhaps this is the beginning of a way to address our seemingly intractable demographic challenge.  And I’m wondering if the National Trust would be interested in opening a field office in Dubuque. I know exactly where I want to live.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.


2 Responses

  1. Wayne Senville

    March 2, 2009

    Good to read this report on Dubuque. You might be interested in reading a trip report I filed in November 2007 with some quick impressions I had:

    I share your optimism and enjoyed walking around the downtown. Like in a number of other cities, one of the biggest challenges/barriers is the presence of a highway that divides Dubuque from its waterfront.

    Wayne Senville
    Editor, Planning Commissioners Journal

  2. Patricia Kehoe

    March 18, 2009

    What a wonderful article. I’m sharing it electronically with friends and relatives in Colorado, Tennessee and Vermont. I attended the conference you highlighted, and appreciate NTHP’s selection of Dubuque as a pilot site—and thus your own contributions in repopulating the cities and towns of the heartland.