Iowa’s Changing Downtowns

In a state dominated by agriculture, downtowns can bring people together for work, commerce, worship or amusement.  However, many downtowns in Iowa experienced neglect or decline in the eighties.  A public education project analyzed Iowa’s changing downtowns and offered suggestions on revitalizing them. The lessons learned are still relevant today. 

Iowa’s downtowns in transition

When I arrived in Iowa to teach architecture at Iowa State University in the eighties, I was fascinated by the multitude of small towns and Iowa’s vast agricultural landscape.  That curiosity lead to a funded research project to evaluate Iowa’s downtowns and their urban characteristics.  The research was jointly conducted with a colleague at the university.  What we discovered was that many downtowns faced decline or neglect largely because of people flocking to the shopping malls instead of visiting the downtowns for their shopping needs.  It was important to raise public awareness about the importance of lively downtowns and the role they play in shaping civic life. With the help of architectural design studio projects in specific communities, public discussions with civic leaders and a documentary film for broadcast on Iowa Public Television network, we set out to change the course. 

Main Street, Elkader, Iowa
Main Street along Turkey River, Elkader, Iowa

Urban characteristics of typical downtowns

Iowa’s downtowns had urban characteristics that were similar in form to other parts of rural and suburban America.  It was important to identify what made them unique, whether it was a well-defined main street, a central town square, a courthouse square, or an urban core.  Once the characteristics were identified, a number of architectural design studios further investigated the urban form and offered suggestions on improving Iowa’s changing downtowns.

Courthouse Square, Eldora, Iowa
Courthouse square, Eldora, Iowa

Main Street Iowa

Main street with a retail corridor was the most common type of downtown.  It was often situated at the intersection of two major roads, along the major waterways or at train stations.  With the rise of shopping malls in the eighties, many main streets experienced decline and neglect as shoppers fled the main streets for shopping malls.  To attract shoppers many store owners resorted to upgrading their facades by covering over historical facades or demolishing old structures and rebuilding them with modern materials. 

Town square, Mason City, Iowa
Town square, Mason City, Iowa

Public Squares

Some downtowns had public squares at the core while several had a major public structure such as a courthouse in the town square.  The square was surrounded by retail and community structures. Similar to main streets, such squares were situated along waterways, train stations or at major cross roads. 

Des Moines's Urban Core
Des Moines’s Urban Core

Urban core

Cities such as Des Moines showed an urban core with scattered buildings surrounded by parking lots.  While the initial urban settlement was tied to the river, the riverfront became less and less relevant as the urban core stretched outwards.

Architectural studio projects
Architectural design studio projects

Impact of online shopping on Iowa’s changing downtowns

Fast forward to the present time and we see that the shopping malls are facing decline as shoppers stay at home and order online.  The need to revitalize downtowns continues as we search for newer ways to work, shop, worship and entertain ourselves.  The lessons learned from the eighties are still relevant today. In fact, they provided an impetus for my architectural practice in the nineties focused on urban interventions in New Jersey.  

Title image:  Tim Kiser (w:User:Malepheasant), CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

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