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For West Union, Sustainability Starts on Main Street

Dick Woodard installed a rain garden, rain barrel and pervious pavers at his West Union business.What started as a small project to update six blocks of the downtown streetscape has blossomed into a community effort to create a more sustainable West Union.

Looking for help on the streetscape project, West Union turned to the Iowa Department of Economic Development, which chose the town as one of two pilot communities for its new Iowa Green Streets Initiative. Soon, community members and government agencies sat around a table, discussing their vision for a new, sustainable downtown. “We knew that there’s a lot of good community effort in West Union,” said IDED’s Jeff Geerts. “We wanted to help them revitalize their downtown, preserve businesses, improve water quality, and have a safer and more inviting downtown.”

The new streetscape design needed to save energy. It would encourage people to walk and bike more, since the average car trip in town was less than two miles. It should help businesses in the long term and assist historic preservation efforts. It needed to improve the quality of stormwater runoff into Otter and Glover creeks, both trout streams, while also reducing runoff. “The floods of 2008 in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids were going on at the same time, and we asked, ‘where did this water come from?’ We saw we are a part of the contribution to urban stormwater issues downstream,” said Robin Bostrom, the executive director of the West Union Chamber of Commerce.

With those ideas in mind, the city selected projects. The new street will use porous pavement, which can soak a 3- to 4-inch rainfall through the pavement, filtering and cooling the water before releasing it to the trout streams. Rain gardens and bioretention cells soak up and filter runoff, while narrowing the street for safer pedestrian crossings.

Businesses are also taking individual steps. Groups stop by to check out the porous paver parking space, rain garden and rain barrel at Woodard Insurance. “With all the rain this year, it’s done a good job of slowing water down and the plants are doing super,” Dick Woodard said of his rain garden. “It’s added a lot of color to the back parking area.”

A geothermal system, stubbed to all downtown buildings, should cut heating and cooling costs by half, and there’s potential for expanding the system beyond downtown. More than 70 businesses took part in a free energy audit, and many applied for grants to make improvements. Restored prairie took the place of turf grass between the elementary and high schools, soaking up rainfall and reducing runoff. And that’s not even the entire project.

“We know how to put on our boots and get something done when the community sees a need,” said Bostrom. “We have had some hurdles. We still have work to do, but we know people want to be in a place where there are sustainable practices in place.”

DNR Contact
Allen Bonini