My hometown could learn from Muscatine

Riverfront Park - playgroundOver the weekend I had the opportunity to return to my hometown for a short visit with family and friends. It has been eight months since I moved to Muscatine, but it seems like years since I left the county seat (population 8,000) surrounded by farm land that I lived in for 55 years. The town does not sit on the banks of a river but it does have a medium size lake on which my dad taught me how to sail and how to fish and I taught my children the same and even taught them how to swim.

Muscatine is about three times the size of Paris (Illinois, not France), sits on a world famous river, and has endless possibilities for young and old alike. Realistically the two communities have little in common. Beyond that surface reality, however, is a commonality shared by the people – rich, middle-class, and poor – a common vision to create a better lifestyle for current residents and for future residents.

Downtown Paris is not the bustling center of activity that it once was, but most central business districts suffered from the mobility offered by the automobile and the convenience of malls. Nearly half of the buildings have been dismantled and hauled off to the landfill, leaving empty spaces of dirt and broken bricks or parking lots that hardly anyone uses. Some of these “lost” buildings had historical significance, others did not. Many could have been repurposed but the vision was not there.

Beacon coming downThe fact that the downtown area is a mere shadow of itself was depressing to me as I drove through and remembered the store fronts, store owners, and merchandise offered during the days of my youth. Sadly, the march of time does not stop for anyone or anything.

In my position with the City of Muscatine I can look back into the archives and see what Muscatine has accomplished particularly over the last 20 years. I can only try to imagine what my hometown would be like if the same principles of placemaking were used to create a comfortable, attractive, and secure environment.

Muscatine does benefit from sitting on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River and by having a public park that few communities can boast of or call their ‘front porch”. Yet it is another value of this community that would have benefited my hometown the most … the combining of public and private investment in building restoration, housing development, and small business growth. This is what has ignited the revitalization of Muscatine’s downtown. Those efforts would work well in Paris.

Creating and enhancing diverse use areas such as Riverside Park complimented with an avenue that will balance pedestrian and automotive traffic, and adding a downtown area strengthened visually and economically to be centers of social interaction is exactly the direction Muscatine is going. That is the direction my hometown needs to go too.

I have always enjoyed nature (must be the Boy Scout in me) and empty spaces would be better served with a heaping helping of landscaping (grass, trees, plantings, walkways) rather than remaining a barren wasteland or a parking lot. Muscatine has seen the benefit of such a philosophy in increased property values and increased foot traffic to the small businesses in the downtown corridor. The public and private efforts, which now include the Mississippi Drive reconstruction and the development of a quiet zone through downtown, continue the placemaking principles that are advancing across the country.

Many people have talked about saving the downtown in Paris. Even though there is a great awareness of this need, the vision and the support has not surfaced. Yes it took time to create that vision and develop the support structure here in Muscatine, but that just demonstrates the endless possibilities that are available to any community that has public and private entities willing to work for a better life for every citizen of that community.

Whether you agree with the philosophy or not, you must agree that green space, pedestrian walkways, the customer service found only in small businesses, the availability of downtown apartments, and other amenities are benefiting Muscatine, not only the downtown area but throughout the community. The economy is doing well alongside the banks of the Mississippi.

It is my hope that at some point when I have a chance to go home again I will see these same principles taking root in Paris. Nothing is ever as it was but something can be better than it is.

Muscatine residents should be proud of their local government and the many private citizens from all walks of life who want to enrich this community and make it better for individuals and families, for the young to the old, for current residents and residents of the future, and for all visitors to this area.

By Kevin Jenison, Communications Manager Pro Tem

Green spaces IS the life for me

From 1965 through 1971, television viewers were treated to the antics of two city dwellers who moved to the country in the CBS-TV sitcom “Green Acres”. While the husband (Eddie Albert) longed for the rustic farm life, his sophisticated wife (Eva Gabor) longed to be back in the city and patiently waited for her husband to come to his senses.

I remember watching the show but never paid attention to a hidden message lodged deep within the comical scripts … the constant battle between the concrete jungle and green spaces.

green-acresThis “hidden” message was unique in retrospect as I realized that it was during this time period that the affordability of the automobile led to the ability to travel greater distances which ultimately aided in the creation of great gathering places called shopping malls.

In Paris, Illinois (population 8,500), we still had our small businesses (or mom and pop stores if you prefer) in the downtown area and frequently spent most of our available money there. However, sometimes my parents would opt for a family adventure by loading my brothers and I up in the old station wagon and visiting one of those malls. This event also included a family dinner at a restaurant which was a different experience in itself but never reached the quality of food that my mom fixed most every night at home.

In the year’s since, cities small to large have struggled keeping the mom and pop stores alive and their downtown areas an attractive and integral part of the community. Some small businesses were able to survive, others were not. Downtown areas were lucky if they had 50 percent occupancy and the ripple effect of this downturn extended into neighborhoods throughout the community.

Fortunately, that trend is changing.

This is where the image of Eddie Albert in his business suit with a pitch fork in hand standing in front of an old farm house comes to mind. His need for green space convinced him that he needed to move to the “fresh air” of the country life. The need for green space, a more relaxed atmosphere, and a less hectic lifestyle is something that we all seek whether a business owner, a business professional, or just parents who want more for their family.

Many city officials have realized that one key to the vitality of their community is downtown businesses and an area geared more for the pedestrian than the automobile. The decisions by these officials have opened up doors and possibilities that have seen small specialty shops and restaurants make a comeback.

Muscatine is on the right track as the Riverside Park Master Plan update meeting on May 10 can attest. The energy and excitement of the presenters, the ideas from those in the audience, and the desire to connect the park physically and mentally to the downtown area makes perfect sense.

The park is Muscatine’s front porch, the destination for many residents and visitors alike, and we must do all we can to enhance the green space, the pedestrian connection to downtown,  and to create a positive environment for reinvestment in the downtown area.

The continued development of Riverside Park along with the Mississippi Drive reconstruction project continue the idea of placemaking and enhance the pedestrian connection from the Mississippi River to the downtown area. Placemaking is the idea of creating spaces where anyone can feel comfortable and enjoy the space. Social interaction enhances our experience of the world around us, but that interaction cannot take place in the hustle and bustle of most urban environments.

With the continued evolution of Riverside Park, the more pedestrian friendly Mississippi Drive corridor, and a yet to be determined upgrade to the amenities (plants, etc.) on 2nd Street, Muscatine is providing the space where people can congregate, enjoy nature, enjoy social interaction, and enjoy a historic downtown environment.

Green spaces is the life for me … and you.

The many benefits of trees

In recognition of National Arbor Day (Friday, Apr. 28), Parks and Recreation Director Richard Klimes offered the following on the value of trees to the citizens of Muscatine.

Trees near Marina

The dictionary definition of a tree is very vague: “a woody perennial plant, typically having a single stem or trunk growing to a considerable height and bearing lateral branches at some distance from the ground.”

However, trees are much more than that.

The definition provides a physical description but trees are more than just a pretty thing to look at throughout the seasons. Trees provide many benefits from climate control, to health benefits, to renewing the environment around them.

Trees help combat climate change. Not only do they produce oxygen to clean and renew our air, trees cycle out carbon dioxide caused by pollution. With air quality and climate control being a persistent public health issue, trees are needed to improve air quality. Trees can absorb many odors and pollutant gases as the leaves and bark trap these particulates and release healthy oxygen.

Trees provide a shaded halo around them. Conifers (evergreens) do this year round whereas deciduous trees (trees which shed their leaves) have a particular season they create shade. The canopy cover of a location can cool the ground temperature around it or cool pavement if it is a street tree. A large area of the ground shaded also becomes an area protected from harmful UV rays and reduces risks of cancer.

Shade can also have an effect on a Muscatine home’s energy output by cooling the house naturally in the summer allowing the air conditioning to run less and reducing energy use. They become a benefit in the winter by creating a wind block allowing the heating system to have a break as well. Harvested trees can be used as natural heat sources. This in turn reduces carbon dioxide emissions with less demand for energy from power plants.

Trees help with many water issues. They create shade for lawns which slows water evaporation allowing turf to utilize water longer with less stress. Trees are like a sponge during times of rain fall by absorbing many pollutants from storm water runoff before the pollutants can travel to drainage areas and eventually meet a larger body of water. By absorbing a quantity of water during rain falls, trees also help prevent erosion throughout the Muscatine community. The roots themselves become a soil stabilizer as well as a water absorbent.

Trees provide food and habit for wildlife as well as for humans. Many of the fruits we love are grown on trees and shipped to our local grocery stores. There are also trees which bear nuts as there fruit which provides a healthy snack. All of these fruits must be harvested, packaged, and shipped which creates jobs and a better economy.

Trees also help the Muscatine economy by providing jobs requiring maintenance. Trees require proper planting and designing to have a healthy start to life. They also need pruning and preventative maintenance to sustain that healthy life, especially in an urban setting. Eventually trees meet the end of their life cycle and will need to be removed and chipped up to become mulch. All of these processes require personal and provide job opportunities.

Trees provide a healthier mental state by improving our physical and mental wellbeing. Well populated tree areas have been shown to have less violence while hospitals have seen better healing and attitudes.

Yes trees do provide many aesthetic benefits as well. They provide Muscatine with a colorful border or a screen to block an unsightly view. They can make a concrete parking lot softer in texture and less harsh. They muffle sounds from our nearby streets. Trees, as well as landscaping in general, provides an environment which increases Muscatine’s property values.

Staff from the Parks and Recreation Department of the City of Muscatine completed the treatment for the Emerald Ash Borer on all trees in Weed Park, Riverfront, Cemetery, City Hall and all outside parks last fall.  Seventy trees were treated and the treatment will last us for approximately three years. With the help of donations to the City, city staff has planted and transplanted 200 trees into Air Pots in our nursery.  Approximately 300 trees are currently being housed in the nursery at Park Maintenance and 25 in the nursery at the Muscatine Municipal Golf Course.  These trees will be planted throughout the parks system as they continue to grow and develop.