In praise of smalltown Iowa
Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Lorin Ditzler received her MS in Urban and Regional Planning from the UI in 2011. She was part of one of the earliest IISC teams during Fall 2010, working on a project in Decorah. One of her current planning projects is in Bondurant.

Tell us about your current work.

headshot of woman in blue shirt

I have two part-time positions. I’m the associate director of Keep Iowa Beautiful, and I work with Group Creative Services, a Des Moines-based public art consulting firm, as a planner and project manager.  

After I graduated from the UI (MS URP, 2011), I spent five years working as a planner for RDG in Des Moines. My next job was with Hometown Pride, a program of Keep Iowa Beautiful. I ran the Hometown Pride chapter in Warren County, and my role was to help volunteers figure out how to get quality of life projects done, such as festivals, trails, public art. Now, I support and promote the program at a statewide level. 

In my work with Group Creative Services, I’ve been part of projects in several towns. We help a client figure out how they want to add interesting experiences into their community. We always say it’s a lot more than sculptures and murals. We’ve helped create temporary installations, performances, light and sound pieces, and more. Some of my colleagues are working artists and they help connect to artists, while others of us focus on the planning end. Currently, we’re developing an art and culture plan for Bondurant.

What led you to get a degree in urban planning?

I went to Grinnell College and majored in English. After I graduated, I knew I wanted to stay in Iowa. I’d interned for an organization that had gotten me interested in rural and smalltown Iowa, so I was looking for jobs in these locations. One job had the requirement of a planning degree, which I didn’t even know was a discipline. I looked into the program and knew it would be a good fit. At this same time, I worked for the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce to become more familiar with the world of community development. 

What was your project for IISC?

I was part of a team that worked with the City of Decorah to help revise their comprehensive plan to address more sustainability concepts. In particular, they wanted to include Iowa's Smart Planning Principles, which had just been adopted by the Iowa Legislature. 

What appeals to you about working with small towns?

Grinnell was my introduction to small towns, and I realized that I really appreciated that way of life—passing people on the street and knowing them, and how so many people are trying to make it a better place. As I came to understand that a lot of Iowa small towns are struggling, I wanted to help make them vital, great places to live. 

I really appreciate how proactive people can be in these towns. I was interviewing people regarding a project about getting a trail built, and was impressed by how someone on the committee had said, ‘I have bulldozer,’ and he offered to go clear the trail that weekend—and he did! You don’t outsource as much work in these places – partly because you can’t afford to but also because there are fewer layers of bureaucracy. Instead, people pitch in and do it. As someone starting in their career, these are great places to learn because you’re usually able to do a little of a lot of different things; it’s not as siloed as in a larger city workspace. You can also often see results more quickly.

You’re currently working in Bondurant, which is one of IISC’s partners this year. Tell us about your work there.

When our team goes into a community one of the first things we do is to figure out the local vibe and values. With Bondurant those values read like a big group hug, with an emphasis on happiness and safety.  People there really appreciate the sense of knowing each other and being connected. 

It’s always great to do a plan and know that something is going to come of it, that it’s not going to sit on a shelf. We always incorporate the first steps of implementation as the final part of our planning process, and Bondurant’s staff has been completely on the ball, getting funding and support in place immediately.