History of Planning

Communities develop plans for the same reason a family might plan a vacation, a home improvement project or a household budget. Planning creates orderly, efficient, and informed steps toward achieving and implementing goals. Planning examines past and present conditions and identifies key issues and opportunities which, through the input of residents, determines the direction for future growth and development. 

The Comprehensive Plan serves as a guide for the community’s physical, social and economic development. It is not a government document. It is a community-wide resource that can only be considered successful through the input and implementation of the community at-large. 

Comprehensive Plans are policy guides. Unlike zoning or city codes, they are not regulatory in purpose or application. Residents help shape these policies which in turn inform city leaders on community values and priorities. Information in the Comprehensive Plan is used in many facets of city life. Of greatest note is its role in informing budget and land use decisions.

Communities are dynamic and so too are the policies which shape their future. A Comprehensive plan must in turn be dynamic. It cannot be viewed as a reflection of any one moment in time, rather it is an evolving vision based on the lessons history offers, current conditions and anticipated issues and opportunities. The Comprehensive Plan is typically evaluated and updated approximately every five years or as needed to assure it is relevant to current community issues and priorities.  

City Life Meeting
Nolen Plan
Dubuque has been making plans for the community since 1930 when noted landscape architect and city planner John Nolen was retained to develop the first comprehensive city plan for Dubuque. Considered by many to be the “Father of City Planning” Nolen advanced the City Beautiful movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries to address many of the physical, economic and social facets that shape urban life, thus giving rise to modern urban planning. While the beauty of one’s environment, both physical and natural, was always central to Nolen’s approach to successful communities, he also taught that purpose, function and efficiency was equally vital.

Adopted in1936, the first plan for Dubuque established the framework for coordinated growth and development. Nolen noted prior to 1936, much of Dubuque’s progress was disjointed and independent of the city as a whole. He noted Dubuque was blessed with many outstanding and praiseworthy qualities; however greater coordination throughout the city would build a stronger economy and community.

Perhaps nothing has shaped the modern evolution of cities more than the automobile. After WWII the country experienced tremendous economic growth. Automobiles became more attainable, highway and roads were expanded and post-war suburbanization was born. As the American dream in Dubuque was realized, new homes encroached westward and retail shortly followed. The automobile rapidly changed how people lived, worked, and shopped. By the 1960’s downtown experienced increased disinvestment from people and businesses moving to the suburbs.  

The firm Victor Gruen & Associates was hired in 1959 to address the emerging urban decline and Dubuque’s Urban Renewal efforts were officially underway. Following WWII, and continuing into the early 1970s, Urban Renewal was a program believed to revitalize declining urban areas. At the heart of the program, communities held that the wholesale demolition of city blocks to accommodate modern buildings, highway systems, and surface parking was the path to sustained downtown revitalization. In 1965 Gruen & Associates, widely considered to be the pioneer of the suburban shopping mall and well-known for his urban renewal plans, completed the Dubuque Development Program for the City of Dubuque and Dubuque Chamber of Commerce. While not deemed a comprehensive plan by name, the urban renewal plan was comprehensive in scope. The plan established a metropolitan vision for the region, as well as a revitalization program for the downtown.

The Plan soundly acknowledged the importance of curbing urban sprawl and providing clear, orderly, and well balanced neighborhoods with recreational and commercial opportunities. Gruen & Associates promoted compatible land use patterns and a comprehensive, long-range plan for the “future arrangement and organization” of Dubuque. Unfortunately, typical of urban renewal plans of the time, it also called for the demolition and redevelopment of much of downtown. The plan was a point of contention and was never formally adopted. Dubuque is fortunate in that the downtown remains largely intact. Today, Dubuque’s historic buildings and urban fabric is at the core of downtown revitalization and economic development strategies. Although downtown faced challenges, Dubuque generally experienced economic growth and prosperity throughout much of the mid to late 20th Century.

Gruen Downtown
Gruen Existing

The recession and farm crisis of the early 1980’s had devastating effects on the Midwest and Dubuque. As farm families struggled with the loss of their land and livelihoods, so too did businesses with ties to agriculture. Though farmers bore the brunt of the crisis, its impacts were far reaching. Dubuque’s economy was strongly influenced by its meat-packing and farm-implement industries. The combined effects of the recession and farm crisis resulted in massive layoffs and economic decline. By January of 1982, Dubuque’s unemployment was highest in the nation at 23%. Between 1980 and 1990 Dubuque lost 7.8% of its population. In 1983 the Chamber of Commerce estimated 10% of housing stock was vacant and by 1984 the average home value dropped 9%. Dubuque needed to reinvent itself and diversify. Out of this adversity arose the realization that if Dubuque were to succeed, it must return to those fundamental tenets of partnerships and coordination. Residents, business and government must plan and work together to build a stronger, more resilient and diversified economy and community.
The road to new prosperity was outlined in the 1995 City of Dubuque Comprehensive Plan. Entitled Creating the Future, the document built on past grassroots visioning efforts and was the first comprehensive approach to community planning undertaken by Dubuque since 1936. The plan was built around the physical, economic and cultural aspects of the community. A balanced approach to community development was once again prioritized. At this same time, the Dubuque Community also began to reinvent the riverfront. People, planning and partnerships were put in place and America’s River Project was underway. The former disconnected, declining manufacturing area was transformed into a destination for tourists and residents alike.

In 2006 the Dubuque community identified sustainability as its top priority and Sustainable Dubuque was born. Sustainable Dubuque is a community-created and citizen-led initiative to develop a balanced approach to improving the quality of life in Dubuque. Residents developed a model for sustainability centered on economic prosperity, environmental integrity, and social/cultural vibrancy. Beginning in 2006 the City of Dubuque also began developing the 2008 City of Dubuque Comprehensive Plan. Through citizen input, the new plans framework was built around Dubuque’s economic, physical and social environments. Inadvertently the framework strongly aligned with the sustainability model set forth by Sustainable Dubuque.
1995 Comprehensive Plan
By 2012 Sustainable Dubuque had fully developed and made significant contributions in the community. The framework and principles of Sustainable Dubuque were incorporated into the 2012 City of Dubuque Comprehensive Plan further reinforcing the relationship between sustainability and Dubuque’s comprehensive planning efforts.