Grant Wood Mississippi River Region Community Storytelling Project

Community Development in the Upper Midwest--Grant Wood Mississippi River Region Storytelling Project 

Spring 2018 Course—URP:6273, M/W 5:00-6:15 PM 


In Spring 2018, the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning, in cooperation with the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities, will offer its second Iowa Community Storytelling Project. Our purpose is to use the humanities and the arts, specifically storytelling and videography, to create stories about a specific place in Iowa. Video production experience and skills are not required.  

The balance of the course will focus on the challenges faced by cities and towns in the Upper Midwest, which I define as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa.  We will be reading books and articles that discuss challenges communities in these states face—population loss, decline and transformation of manufacturing employment, loss of main street businesses, declining school enrollments and accompanying school consolidations, the lasting impact of the 1980s Farm Crisis, consolidation of agriculture into large companies and large farms, environmental challenges associated with agricultural production, and immigration from other countries as well as migration from large cities such as Chicago.  We will also be looking at solutions and exemplary case studies such as Dubuque, Charles City, the White Rock Conservancy, the Iowa Watershed Approach, the Farmers’ Electric Solar Array in Frytown, the West Liberty K-12 Dual Spanish-English Language Program, and other examples.   

In 2018 we will be working with the East Central Intergovernmental Association to tell the story of the Grant Wood—Mississippi River Region in eastern Iowa.  The Region, which consists of Jones, Jackson, and Dubuque Counties features the heritage of Grant Wood as well as a picturesque, hilly terrain whose bluffs meet the Mississippi River.  The Region is dotted with small towns that are complemented by the Dubuque metropolitan area.   

Our overall goal is to use these stories to portray to both residents and the broader public the richness of the Region, not only as a place to visit, but also as a place to live.   Graduate and advanced undergraduates in urban planning, the social sciences, the humanities, the arts, public health, and education are invited to join us.  Our starting point for these stories will be the “experiences” conveyed by the Region’s Grant Wood Loop web site. Teams of students will work with the instructor and with the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities to produce professional quality films as well as to gain a greater appreciation for the challenges and opportunities faced by Upper Midwest communities and regions in Iowa. 

We will accomplish this by having students work in groups of three.  We will seek to emulate travel guides who visit a place and use videos, including conversations with people, to tell a story about that place.  One model for this is Rick Steves’ travel videos in which he tells a story of a place in an attempt to overcome misunderstandings and thereby present a more complete picture of that place.  One example of this is Steves’ 2009 travel video on Iran. It is our view that “travelogues” such as this will help both residents and visitors to develop a sense of place within the Grant Wood—Mississippi River Region which will inform planning for that region and its communities.   

Each group of three students will use the Grant Wood Loop website to develop a route or transect through the Region that will enable the group to sample a portion of the region much as Steves does in the Iran film or Studs Terkel alludes to in Division Street America.  Students will then take the opportunity to film the route, visit places featured on the Grant Wood Loop website, and talk to people, preferably people who live or work in the Grant Wood Mississippi Region.  

For more information on the course, contact the instructor, Chuck Connerly at