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Using the law to create a greener Des Moines

Drake University Law School students are taking an active role in creating a more sustainable future for the Des Moines community. Working closely with the Greater Des Moines Partnership and the City of Des Moines, students in the class Sustainability and the Law used their legal knowledge to help Des Moines lawmakers think green while still promoting economic vitality.

The students were asked to review three recently released regional plans—“The Tomorrow Plan,” “Capital Crossroads” and “Des Moines Area RapidT 2035”—and identify intersecting areas in the reports that have implications for sustainability. The students determined three areas of focus: water management, energy efficiency and mixed use/diversity of transportation. They then analyzed the existing law in Des Moines to determine how it can be improved to enhance sustainability in these areas. Based on their research and a survey of best practices across the nation, the students drafted amendments to the Des Moines city code, which they presented to the Partnership and city council. The amendments aimed to ensure environmental friendliness and social responsibility while promoting the city’s growth and development.

“We’re using the city as a classroom,” says Jonathan Rosenbloom, assistant professor of law who teaches the class. “This is a unique situation where the students have an invaluable learning opportunity, while providing a meaningful and important service to the city and the community.”

The proposals included changes to parking laws to better manage water runoff. For example, the team proposed that better utilizing existing parking lots and having more restrictions on materials used in the construction of new lots would help limit runoff, which often contains chemicals that are harmful to the environment. Other proposals included mandating energy audits for homeowners and creating a transit-oriented development district.

The class is designed to function like a small law firm focusing on sustainability with a real client, the Greater Des Moines Partnership and specifically its sustainability committee. The committee works to implement sustainable practices within businesses to create a better future for greater Des Moines.

“The collaboration with Drake provides us with the resources to accomplish our sustainable efforts while we continue to focus on a much larger vision in our Capital Crossroads efforts,” says Larry James, Jr., Greater Des Moines Partnership Sustainability Committee chair. “It also provides us with the means to explore model code and ordinances, which could be replicated throughout the region.”

Last year was the first time the class collaborated on a similar project with the Partnership. This year, Rosenbloom has plans to appoint students to keep up with the project after the proposal has been presented to help increase the chance of the amendments being implemented. Another added aspect this semester was a partnership with Drake undergraduate graphic design students—led by Hilary Williams, assistant professor of graphic design—to create a visually appealing report and presentation. The report can be found here.

Eric Schultz, a third year law student, was part of the group that created proposals regarding storm water management and says his experience was a great way to apply his knowledge of environmental law.

“We were challenged to ask tough questions, conduct careful legal analysis and gather different local policy perspectives as we worked on our projects,” Schultz says. “The development of law in this area is just beginning. It was a great experience to be able to work directly with the issues that communities across the country are dealing with.”