Meet the Mayor: Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie

February 1, 2014, Department, by Samantha Bartram

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie (center, wearing gray) addresses a crowd before the Mayor’s Annual Ride for Trails.Des Moines, Iowa, Mayor Frank Cownie has felt a personal investment in the health and well-being of his city since childhood. Born and raised in the town he now governs, Cownie recalls his first “job” — picking up discarded cigarette butts with his father every weekend in an effort to fight against careless litterbugs. Today, Cownie had doubled down on efforts to encourage healthy lifestyles, environmental stewardship and conservation in Des Moines. Parks & Recreation Magazine recently caught up with Cownie to learn more about recent initiatives to advance these priorities and champion new programs for his citizens.  

Give us some highlights of initiatives you’ve developed in Des Moines to promote environmental stewardship. 

I was first elected to City Council [in 2002] and shortly after the Mayor’s seat. When I stepped into office, I thought, “We’ll start doing a bunch of green stuff, and my staff, the citizens and council members will be right there with me.” That was an eye-opening experience because I was sort of by myself on a lot of these issues.

I decided to begin by putting together the Mayor’s Energy, Efficiency, Environment and Conservation Task Force. At first, just a few staff members were curious to find out what I was talking about, but then a number of neighborhood leaders started showing up to our meetings as well. Soon it was 20, 30, 40 people, and I knew we were gaining momentum. [Since then] we’ve passed a lot of important initiatives involving the greening of our parks department, building maintenance, motor pool, tree-planting programs… We have 78 parks in the City of Des Moines that we decided to replant with grasses and plant coverage materials that are native to Iowa. We thought, “Let’s make our parks look like Iowa, not a golf course. Let’s begin to look at ways to retrofit our buildings in a more energy-efficient manner. If we’re going to construct something, let’s look at green building initiatives.” Originally it was thought that these kinds of projects would cost 30–40 percent more. Eventually we bid one [building project] out that would meet LEED standards. When the bids came in, lo and behold, the LEED building we eventually won an award for came in [at less than the price of a] conventional build. After that, our whole building department became evangelists on this issue, and we began building other facilities to meet that standard.

Tell us about the Mayor’s Annual Ride for Trails. What does the program entail, what is your role each year and how does this help the City of Des Moines?

[Former Des Moines Mayor] John Pat Dorrian started the ride [in the late 1980s]. I’m an avid bike rider and so is he. We’ve expanded the ride to 25–30 miles around the city to promote bike riding and advocate for the use of our trails. Everybody pays to participate, and the money goes to the improvement of the trail system in and around Des Moines. Our downtown trail system is a hub for the central Iowa regional trail system — you can connect, from downtown, to 300-plus miles of trails. It’s a great way to exercise, get back to nature and experience our parks and trail systems.

Where do conservation efforts and initiatives related to parks and recreation fall on your agenda when budgeting season comes along? How do you ensure these programs and municipal assets a place of importance when it comes time to allocate money or resources?

I think it’s easier today, but there’s still pushback. You have to look at how and where you spend your dollars and the benefit the city is getting. In their ratings, Kiplinger, Forbes and others name Des Moines as one of the best places to raise a family. Quality of life concerns are important, and I can make a case [for including those types of initiatives] on that score.

We’ve been very effective in promoting healthy lifestyles, green living and access to great amenities like pedestrian-friendly sidewalks. We’re adding more and more to the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods to make everything walkable, bikeable, senior-friendly and attractive to residents and employers. People are so surprised — they say, “Holy smokes, you’ve got everything here they’ve got in Chicago and more.” More immediate access to nature, accessible communities, trail connections — this has all been very helpful in promoting quality-of-life aspects.

Des Moines was once a coal town. Today, it is a member of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) Local Governments for Sustainability USA and a signatory of the agency’s “Tomorrow Plan,” focused on sustainable development. What does this mean to you as you develop future plans for the city?

As a member of ICLEI, we exchange ideas with other states and cities including sharing best practices to deal with floods, pollution and other concerns. We participate in the Star Communities program and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Now we’re one of five capital cities in the country participating in [a program called] Greening of America’s Capitals, which looks at ways to use green infrastructure rather than gray. Most recently, USGBC, ICLEI and a whole bunch of mayors kicked off Resilient Communities for America, and this group is working very hard to exchange best practices with each other in dealing with a 21st-century climate that is different than in the 20th century. 

We even began a program that initiated green works at the corporate level. The city looked at what we do on sustainability, recycling, utilities, water usage, and how to manage campuses and green areas while lowering costs of operation at the same time. We brought in 10 corporations, large and small, to look at these issues, and in turn, they made a plan to buy healthier, better products, from foodstuffs to sand and gravel used in operations. 

Wellmark [Blue Cross and Blue Shield] built the world’s largest single-corporation-owned building in the world [in Des Moines], and it’s certified LEED Platinum. But, they moved out of a million square feet of old property, so we’re also looking at how to regreen, repurpose and reuse these 50–100-year-old buildings. Some are old enough that they were put together when Des Moines was a coal town. We’re looking at what we were, what we are, and asking, what do we want to be 50 years from now? If we lay a good foundation today, we can make our future dreams a reality. We can’t do it piecemeal; we have to do it substantively, comprehensively and using best practices that make a significant difference.

— Interview by Samantha Bartram, Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation Magazine