Diving into the history of planned communities in Iowa State honors seminar

Darlene Fratzke honors seminar

Darlene Fratzke, adjunct instructor of apparel in the College of Human Sciences, leads a discussion about the Amana Colonies in Susan Yager's honors seminar, "A Good Place: Planned and Ideal Communities." Photo by Christopher Gannon. Larger image.

AMES, Iowa – There is no such thing as a perfect community, though countless people have certainly tried.

This spring, Iowa State University honors students examined planned and ideal communities in “A Good Place,” an honors seminar designed to teach students “about the human drive for a perfect society, and the more accessible goal of a planned and orderly one.”

Susan Yager, professor of English and faculty director of the Honors Program, got the idea for this spring’s seminar after teaching a seminar several years ago focused solely on the Amana Colonies with Darlene Fratzke, adjunct instructor in the College of Human Sciences, who grew up in the Amanas.

The Amana Colonies are seven villages in eastern Iowa that were settled by German Pietists fleeing persecution in the 1850s. They were governed communally until the 1930s. It’s still a thriving community today and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

“The seminar was a big success. I wanted to revisit that, but I was interested in planned communities more broadly,” Yager said.

In this spring’s seminar, students read portions of “Utopia” by Thomas More, learned about former and existing planned communities in the U.S. and utopian and egalitarian ideals, and guest speakers shared their expertise:

  • Michael Martin, associate professor of landscape architecture, explained how even well-planned communities often develop in their own ways.
  • Fratzke led a discussion on the Amanas.
  • Ben Crosby, associate professor of English, talked about the Mormon settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1830s.
  • Ann Hostetler, professor of English at Goshen College in Indiana, Skyped in to discuss the history of the Mennonites in North America and her college, which is affiliated with the Mennonite Church.

“These places by and large were not intended to be utopias, but good places to settle; safe places for some groups who came through America who had experienced prejudice or violence,” Yager said.

While the Amanas are likely not the only planned community in Iowa, “they’re certainly the most famous,” she added.

Mackenzie Novotny, a junior in world languages and cultures from North Liberty, said she didn’t realize everything involved in planning a community, from food and health care to a city’s design and land use.

“I’m from the Iowa City area so I’ve been to the Amana Colonies before, but now I’ll visit with a different mindset,” she said.

Planning their own hypothetical community

This semester’s major assignment split students into three multidisciplinary groups, each tasked with creating a hypothetical planned community on Mars.

“The point behind any honors seminar is to bring students together from different fields, years, interests, majors and minors and give them a common experience that provides a chance to think and discuss their opinions and be creative,” Yager said.

Their ideas and solutions for a community on Mars ran the gamut. Some created professional and education systems that played to people’s skills and interests. Others thought carefully about food and energy systems, deciding to go vegetarian or install solar panels and grow switchgrass for biofuel. One group even decided that a jail sentence would be launching people to Jupiter.

Silly or plausible, the components of each hypothetical community gave students an opportunity to delve into the details and hurdles of planning and sustaining a community.

“About two-thirds of first-year honors students are in STEM majors,” Yager said. “In this class, whether they’re talking about HVAC, genetics or creating animals in a new society, they’re articulating ideas. That’s what builds soft skills.”

Matthew Lorentzen, a sophomore in mechanical engineering from Bondurant, signed up for this seminar after spotting Mars in the description.

“I’ve gained a lot of worldview perspective,” he said. “A huge thing for me in every class is how my mind changes. This has opened my horizons and given me a totally new appreciation for different lifestyles.”