Iola turns floodplain into oasis


In the summer of 2007 a 100-year flood hit rural Iola, Kansas (pop. 6000). Roughly 120 homes—primarily owned by low-to-moderate income Iolans—were destroyed. This punch to the gut was made worse when locals discovered that a buyout of properties in the floodplain by FEMA meant that no structures could ever again be built in what had been close-knit, bustling neighborhoods.

Thrive Allen County, a nonprofit health coalition based in Iola, saw the inklings of an opportunity in what was otherwise a sad situation. While no buildings could be erected on these former homesites, there were no restrictions on building athletic fields, community gardens, dog parks—the type of healthy lifestyles amenities that were badly needed in a county with a health ranking of #94 of 105 counties in Kansas.

With the help of a KU urban design student, Thrive presented colorful renderings showing the transformation of the Davis Addition neighborhood into multi-purpose athletic fields. A previously skeptical city commission suddenly embraced the concept when they saw the pictures. Construction started soon thereafter, with city crews doing the work on city-owned land.

It all snowballed from there.

Thrive’s Vision Iola Built Environment Plan (a planning process to change infrastructure to improve community health) identified the flood lands as an asset, rather than a liability, for a community that hadn’t necessarily seen them that way. Once built, it became apparent that the Prairie Spirit Trail should be extended to the new fields. Then local residents requested approval to establish neighborhood gardens, which the city permitted at no cost. The Elm Creek Community Garden began expanding around the same time, also on floodplain neighborhoods, ultimately growing to more than 120 plots.

And then came the dog park.

Thrive staff had noticed that the vast majority of medical professionals they recruited asked whether Iola had a dog park. At the first the answer was a laugh—in rural communities, dogs are more likely to run loose than to have their own parks. But after enough inquiries, that answer became, “No, but we’re working on it.”

Happy Tails Dog Park came not long after….and a driving force on the dog park committee was the wife of a new dentist.

It didn’t end with wagging tails. The first 1.5 mile extension of the trail turned into a 6.5 mile new trail from Iola to neighboring Humboldt. A new neighborhood park sprouted on the south bank of Elm Creek. An 18-hole disc golf course has opened. There is talk of expanding pickleball courts into the flood lands to alleviate congestion at the main courts farther north. A $200,000 inclusive playground opened last summer. And the Lehigh Portland Trails network—which use the flood lands as their jumping off point—will soon provide 10 miles of new trails.

Iola still hasn’t recovered fully from the tragedy of the flood, but it has adapted to a new reality, creating a healthier present—and future—for all of its residents.

This blog post is part of A Healthy 10.

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