Speaker Series

The Tomorrow Plan Speaker Series is an implementation strategy of The Tomorrow Plan, offered as a resource to community leaders to learn best practices from some of the country’s leading thinkers.

The Speaker Series touches on a wide range of topics related to creating a high quality of life in metropolitan areas, including the sharing economy, the effects of transportation and housing on public health, walkability, water quality, public transit and more. Speakers and details of their talks are outlined below and will be updated as they are scheduled.

Speaker: Form-based zoning is quicker for developers, better for communities

Developing properties is quicker, more predictable, and often more profitable for developers in cities with form-based zoning codes – which the City of Des Moines is looking to adopt by year’s end. Not to mention, form-based zoning results in projects with better economics and social outcomes, ensuring support from local residents, businesses, and public officials.

So says Brandon Palanker, a master developer of walkable urban and suburban downtowns, and the next speaker in The Tomorrow Plan Speaker Series. His talk is from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, September 27, at the Sheraton West Des Moines,  1800 50th St., West Des Moines. The talk is free and open to the public.

“Form-based codes are the best mechanism to align market forces with the wants and needs of the community,” Palanker says. “They provide a transparent and replicable process that simplifies development – and they create vibrant, walkable neighborhoods that people love.”

The two largest cities in Iowa – Des Moines and Cedar Rapids – are both in the process of adopting form-based codes, replacing decades-old, use-based codes. What’s the difference? According to the Form-Based Codes Institute:

“Conventional zoning, or Euclidian zoning, seeks to separate uses in structures; for example keeping factories away from residences. Little attention is paid to the public realm – streets, sidewalks, open spaces – or to the form of the buildings and blocks. This approach often leads sprawl, loss of identity, reduced walkability and segregation of different populations. Planners and community decision makers in search of ways to improve walkability, retain community character and preserve important open spaces turned to form-based codes as a way to reform their zoning. … Form-based codes have grown in recognition as a way to create a regulatory framework for communities that that are walkable, unifying, and vibrant.”

Palanker will be joined on stage by planner Leslie Oberholtzer and architect and planner Geoffrey Ferrell.  Oberholtzer is a principal and Director of Planning at Chicago-based CodaMetrics, the firm hired to rewrite Des Moines’ zoning code. Ferrell is a principal at Washington D.C.-based Ferrell Madden, the firm hired to rewrite Cedar Rapids’ zoning code.

The Tomorrow Plan Speaker Series is an implementation Strategy of The Tomorrow Plan, a forward-thinking plan for the sustainable development of Greater Des Moines. The form-based codes drafted for Des Moines would support the goals and strategies of The Tomorrow Plan, notably the “Nodes and Corridors Initiative,” which recommends higher concentrations of development on key transportation corridors.

About the Speakers

Brandon Palanker is a renowned thought leader in the fields of downtown revitalization, mixed-use development and public engagement.  Over the past decade, Brandon was instrumental in garnering community support and municipal entitlements for over $10 billion of mixed-use development, representing over 10,000 residential units and nearly 20 million square feet of development potential. He was instrumental in launching the nation’s first “Crowdsourced Placemaking” program, during his time leading public engagement for Renaissance Downtowns, a leading developer of urban-suburban downtowns in the northeast. Brandon recently moved to Dallas to join forces with Scott Polikov of Gateway Planning Group to form GP Development, a development platform that will leverage Brandon’s experience as a Master Developer of walkable urban-suburban downtowns with Scott’s proven ability to unleash economic and social value through integrating urban design, town planning, infrastructure and public-private financing strategies. He is a Board Member of the Real Estate Institute at Stony Brook University and the national Form-Based Codes Institute, and serves on the Urban Land Institute’s Mixed-Used Development Council. Brandon has also long been an active member of LOCUS Responsible Developers, working with their Steering Committee on policy positions and recommendations.

Leslie Oberholtzer is a principal and Director of Planning at CodaMetrics, a boutique planning lab in Chicago, Illinois.  With over 25 years of experience in urban design and smart growth planning, she works to promote sustainable development through the availability of alternative transportation and housing choices, the development of valuable places, and the preservation of community traditions.  In addition to being a registered landscape architect and a certified planner, she is National Charrette Institute  (NCI) certified and a LEED Associated Professional.  Over the past 12 years, Leslie has developed over twenty-five neighborhood and full city codes for communities across the country. Recently, her work has focused on the research and development of form-based codes for Transit Oriented Development (TOD) nodes, corridors, and neighborhoods. Sustainability is at the core of the work Leslie produces not only through a focus on walkable and transit-served places, but also through the development of alternative energy, conservation area, and tree preservation ordinances. Leslie is currently working on a new Form-Based Code for the City of Des Moines.

Geoffrey Ferrell is one of the originators of the modern practice of Form-Based Codes. A principal at Ferrell Madden, his work ranges from site-specific urban designs to zoning-toolkits to replace Euclidean zones – development regulations that emphasize clarity for end-users. His experience with adopted municipal form-based codes goes back to 1991 with the Metropolitan Dade County Traditional Neighborhood Ordinance. His firm’s Form-Based Codes for the Farmers Branch, Texas, Station Area and Heart of Peoria Form-Districts in Peoria, Illinois, received the Richard Driehaus Form-Based Code Award in 2007 and 2010, respectively. Ferrell Madden’s work is featured in the books Form-Based Codes, The New Urbanism, and Retrofitting Suburbia.  Ferrell Madden is a member of the team currently working on a new form-based code for Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Mr. Ferrell holds a Master of Architecture degree with a Certificate in American Urbanism from the University of Virginia, a Bachelor of Architecture from Oregon School of Design, and a Bachelor of Science in Public Policy from Willamette University. He is a Charter Member of the Congress for the New Urbanism and a Charter Board Member for the Form-Based Codes Institute.

Materials from past speaking events are published on the MPO website:

Speakers John Norquist and RT Rybak: Walkability: The Politics and Payoff of Putting Walkability into Action

Speakers Carol Payne and Amy Slonim: Housing Matters Symposium

Speaker Maureen Collins: The Sharing Economy and Greater Des Moines


Speaker: Housing could make or break future of Greater Des Moines’ economy

Greater Des Moines’ low unemployment rate and reasonable cost of living make it an attractive place to live, but this balance can be precarious and not without future risks, especially when it comes to housing.

So says Maya Brennan, a researcher for the Urban Institute and editor of the How Housing Matters website, who is the next speaker in The Tomorrow Plan Speaker Series. Her talk, which is part of the Annual Housing Symposium put on by the Polk County Housing Trust Fund during Affordable Housing Week, starts at 9 a.m. Wednesday, April 5, at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, 909 Robert D. Ray Drive, Des Moines. The event is worth 2 AICP credits.

“Without a supportive policy landscape, the decision of millennials and others to stay in or come to Des Moines can have unexpected consequences – boosting property values only for those already bought in, while closing the door on other essential members of the workforce,” Brennan says. “Choosing to focus on planning for the right mix of housing, before the market is too hot, is a discussion the region’s leaders and municipalities will want to have sooner rather than later to ensure the region continues to be economically strong and a place all people can thrive.”

This is an especially timely discussion for the Des Moines metro, which the U.S. Census Bureau says is the fastest growing region in the Midwest. While exciting, the region needs to be careful to avoid population growth becoming too much of a good thing, says Eric Burmeister, executive director of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund: Is it good news if we don’t have the right mix of housing options for those who will be living and working here?

“If we are going to continue to enjoy the success of our region, then housing needs to be part of economic development,” Burmeister says, noting that regional leaders have identified housing as a critical area of focus in plans such as Capital Crossroads 2.0 and The Tomorrow Plan. “This symposium sets the stage for much-needed insights, discussions and future planning.”

Following her keynote remarks, Brennan will moderate a panel of local officials working to address housing issues in their communities and across the state. They include: Matt Anderson, Assistant City Manager, City of Des Moines; Russ Behrens, City Manager, City of Grinnell; Sam Erickson, Chief Operating Officer, Community Housing Initiatives; and Carolann Jensen, Chief Programs Officer, Iowa Finance Authority.

For more information on the housing symposium or to RSVP, please visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/housing-matters-for-iowas-economy-tickets-32533016127.  The Tomorrow Plan Speaker Series is an implementation strategy of The Tomorrow Plan, a forward-thinking plan for the sustainable development of the Greater Des Moines region over the next 40 years.


The Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) acts as a regional forum to ensure coordination between the public and local, state, and federal agencies in regard to planning issues and to prepare transportation plans and programs. The MPO develops both long- and short-range multimodal transportation plans, selects and approves projects for federal funding based upon regional priorities, and develops methods to reduce traffic congestion.

The Polk County Housing Trust Fund is the comprehensive planning, advocacy, and funding organization for affordable housing in Polk County, Iowa. Focused around these three core activities, the Housing Trust Fund is responsible for crafting the community strategic plan for affordable housing and leading its implementation. It is also tasked with helping the community understand the need for and benefits of adequate affordable housing. Finally, the organization is responsible for allocating community funds aimed at increasing and preserving the inventory of affordable units in the County and improving the lives of the people who live in them.



April 4, 8-11 a.m. – 4th Annual Educational Event for Iowa Landlords Are you a property manager or landlord? Know someone who should attend? Learn more about renting to low-income households and what resources are available to help. Along with our partners Primary Health Care and the Polk County Continuum of Care, we’ll also host a panel discussion with area property managers and facilitate a conversation about how nonprofits anHOsd property managers can work together.

April 5, 8:30-11 a.m. – Housing Matters for Iowa’s Economy

Join us for our third annual free symposium to learn more about how affordable housing can support economic development initiatives. Urban Institute‘s Maya Brennan, principal investigator for How Housing Matters, will discuss national trends in housing and economic development, and a panel of local experts will share their insights on how developers and economic development leaders can collaborate for greater impact.

April 7, 9-11:30 a.m. – Downtown Affordable Housing Walking Tour

To celebrate the recent release of Capital Crossroads 2.0, this spring’s tour will focus on Capital Crossroads efforts and future plans to make downtown a better place to live, work, and play — including affordable housing options for the people who make downtown work. While we’ll be riding DART’s free D-Line shuttle service for part of the tour, please wear your walking shoes for this up-close and personal view of downtown housing.

April 8, 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. – Can I Be Your Neighbor Design Challenge

This program in its fifth year offers area high school students the opportunity to design affordable homes for a chance at scholarships provided by ASK Studio and the Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines. Come check out the students’ designs and hear finalists present their work at the Pappajohn Center, 1200 Grand Ave in Downtown Des Moines.