11/21/2013 08:21 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

DreamMakers Creating Sustainable Communities. Dubuque Iowa - surprised? So was I!

Sustainable Dubuque: "The Masterpiece on the Mississippi." That's what the people of Dubuque affectionately have named their city, and they have every right and so many reasons to be proud of their community.

I was recently invited to keynote the Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque. My plan was to give my speech and spend a couple days learning about their sustainable "activities" and "programs". My condescending attitude was shattered within hours after I arrived. Cindy Steinhauser, the Assistant City Manager, picked me up at the airport and before taking me to my hotel she took me on a city tour. I was tired and even a little annoyed because my trip was full of long lines, long delays and a bumpy flight, so all I wanted to do was check into my hotel and regroup. When Cindy began to weave the compelling story of Dubuque's Sustainability journey, I woke up! I listened with eyes wide open (it is possible that my mouth was open too) because I was amazed. I walked into a very sophisticated, beautiful, highly integrated, connected, smart and sustainable community. Dubuque has earned a long list of prestigious awards and recognitions for their accomplishments. Here are just a few:

All-American City 2013, 2012, 2007, awarded by the National Civic League

Great Place to Live 2013, awarded by Kiplinger

100 Best Communities for Young People 2012, 2011, 2010, 2008, 2007, awarded by the American Promise Alliance (founded by former Secretary Colin Powell).

Best Small City To Raise a Family 2010, awarded by Forbes

Best Small Places for Businesses and Careers 2013, awarded by Forbes

The Top Ten Smartest Cities on the Planet 2010, awarded by Fast Company, (Dubuque was the only city in the US to make the list)

Top 25 Innovations in Government 2013, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School

To see the entire list of Dubuque's awards and recognition see:

How did this happen? Dubuque, like most cities in the rust belt region of the United States, fell victim to the economic devastation in the 1980's caused by the closing of the steel mills, manufacturing plants and the decline of the coal industry. They had the highest unemployment in the country, rapid population decline and although they sit right on the Mississippi River, vacant warehouses and abandoned factories defined their waterfront.

How did they accomplish such a remarkable transformation against these tremendous obstacles? The people are their "secret sauce." Enabled by visionary leadership the residents of Dubuque, decided to take ownership of their city. They came together and created a unified, shared vision -- their dream of a "Sustainable Dubuque". The citizens, businesses, government, all sectors of their community pulled together and transformed their city from a deteriorating rusting city with 23 percent unemployment in 1982 into the "Masterpiece on the Mississippi." Today Dubuque is a thriving smart, sustainable community, with highly engaged, proud, passionate citizens, growing businesses, enlightened leadership and 4.6 percent unemployment.

The community leaders of Dubuque started in the mid-nineties and early 2000's to envision a brighter community and took early steps to make improvements including launching the America's River Vision and the Port of Dubuque Master Plan. However, 2005 seemed to have been a defining moment in the city's development. That year the community embarked on Envision 2010, a process conducted by Dubuque Chamber of Commerce and the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. That year Roy D. Buol ran for mayor and his mantra was "The next five years will define the next fifty in Dubuque." He ran on a platform based on "engaging citizens as partners". He invited the people of Dubuque to share their concerns, hopes and dreams for Dubuque. Thousands of citizens responded and seven central themes emerged: water quality, recycling, green space, public transit, cultural vitality, accessibility and downtown revitalization.

Then in 2006 Mayor Buol and his colleagues on the city council made Sustainability the city's top priority. Mayor Buol believed "Cities that get out in front on sustainability will have competitive economic advantages in the future". They created the Sustainable Dubuque Task Force, a highly diverse city-wide, "citizen task force that included representatives from local government, schools, utility companies, religious organizations, neighborhood organizations, youth organizations, non-profits, environmental organizations and business stakeholders". They collected community-wide input on the vision; conducted numerous surveys and met with all the stakeholder organizations in the community.

Through this comprehensive, community engagement initiative it became clear that the people of Dubuque deeply valued "sustainability". The city of Dubuque's vision was born out of collective minds and hearts of the people of Dubuque:

"Dubuque is a viable, livable and equitable community. We embrace economic prosperity, environmental integrity and social/cultural vibrancy to create a sustainable legacy for generations to come"

Their sustainable vision principles are:
Community Design
Smart Energy Use
Resource management
Regional Economy
Green Buildings
Healthy Local Foods
Community Knowledge
Reasonable Mobility
Healthy air
Clean Water
Native Plants & Animals

The results they have achieved are amazing! Cindy Steinhauser believes "The shared visioning initiative is best illustrated by the Americas River Project, "... a 2,400-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that celebrates the historical, environmental, educational and recreational majesty of the Mississippi". This project is the result of a partnership between city, state, and private enterprises. In Dubuque there used to be abandoned buildings lining the waterfront blocking access to the waterfront. Today people can enjoy the Mississippi Riverwalk which houses the River's Edge Plaza and Alliant Energy Amphitheater, the National Mississippi River Museum, a state of the art conference center, the Grand Harbor Resort & Waterpark, casinos, restaurants and a winery.

The city's development has been so successful that in 2009, in the midst of the great recession, IBM decided to build its new technology service delivery center in Dubuque, creating 1,300 new jobs. IBM also partnered with the City of Dubuque, on a Smarter Sustainable Dubuque Water Pilot Study. As a result, Dubuque is enhancing its infrastructure, with technology including smart water meters, to help residents make more informed decisions about how they use water. Many residents today are saving money, conserving resources and improving the environment. The Dubuque Water Conservation Portal was replicated in Townsville, Australia where it won the prestigious National Infrastructure Award for smart Infrastructures. IBM is duplicating this project in Miami Dade, Florida and delegations from China and New Zeeland have visited Dubuque to learn about Smarter Sustainable Dubuque. The people of Dubuque are making a difference in their community and sharing their learning's with communities thousands of miles away.

"It is all about citizen engagement and empowerment. I think we are here because we took the time to engage our people in creating a shared vision and liberated them to take action. Today people feel empowered, you just can't stop them - that is true democracy at work".

The city of Dubuque's story shows us that we have the capacity to transform our cities person-by-person, family-by-family, and community-by-community. If we can find the courage to dream big and have the heart to commit our individual and collective gifts to make that dream come true, we can change our world.