A Conversation with John Peterson

New business offers Peterson opportunity to share his passion.

After 37 years with the City of Ankeny, John Peterson is taking his unique blend of experience in planning, engineering, and economic development and channeling it into a new business venture, Peterson Planning Strategies.

He just established his Ankeny-based company in July, primarily focusing on city planning. He’s excited to share his knowledge and passion with others to improve the quality of life for communities and their citizens as well.

How is business going so far?

The clients at this point are shaping up to be cities, counties, and regional agencies. I’m mainly working on comprehensive and neighborhood planning, policy development, and zoning and development codes. I’ve received a lot of support from friends and individuals I’ve collaborated with in the past, offering their help and business connections.

My first project is partnering with RDG Planning & Design, working on a project in Marion, Iowa. I’m also trying to develop some code language and formats for strategic planning that I can market to potential clients. That’s exciting for me, and has been a lot of fun to work on.

Tell us A Little about your previous professional experience.

I started my career with the City of Ankeny in 1978 as a junior civil engineer. As Ankeny grew and changed, so did the needs of the community. The government had to adjust to meet those needs. So I began working with the planning and zoning commission, attending their meetings and writing staff reports.

Not too long after that, I was asked to work with the Ankeny Industrial Development Corporation (which is now called the Ankeny Economic Development Corporation) doing economic development work, and calling on potential businesses. Faced with the new challenges of building inspections, economic development, and planning, I returned to my alma mater, Iowa State University. I talked to the planning extension office, where they helped me see how my civil engineering background translated to the planning work I needed to do.

As the city structure changed, so did my titles, although my responsibilities basically stayed the same. Over the years, I was director of planning and development services, planning and building director, assistant city manager, and most recently director of community development.

I think I was in a unique position. I had experience in economic development, recruiting and assisting businesses, but I also had developed and enforced the city codes. I understood their intent and the rationale behind them. So when code issues arose with developers or builders, I could appreciate where both the city and business owners were coming from. I think in many cases, the development or business community views city government as a stumbling block, putting up hoops they have to jump through that don’t benefit what they’re trying to do. My philosophy was, “Here’s what we’re trying to accomplish together, instead of the city just saying ‘no.'” I really think that’s a perspective that benefited the community as it grew.

What’s been the biggest challenge of becoming a small business owner?

It’s been getting my business’ name out there and explaining what services I can provide to possible clients. It’s finding the opportunities and places where I can connect, make a difference, and be helpful—the paycheck is kind of the benefit of that.

What urban planning trends have you been particularly interested in?

My main passions have become the environment, green infrastructure, and recently, the connection between how communities are designed and constructed, and the impact on people’s health. I want to help build communities that make it simple for people to choose a more healthy and active lifestyle.

For example, in street design, that involves making intersections safer for pedestrians. In neighborhoods, it means providing an environment where people are comfortable walking to the grocery store, where they can buy fresh vegetables every few days. To me, health is the purpose for what we do, and that includes human health as well as that of the Earth.

I’m involved with a variety of groups looking at how to build healthier communities. I represent the Iowa chapter of the American Planning Association, where one of my goals has been to connect city planners with public health professionals.

I’ve also been working with a $130,000 Plan4Health grant from the American Planning Association in Linn County that involves two projects—one on active living in Marion, and another on food pantry guidelines in the Cedar Rapids area.

I also sit on a statewide committee called Active Living Iowa, which is looking at communities and how projects such as bike trails can influence physical activity, as well as reduce or eliminate some chronic diseases such as diabetes among residents.

What charities do you work with?

I’m a member of the Ankeny Kiwanis Club and president of the Ankeny Kiwanis Foundation. I’m currently the chairman of the board of directors of the Ankeny Service Center, which coordinates human services and referrals for residents in Ankeny and northern Polk County. I also sit on the board of the Neveln Center, an old school building in the heart of Ankeny which serves as a central location for a variety of social services.

In addition, I’m on the steering committee and building committee chairman of the Ankeny Market & Pavilion project. The approximately $1.8 million project will include a park with two large pavilions, and will be used for various events, including a farmer’s market and community gatherings.

Tell us a little about your family.

I live in Ankeny with my wife, Nancy, who is a veterinarian and owns Ingersoll Animal Hospital in Des Moines. We have two grown children—our son, Ethan, is a senior at Iowa State University in performing arts, and our daughter, Jenna Riley, is an assistant museum curator in Schenectady, New York. In my spare time, I like being outdoors and traveling.