Field Problems in Planning is a capstone course in which graduate students in the University of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning gain experience working on a two-semester project involving a current planning issue.
“I really like field problems. You have a project that gives you real world experience, instead of it just being all about academia,” says Ahnna Nanoski, a second-year master’s student in the School of Urban and Regional Planning.
Nanoski’s field problems project involves helping create Cedar County’s Great Places Visioning Plan. As part of the development of the Cedar County Comprehensive Plan, Nanoski and her fellow students are assembling application materials to help Cedar County apply for an Iowa Great Places designation, a program administered by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.
“This designation allows communities to get grant money to help fund different projects in the area that will help increase quality of life,” Nanoski says. “It can be anything from trails, to public art, to historic preservation. The vision plan identifies what’s special about Cedar County and what can be done to improve what they already have.”
Nanoski is impressed with the number of historical sites in Cedar County, most notably Hardacre Theater in Tipton.
Hardacre Theater served as a movie house from 1919 to 2013, until it closed. The Hardacre Theater Preservation Association bought the theater in 2014 and is renovating it into a live performing arts theater, as well as a space to host community events.
“We identify all these places in the county, like Hardacre Theater, and come up with implementation strategies for each community to strengthen those unique attributes,” Nanoski says.
Iowa is the right choice
Nanoski studied in the Architecture, Urban Planning, and Design Department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City as an undergraduate. While there, she took classes with Associate Professor Michael Frisch, who connected her with the University of Iowa.
Professor Frisch had contacts with faculty members in the UI’s School of Urban and Regional Planning and thought the program would be a good fit for his student.
His assessment was right on target. Nanoski enjoys everything about the University of Iowa from the academic component, to community outreach opportunities, to her relationship with her fellow students.
“Having us all congregate in the drafting room and working on our projects together and building off each other is really helpful,” Nanoski says.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa, Sylvia Bochner wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next.
For one year, while she thought about the next step on her career path, Bochner traveled some and worked at a couple local restaurants. Then, a friend told her about the School of Urban and Regional Planning, a fully-accredited graduate program that welcomes students from many different academic backgrounds.
Bochner attended the school’s annual open house, which informs prospective students about the many careers in planning. She liked what she heard, applied to the program, and was accepted.
That turned out to be the right choice.
“I thought I would really like the career I had after the program,” Bochner says. “I have learned a lot of interesting things about the planning field. The program has helped me start gaining experience that will translate well to the career I want to have.”
Bochner’s studies concentrate on housing and community development, specifically affordable housing issues. She works with Professor Jerry Anthony, whose research deals with federal, state and local housing policies, and the development of affordable housing.
“Having fair access to housing can be a really huge problem for someone and it directly impacts their lives,” Bochner says. “Finding a solution to that has such a powerful and immediate impact.
“In this program, there are so many opportunities to do actual projects and interact with communities I’m not familiar with. It’s been helpful to see what I want my work to be. I want to actually be involved in the community.”
Community Outreach Projects
Bochner and fellow planning students are working with one of the faculty on a healthy neighborhood plan for the north end of Mason City as part of the Field Problems in Planning capstone course. The students will submit their final paper to the City of Mason City and the Cerro Gordo County Public Health Department at the end of their final semester.
Last spring, Bochner assisted residents of Delmar, Iowa on a video project where Delwood Elementary School students interviewed longtime residents of the small town to find ways to revitalize its downtown.
“We talked to the kids about different interviewing techniques and what they wanted to hear from these stories,” Bochner says. “We filmed the interviews and edited them together.”
Community members watched the videos during an open house. Citizens shared stories about the town and how it has changed over time. While the downtown doesn’t have any businesses remaining, Bochner says it was nice to see citizens focus on what was going well there, such as a strong school district and a Depot Museum that was recently renovated.
“It was great to see them focus on the good things and work toward finding solutions to the challenges, instead of saying this is small town that’s dying out,” Bochner says.
Opportunity Assistance Fund
Last summer, the School of Urban and Regional Planning presented Bochner with the Opportunity Assistance Fund, which is awarded annually to an outstanding student in the program. This award, which is supported by an anonymous gift to the School of Urban and Regional Planning, funds a quarter-time appointment for Bochner as a graduate assistant for the 2017-18 academic year.
“It is really nice to see that graduates of the program are investing in students,” Bochner says. “When I graduate, I would like to do the same and contribute back to the program. The assistantship package is a great opportunity and has made my life as a graduate student much easier.”
Tara Cullison is a second-year student in the School of Urban and Regional Planning’s graduate program who concentrates on land use and environmental planning and GIS.
Cullison worked for two years after an undergraduate degree as a program manager for a sustainability research center. Working with real world issues in the community and developing strategies for city officials and staff to solve problems was what solidified Cullison’s decision to seek a graduate degree in urban and regional planning. “I applied to Iowa, knowing I would end up in the Midwest after graduate school. I was searching for a relevant education and the opportunity to learn skills that were pertinent to working in more rural areas,” Cullison says.
The native of Hillsdale, Ill., is currently using her planning skills to help develop a comprehensive plan for Cedar County that guides future development by addressing transportation, economic development, and environmental concerns among other issues. Professors John Fuller and Scott Spak are advising the students on the plan as part of the Field Problems in Planning capstone course.
Cullison’s contribution to the plan deals primarily with residential development patterns and agricultural land use. Should Cedar County base its development decisions on agricultural preservation or building a higher tax base through the creation of residential units?
“That’s the big question. The goal of the comprehensive plan is to find a happy medium,” Cullison says. “County leaders feel like there needs to be more people, and they’re especially interested in attracting younger families. But the majority of the land is for farming.”
“I am interested in regional planning—the combination of working in urban and rural landscapes and how they intermingle. The Cedar County comprehensive plan provides me the perfect preparation for a career in regional planning,” says Cullison, who earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.
Cullison’s work on Cedar County’s comprehensive plan is the second community project that has helped shape her as a planner.
Last spring, Cullison worked with two faculty on the English River Watershed project in southern Johnson and northern Washington Counties. This project was part of the Environmental Management class.
“We worked on water quality and water quantity issues. That experience was amazing and really enhanced my understanding of rural watershed management in Iowa,” Cullison says.
Cullison claims the opportunities provided by the urban and regional planning program have been valuable experiences, in addition to the education. “Experiences gained from my assistantship, internship, conferences, and class projects have very much enhanced my planning knowledge,” Cullison says. “The program does a great job at informing students of internship and job opportunities throughout the area and across the nation.” Cullison worked as the conservation intern for the summer and fall of 2017 for the Johnson County Soil & Water Conservation District.
University of Iowa graduate student Sadya Islam remembers crying by the mere thought of studying urban and regional planning.
Growing up in Bangladesh, Islam wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a mechanical engineer after college. But in Bangladesh, students are assigned to an academic department based on their results of a college-entrance test. Islam’s test score left her with a difficult decision.
If she wanted to attend Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, her top choice, she would have to study urban and regional planning. However, she could pursue her desired mechanical engineering degree at a less prestigious university.
Islam decided to study planning at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, which didn’t appear to be the right choice initially.
“I was not happy with planning at first, because it wasn’t engineering. Urban and Regional Planning made me cry,” Islam says. “I like doing math and technical things. In planning, I was studying mostly policies and theories, and I was struggling. My results weren’t good at first.
“After one and a half years, I started understanding why I was doing this and how my country is vulnerable to various natural disasters, with flooding being the most important. From that time, I learned that urban planning has meaning.”
Community engagement projects
Looking to continue her study of environmental management and climate change, Islam took a friend’s advice and chose to attend graduate school at the University of Iowa.
For Islam, there have been no tears, just lots of outreach activities to better Iowa communities.
Islam suggests students consider the University of Iowa for their graduate study destination. The program prepares students with the right skills needed to be successful as a planning professional. Students develop a deeper understanding of planning policies in the U.S. and have the chance to be engaged in practical planning projects. The school also provides financial support to many qualified students and the learning and sharing atmosphere in the department is excellent.
Last summer, Islam had an internship with the City of Cedar Rapids. Working with the Department of Community Development and Planning, Islam and two fellow students were able to transfer what they learned in the classroom and apply it to initiatives ranging from the re-drafting of the city’s zoning code to collecting public input for and drafting an area action plan for the College District.
Islam and another classmate also received first place in the 2017 Upper Midwest American Planning Association Student Poster Contest. Their poster, titled, “Mitigating Flood Risk by Improving Permeability in Downtown Wellman, IA,” was based on research completed in their Environmental Management class during the 2017 spring semester. This is an example of the type of research she wanted to explore in order to take the knowledge back to Bangladesh.
“Using storm water management tools, the project showed how much water is accumulating in 10-year and 2-year rain situations and how much they can be reduced by using available low impact development practices,” says Islam, whose husband is a doctoral student in geography at the University of Iowa.
Islam is currently working on a professional consulting project in Mason City for the capstone course, Field Problems in Planning. She is on a team with four other graduate students devising positive campaigning to address perception issues, while attracting more businesses, to the north end part of this town. The final report for this project will be given to the City of Mason City and Cerro Gordo County Public Health Department in May 2018.
Vanessa Fixmer-Oraiz is challenging herself in the classroom as a first-year master’s student in the School of Urban and Regional Planning.
“We may talk about homeowner’s insurance or flood insurance, but when it’s in a classroom setting where you’re learning theories, it’s almost like trying to learn a new language,” Fixmer-Oraiz says.
Fixmer-Oraiz, a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Iowa, isn’t alone in her effort to make a successful transition to graduate school. She stands alongside her colleagues, who come from various academic disciplines with their own ideas for making contributions to the planning profession.
“We have smart individuals in our program who want to do good work in the world,” Fixmer-Oraiz says. “This pushes people to think critically in class. We push each other, we learn from each other. We really bond over the coursework and pull together. We try to help each other out.”
Fixmer-Oraiz, who majored in environmental studies at the University of North Carolina, is focusing her graduate work on environmental land use as it pertains to climate disruption.
While at North Carolina, Fixmer-Oraiz researched how rural farmers in the Philippines use bamboo to adapt to climate change. She presented her findings at a public forum in which local residents discussed how specific environmental issues could be addressed through policy measures and/or technology transfer.
“Typhoons are strong there, so they need to retain mountainside erosion,” says Fixmer-Oraiz, whose research in the Philippines was funded by a Fulbright Grant. “Bamboo can retain soil because of its root structure, so the government started to invest in bamboo plantations.”
As a UI graduate student, Fixmer-Oraiz is researching and writing a manuscript that outlines her work in the Philippines in the hope that she can translate her research experience to the Midwest. The first year of the Dean’s Fellowship includes 10 hours of research experience per week with one or two different mentors each semester.
“Climate disruption is happening all over,” Fixmer-Oraiz says. “I am interested in studying vulnerable populations here, possibly marginalized Latino populations that work in the meatpacking industry. How does a severe drought or severe rain influence these communities? How are they going to adapt? Who is doing that already and what can we learn from them?”
Learning never stops
Like any profession, urban and regional planning has a learning curve for its trainees.
“For instance, you look at economics in a different way,” Fixmer-Oraiz says. “Everybody can talk about externalities, but can you talk about that when you’re putting it into a market system? How do we put transportation into a market system? For me, that has been a really big shift. In building cities, you’re looking at the big picture. As graduate students, we’re asked to pull apart the small nuances as well and think critically about them.”
Whether in the field or in the classroom, Fixmer-Oraiz is taking the necessary steps to become a professional planner.
“You come in wanting the change the world,” Fixmer-Oraiz says. “You’re going to put all you can into it. That’s why it is so rewarding. Everybody is doing that.”