Student Spotlight: Sarah Garnder
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“Every day begins and ends with me thinking about commuter habits and modal choice!”

Sarah J. Gardner recently graduated with a master's degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Iowa with dual concentrations in land use and environmental planning as well as transportation planning. Sarah comes to the field from a previous career in journalism, in which she ran a regional publication with an estimated circulation of 52,000 readers and an editorial focus on Midwestern sustainability initiatives, local foods, and building resilient communities.

Q: Which ACSP member school do you attend?
A: University of Iowa

Q: What specialty are you studying?
A; Land Use and Environment/Transportation Planning

Q: Why did you select your particular specialty?
A: I came to the university with an interest in sustainability, having worked previously as a journalist covering environmental issues. As part of that work, I interviewed a planner, Darrin Nordahl, about his book Public Produce. Up until then, I hadn't given much thought to the decision process behind how land gets used, but the conversation really inspired me to think more broadly about how urban spaces can be configured to benefit current and future residents. As a bike enthusiast and advocate, the overlap between environmental issues and transportation seemed like a natural fit to me, so I decided to take classes in both.

Q: Do you have a current job or internship in your specialty?
A: Yes, I'm going to be working for an electric utility interfacing with sustainability managers for municipalities and corporations to help achieve energy efficiency goals

Q: Is there a particular class or professor that has made a great impact on you? How so?
A: It's hard to choose just one. I feel like I've gained something valuable away from every class I've taken. I took an elective course in urban ecology that was absolutely fascinating -- just to try to understand how a city might function for a fish or squirrel. It was the first time I encountered the idea of "reconciliation ecology," the idea that landscapes don't have to be restored to their original state to be ecologically valuable. We can make smart choices about our surroundings to serve multiple functions, human and natural.

Q: What's your favorite project you’ve worked on, in class or in practice?
A: As part of a course on Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery taught by Jim Schwab, I wrote a paper about a flooding disaster in the town of Lyons, Colorado -- it was a very big flood in a very small town. They've had some amazing successes in their recovery, but have also struggled to rebuild affordable housing, which has had ripple effects for their local economy. It really underscored for me how interrelated all the planning disciplines are. On the face of it, this was a project focused on environmental planning, but housing and economic development were inextricably linked within in. It also made me think a lot about the value of planning in areas that may not traditionally have much access to planners. Important stuff!

Q: What future goals do you have in your field?
A: I'm so excited to take everything I've learned and have a chance to apply it. I think it's a very interesting time to be a planner. There’s no question that many of our cities are up against sizeable challenges, especially here in the Midwest. The economic base is shifting throughout the region, as are population trends. In the midst of it all, communities are grappling with big questions about the kinds of places they want to be in the future and coming up with some amazing, creative ways to meet those challenges. I'm looking forward to having a hand in it.

Q: How has planning school changed your daily habits?
A: I was a bike commuter for many years, but since I live 50 miles away from the university, I've had to trade the bike for some other transportation modes. Getting to class involves driving to a commuter lot and then boarding a bus or walking into campus. Along the way, I've carpooled with another student from my city, investigated vanpool options, and been involved with an MPO in my hometown promoting its intercity bus service. You could say every day begins and ends with me thinking about commuter habits and modal choice!

Q: What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A: So many things! An astronomer, a writer, a diplomat. My family still teases me about my early aspirations to move to Switzerland and be in charge of putting holes in all the cheese.

Q: How many different cities have you lived in and which was your favorite?
A: Eight; I spent a semester abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland, when I was 21. I loved it! Much of my thinking about cities can be traced back to that first experience of a city very different from any I had experienced before.

Q: If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
A: I'd really like to hike up to Machu Picchu, both for the stunning scenery and the chance to see how people in another part of the world, living long ago, thought about configuring a city.

Q: What is the title of the last book you read? What did you learn from it?
A: Since I only have time for short snippets of leisure reading while pursuing my degree, I keep a book of poems by Wendell Berry, Clearing, in my backpack to read on the bus ride into campus. In it, he has a poem called "A Work Song" in which the communities we build today and the landscapes we restore are described as places where people will thrive far into the future. There are two great lines in the middle, "This is no paradisal dream. It's hardship is its possibility," that I just love. It says to me if these things were easy to do, we could shrug them off as mere fantasy. But because we know we have to work for them, we also know we can achieve them.

Q: What’s your favorite color and how would you creatively incorporate it into a planning project?
A: I love a good, deep red. I have been thinking a lot lately about the role public art can play in help call attention to and generate enthusiasm for more natural landscapes in urban environments. What if a city had a summer installation of red frames placed in pocket parks, along river fronts, hung in street trees, and in municipal golf courses with just the inscription "Nature happens here." Wouldn't that be fun and thought provoking?


The Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning promotes education, research, service and outreach in the United States and throughout the world by seeking to:

  • recognize diverse needs and interests in planning;
  • improve and enhance the accreditation process, and;
  • strengthen the role of planning education in colleges and universities through publications, conferences, and community engagement;
  • extend planning beyond the classroom into the world of practice.


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