Chuck Connerly grew up in the Chicago metro area – the home of his beloved Chicago Cubs, many delicious restaurants, and the picturesque Lake Michigan.
To this day, the Windy City has a special place in his heart. However, during his time as director of the University of Iowa’s School of Planning and Public Affairs, Connerly developed a strong passion for small and medium-sized towns in the state of Iowa through the establishment of the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities (IISC).
Connerly founded the IISC in 2009. In the last 12 years, students have partnered with towns and cities throughout the entire state, from Dubuque on the eastern border to Mason City in the north and to Sioux City on the west, to complete over 280 projects that enhance the sustainability of Iowa's communities.
After teaching hundreds of graduate students and serving as the school’s administrator, Connerly has retired from teaching to his home in rural Kalona to spend more time with his family and to continue his focus on research into Iowa history and public policy, which began with publication in 2020 of his book, Green, Fair, and Prosperous: Paths to a Sustainable Iowa, published by the University of Iowa Press.
“Sustainability is a major focus of the student experience and the graduate experience in the School of Planning and Public Affairs,” says Travis Kraus, Associate Professor in the School of Planning and Public Affairs and Director for the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities. “His legacy is all the projects that have been completed, and the results and outcomes of those are going to be coming for many years to come.”
A successful small-town planner
Connerly first arrived in the state of Iowa in the mid-1960s as an undergraduate student at Grinnell College. During college and then graduate study at the University of Michigan, he began growing into a real Midwesterner in the best way possible: hard working, humble, and collaborative.
These admirable qualities accompanied him on his academic journey beyond the Iowa boundaries. After completing his master’s and PhD degrees in urban and regional planning at Michigan, he joined the urban planning faculty at Florida State University in 1981, remaining there until 2008.
While at Florida State, Connerly instituted community outreach projects as a part of his students’ academic experience. However, upon returning to the state of Iowa to lead the UI’s Urban and Regional Planning Program, he took those projects to higher level after receiving great administrative support from Graduate College Dean John Keller, President Sally Mason, and Provost Barry Butler.
Keller arranged for Connerly to speak at one of President Mason’s monthly meetings with campus administrators, including Provost Butler. Connerly’s presentation on the early years of the IISC got the provost’s attention, resulting in him arranging for the urban and regional planning students to work with Dubuque community leaders on a series of sustainability projects from 2012 to 2014.
Of all the projects, the Sustainable Dubuque Indicators report drew national attention. The American Institute of Certified Planners honored the students with the 2013 Student Project Award for Contribution of Planning to a Contemporary Issue.
Seven graduate students worked with a group of community and municipal leaders in Dubuque to develop a set of 60 specific indicators intended to help the city benchmark and track the progress of its 11 sustainability initiatives.
“That really put us on the map. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” Connerly says.
Eight years after the completion of their Dubuque projects, IISC leadership still receive positive feedback from residents of the Key City.
The students have addressed many components of sustainability in the program, with the main area focusing on economic viability.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a small-town planner, but in Iowa that’s sort of what you do,” Connerly says. “So, it’s really become part of our school’s calling card. Our students are prepared to work in cities of all sizes but doing their internships and student projects in smaller communities enables them to have greater impact. I really do feel passionate about the small towns in Iowa. There is a lot of romance associated with them; nostalgia if you will such as with Meredith Wilson’s Music Man. There’s a real vibrancy in these small towns as well.”
His special connection to students
Connerly’s passion extends to his graduate students.
Hundreds of students have gone through the planning program during his 13 years as director. Flavia Hauss, a 2021 graduate who hails from Brazil, has a deep affinity for Connerly and the program.
“I wish I could put into words how much I appreciate that program,” Hauss says. “The program isn’t about just studying and going to classes, and then going home. It’s about the students as people.”
Hauss currently works as a Planner II at Astig Planning for V Fixmer-Oraiz, also a graduate of the School of Planning and Public Affairs. Astig Planning is an environmental planning company that serves the needs of all communities.
Connerly first put Hauss in contact with Astig Planning as an intern while she was still a student in his program.
“He said, ‘Flavia, planning is a broad field and you can work in anything you want,’” Hauss says. “I followed his advice and worked with them. I thanked him for getting me that internship, because I enjoyed my time there and learned a lot from V. I feel really blessed that I could do my internship there, because if I didn’t I wouldn’t have my current job.”
New MPA degree
Connerly recognized that no students in the state of Iowa were being trained in accredited public policy or public administration master’s programs. Seeing both an opportunity and a responsibility, he worked with colleagues in the School and the University to create a Master of Public Affairs degree in 2020.
“It’s hard to find a city manager or a county administrator. We didn’t have the school to train those professionals,” says Lucie Laurian, professor and new director of the School of Planning and Public Affairs. “We were really well placed to provide that degree. Chuck talked with Iowa State and Northern Iowa, and we created that degree.”
Connerly’s contributions to his faculty, students, and communities in the state of Iowa have not gone unnoticed.
In 2018, he received the Jay Chatterjee Distinguished Service Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning. In 2015, the University of Iowa presented Connerly with the Michael J. Brody Award for Faculty Excellence in Service.
In April 2021, the Iowa Board of Regents honored Connerly with the prestigious Regents Award for Faculty Excellence.
“He deserved the Regents Award for Faculty Excellence for his contributions both to the IISC and for creating our MPA degree,” Laurian says. “I think the goal at this point is to become a destination school. Chuck has set us up in the right direction to become the Midwest’s top school for planning and public affairs.
“I’m really happy he was with us for all these 13 years.”