Friday, February 17, 2023

As resource management superintendent for the City of Iowa City, Jennifer Jordan has developed a reputation for conservation advocacy in her community, and this exuberance continues to shape Iowa City’s environmental policies. As is the story of many graduates, however, Jordan’s path to overseeing resource management wasn’t so straightforward.

Despite having an interest in conservation from a young age, Jordan enrolled at the University of Iowa as a pre-medical student. However, she eventually found herself doing poorly and her nursing assistant job and classes ill-fitting. Only when she attended Contemporary Environmental Issues class as an elective did inspiration strike.

Jennifer Jordan, Resource Management Superintendent for the City of Iowa City and alumna of the School of Planning and Public Affairs
Jennifer Jordan, Resource Management Superintendent for the City of Iowa City and alumna of the School of Planning and Public Affairs (photos by Cale Stelken).

Jordan excelled in the elective course, received praise from her instructor upon completion, and expressed interest in environmental issues to her advisor, who promptly walked her down the hallway to the School of Planning and Public Affairs (then known as the School of Urban and Regional Planning). She was accepted into the program on Earth Day and graduated in 2005.

“It sounds corny, but it changed my life,” she admits. “It was really instrumental in helping me understand how I could plug into systems that were already in place and help other people have an impact on the world around us.”

Jordan worked at Grinnell College for a year as their environmental and safety coordinator before becoming Iowa City’s first recycling coordinator. After eleven years, she became superintendent.

“I didn’t look back,” she says of her enrollment at Iowa. “It’s been a great career.”

Jordan now oversees the Iowa City’s landfill and compost facilities, recycling programs and the curbside collection of trash, recycling, and organics. She has led the city in the transition to single-stream recycling, the collection of food waste at the curb, and has helped initiate the expansion and addition of self-sustaining recycling programs including Rummage in the Ramp.   

Jordan says the municipal waste system provides a complex, invaluable, yet unseen service to communities, and she’s intent on broadening awareness of its function.

“Collectively, in this country, we do such a good job of making stuff go away that you, as an individual, don’t have to think about it,” she explains. “And we should be thinking about it from an environmental impact perspective.”

Jordan currently serves on the board of directors for the Iowa Society of Solid Waste Operations and on several committees for the Department of Natural Resources, including the Solid Waste Alternatives grant review committee, the Sustainable Materials Management committee and a compost regulations work group. She has served on the board of the Iowa Recycling Association and on numerous state-level advisory committees, including the DNR’s original Environmental Management System framework committee in 2009. Jordan earned a BS in Geography from the University of Iowa in 2002 before completing her MA in Urban and Regional Planning in 2005.

Fostering a unique composting program

Iowa City is one of the few communities in the state that do collection for food waste, which Jordan describes as “one of the most rewarding and probably most impactful change we’ve made in the past decade.”

Jennifer Jordan gives Lucie Laurian a tour of the Iowa City landfill.
Iowa alumna Jennifer Jordan gives a tour of the Iowa City Landfill and Recycling Center to Lucie Laurian, Jordan's former instructor and Director of the School of Planning and Public Affairs.

The foundations of this program can be attributed to students at the University of Iowa. The State of Iowa banned yard waste from the landfills several decades ago. In 2007, the City of Iowa City was approached by an Iowa student engineering group to conduct a study on food waste. What began as a pilot program has since grown into hundreds of tons a year of food waste being diverted from the landfill and combined with yard waste to be made into compost. Program participants include local grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. In addition to adding nutrients to community gardens, the effort can potentially save participants money through dropping off waste as organics rather than refuse.

“It’s really because of a handful of students stepping up to make a difference and talk with the city about how we can make this work,” Jordan cites. “I’m really excited about expanding our compost facility. I think we already have one of the premiere ones in the state and make some of the best product, and we can have a ten-fold impact on that.”

The impact of the School of Planning and Public Affairs

SPPA students
Students at the School of Planning and Public affairs.

According to Lucie Laurian, Director of the School of Planning and Public Affairs, Jordan’s impactful career is exemplary of the potential for students enrolled at the school. Laurian had just started her career at the University of Iowa as an instructor when Jordan was enrolled in program, and she mentored Jordan as a research assistant.

“From a vague and deep interest in the environment to a very specific, meaningful job, we created that bridge–the right education she needed, and I’m very proud of that,” Laurian notes. “She loves Iowa City; she’s committed to the community and makes it better.”

“The two years I was at the planning school were probably two of the most challenging and most rewarding years of my life,” Jordan insists. Her time at the School of Planning and Public Affairs, above all else, taught her how to navigate municipalities to achieve goals and deliver results.

“You don’t know until you learn about it and you work with city staff as a student or as an intern,” she explains. “It really comes down to helping people–community members, decision makers, politicians–understand systems, and urban planning sets that up perfectly.”