Through examining personal narratives, this series hopes to explore the diverse backgrounds and aspirations of our peers. We are inspired by the concept of making planning personal and the capacity of passion to motivate action and meaningful public policy. What drove you to become a planner? How have your personal experiences influenced your spatial and policy thinking? Feel free to share any personal experiences, family histories, and inspirational stories about cities where you lived or traveled. Send us your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How did I arrive at urban planning? By train. Seriously - in early August of 2011 I boarded an Amtrak in Seattle, bound for Ann Arbor. At first blush one might think this is a rather strange way to move cross country, but then I’ve always been one for choosing alternative methods of transportation. When I was younger I always walked to school or took the city bus, even well into high school. I never really bothered with getting my driver’s license; couldn’t tell you why. When I moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, I continued getting around the city mostly on foot and bus, eventually getting brave enough to tackle the daunting inclines by bicycle.
During my college years it’s safe to say a lot of the disinterest towards driving was born of economic necessity, but honestly owning a car was never really something I worried about. After I graduated I was hired by Microsoft and I could have easily afforded a car then, but still biked and bused the 10 miles across Lake Washington to Redmond. Up through then, I had a vague inkling that I was helping to make for a better planet and whatnot, but my commuting behavior was mostly driven by habit; the thought of actually doing something called urban planning was well beyond the horizon.
It really should have occurred to me sooner, though. I mean, granted, undergraduate degrees in Informatics and Applied Mathematics don’t exactly scream “love of urbanism.” But my undergraduate capstone project was about helping people decide to start cycling by giving them better Google Maps directions - that probably should have been a clue.
But it wasn’t until I started getting involved in some knock-down, drag-out fights over the future of public transit in Seattle that I realized just how much I loved cities. And, when viewing them through a lens of information science, I couldn’t help but think about how the context of the city affected the information transfers that happen between us every day. When I read Jane Jacobs and dove into the seductive combination of urban design, urban policy, and sociology, I fell in love; this is what I wanted to do.
Now, at the end of my graduate school experience, on the cusp of earning graduate degrees in Information Science as well as Urban Planning, I aim to look at and understand city streets through the eyes of an interaction designer and a user researcher. I aim to create excellent user experiences on city streets that help nudge people into living greener and better, possibly even with the use of technology and connected devices. Given the massive growth we expect in our cities over the coming years, the ever continuing march of Moore’s Law, and the dawn of the Internet of Things, the world is going to be very different very soon. I see it as my job to help us get ready for it.