Professor’s New Book Shares Ideas for Sustainable Cities

Nancy Rivenburgh

UW Department of Communication Professor Nancy Rivenburgh, and urban strategist and consultant Patricia Chase, are co-authors of “Envisioning Better Cities: A Global Tour of Good Ideas.” The book takes readers on a world tour of useful, feasible, and novel ideas for making cities more livable and sustainable. Rivenburgh and Chase visited cities of all sizes to document what people are doing to tackle the economic, social, and environmental challenges faced by their community.

As a social scientist, Professor Rivenburgh’s primary research focuses on cities as complex communication environments. Her co-author, Patricia Chase, works with developers, architects, local politicians, and city officials to expose them to global best practices in urban sustainability. Their combined expertise at the intersection of scholarship, research, and real-world application makes for a compelling writing partnership.

“From the beginning, we wanted a book that was positively framed,” says Professor Rivenburgh. “No city does everything right, but every city is doing something right, and has good ideas.” The book presents those ideas through written narrative and photography—there are over 200 color photographs.

In the following interview (edited for length and clarity), Professor Rivenburgh talks about the genesis of the book, her favorite ideas for livable cities, and more:

What inspired you to write this book?
I have wanted more of my work to be in the vein of public scholarship, tackling really immediate problems around us, related to environmental and social sustainability. I want to use my research to reach broader audiences like activists, community leaders, and city officials. My work has always been internationally oriented, so I have been involved in looking at how cities express themselves. However, I also teach classes in creative problem solving; I’m interested in how ideas travel across cultures and countries.

Patricia Chase

How and why did you choose Patricia Chase as your co-author?
Patricia Chase is an urban sustainability consultant. Through her company i-SUSTAIN, she takes delegations of government officials and urban planners to cities around the world, to observe best practices, primarily in environmental sustainability like transportation. I met her, and we just hit it off over our love of cities and our concern about the future of cities. Her background is more focused on environment, transportation, and energy systems. And it was obvious to me right away how my background in communication, creativity studies, and social psychology complemented our shared goal of wanting to share best practices, and communicate an understanding of why they work so well.

Can you describe the process of planning and writing this book, especially as it involved so much travel?
The first stage was just collecting all these great ideas, large and small. We wanted to only include projects or programs or policies that were already in place and successful. Some of the examples came from Patricia’s trips. That was a starting point. However, we both are avid travelers and started to scan the world. We also did a lot of research through conferences and other sources.

The next step was the most challenging one. How do we organize this? By country? City? Theme? We really struggled with that. The breakthrough came when we were thinking about the famous urban designer Jan Gehl’s book, “Cities for People.” We reminded ourselves that cities are for people. The best cities need to invite people, inspire people, communicate with people, connect people, move people, and support people. These are all prerequisites to a livable and sustainable city. That overarching framework is a message in and off itself. Once we came up with that framework, all our examples just fell into place.

How long did it take to complete the book?
We probably spent about six years on it, in part because Patricia and I were in different cities for a couple of years. Finding a publisher added that last year to the process. A number of publishers were interested, but it was a challenge finding publishers who wanted to include 200+ color photographs, and still make the book affordable. We were committed to having these photographs; it was important that people could envision what we were talking about. It took a while to find a publisher who was comfortable with that vision.

How did you curate the images?
In a few different ways. Some of the people on Patricia’s educational trips were excellent photographers and would document them; they let us use their photos. We also took a lot of photos ourselves. The third source was Creative Commons. We like the Creative Commons photos, as we weren’t trying to do a coffee table book; we wanted pictures that represented what attracted people’s attention when they go to a city. What are they drawn to? We wanted the photographs to feel authentic.

Did anything surprise you during your research?
A number of things that emerged from this book both surprised and excited me. One was the really important and multifaceted role that local artists play in cities. Some of the best, most creative projects in some way involve artists. And I’m not talking about just painting a mural on a wall. Artists emerge as voices for marginalized communities, people who bridge different groups in cities, and they are able to promote neighborhood pride. That was an exciting lesson to communicate to cities—to work with artists. Another was this idea of multifunctionality, flexibility, and variety in reconceptualizing how spaces are used. The streets of the future are not just going to be for cars. It’s exciting to think about all the ways that streets or parking lots can be used—parking lots can be used as roller rinks and also farmer’s markets! This idea of multifunctionality of spaces is very important, as we think about the future and making spaces alive, inviting, family-friendly, and age-friendly.

You mention inclusivity as a key element of inviting cities. Can you elaborate on that?
Cities are for people, and cities need to invite people into their public spaces; and the best cities invite everyone. It’s really true that cities have a silent language. How spaces are designed sends messages. If you think about urban sustainability, cities need to have diversity in age, culture, religion, etc. We made a point of having sections focused on making age-friendly and family-friendly cities from a design and programming aspect. Social sustainability in a city requires multi-generational residents. If you design public spaces where an eight-year-old and an 80-year-old can both feel comfortable and welcome, that’s good for everybody. A lot of design issues need to be taken into consideration to makes places more comfortable, welcoming, and accessible. Cities also need to have equitable access. The best cities spread amenities out in all their neighborhoods. Some cities have a lot of inequity in where green spaces, or libraries are located, and how transportation is designed; those are messages of exclusion. We found examples of cities that try to place amenities and services fairly, despite income levels.

What are some of your personal favorite ideas from the book?
Some of the best things we ran across were small projects with a big impact. In Bristol, England, they started a program called “One Tree Per Child,” where every second grader in the city got to plant a tree… that’s like 30,000 trees a year. The city coordinates with the schools on where they can plant trees. The students learn about the importance of trees and nature in the city, and they have their own tree! It is a simple program in terms of costs, but it has remarkable impact. I also love the idea in one neighborhood where people didn’t really know each other, and someone got everyone together to paint their intersection. All of a sudden, there’s couches and library stands and benches, and the complexion of the neighborhood changes. These small things can make a big difference.

I also really like the efforts here in Seattle of organizations like Feet First, that work to make cities more pedestrian-friendly. They have a great program called Neighborhood Walking Ambassadors, where people lead group walks through neighborhoods, [and help participants] learn about the history of the neighborhood, the trees, etc. People appreciate learning about where they live. Additionally, I like symbolic programs, like the International PARK(ing) Day, where on one day of the year, cities allow people to use parking spaces in the street and create a little park-let, with maybe some shrubbery and a bench. It’s a great messaging strategy that brings people together; I like such programs that do temporary things that make a real point.

Which ideas would you pick to make Seattle more livable and sustainable?
Seattle does a lot of good things. We have a good urban farming system, p-patch system, and storm water management. What I would implement is more pedestrian malls—like University Ave should be a pedestrian mall. You put buses and cars down a different parallel street. Also, right now, there’s the push toward density, which makes sense, but when you create density around transit stations for example, you have to also make those areas multi-use neighborhoods. They must have a green space, a public space, a hardware store, and a grocery store. Under development pressure, Seattle is making a mistake by creating density, but not including those other amenities; the city is not creating a vibrant neighborhood. Space is valuable, so the idea of putting a park near the Roosevelt Light Rail station is hard, but it is absolutely essential. I would advocate much more strongly for public spaces in areas where the density is increasing.

To learn more from Professor Rivenburgh and Patricia Chase, join us for a book discussion and signing at the University Book Store on February 12, 2020. The discussion will be moderated by Associate Director of the Communication Leadership program, Anita Verna Crofts.