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Urban Scholar Highlight: Jan Whittington

Published on April 28, 2021

Flood forecasts for Kampala Uganda

Jan Whittington is an Associate Professor of the Department of Urban Design and Planning, Director of the Urban Infrastructure Lab, Associate Director of the Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity, and Affiliate Faculty at the Tech Policy Lab. Her research applies transaction cost economic theory to networked infrastructures, such as transportation, water, and communication systems, to internalize factors historically treated as external to transactions. We sat down with her to discuss her work. 


How have your education and past experiences led you to this field?

Originally I was interested in studying the natural world; other species besides homo sapiens. In my senior year as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, I had an internship with the Smithsonian and was able to study marine mammals on San Nicolas Island. One day, loudspeakers and sirens went off while we were out in the field. The Navy was practicing launching missiles to see if their target systems were working. I thought that if I could go to this faraway island and still not escape the impact of humans on the natural environment, what kind of biologist was I going to be? I would constantly be working in a way that doesn’t fully understand the problem. I realized that I had to go study what people do. This led me to a Masters in City and Regional Planning at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and from there I went on to work for a private infrastructure development company to further understand how people disrupt environmental systems, mainly through infrastructure development. One thing that struck me was how large firms use political ties to persuade governments using economic arguments. I realized that to be persuasive, I had to find a sub-field of economics that actually resembles what happens to the environment. So I went to UC Berkeley for a Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning, and spent my time learning transaction cost economics: a type of theory that can allow me to–what economists would say–internalize externalities.

How do you see your work within UW intersecting with cities? 

An aerial image of the University of Washington Quad

One focus of the Urban Infrastructure Lab is cities and climate: introducing a methodology for climate action in capital plans and budgets. Image credit: UW Urban Infrastructure Lab

I love my Urban Infrastructure Lab. The students and colleagues I work with are amazing and the projects we work on are incredible. The research we do has to do with factors that are external to the economic system, figuring out a way to use the tools and perspectives of planning to internalize those factors. We do lots of work at the intersection of cities and climate change and mainstreaming climate change into city decision making. If you think about climate change, one of the first things economists have to say about it is that there is currently no price for carbon on the global market. But a planner could say, “we aren’t factoring climate change into the decisions that we make about how we use land or how we allocate property rights, or permitting systems, or how we urbanize” and we can do that, even without a price on carbon. We don’t have to have a global price on carbon to change the sources of fuel we use to develop in urban spaces.

What are you excited about in your current research? 

Every year, governments determine how they are going to spend their budget on projects in their capital plan. I’ve added measures of climate to capital planning methods. This involves working with cities and my colleagues and lab on forecasting greenhouse gas emissions from projects and analyzing the resilience of projects to all hazards using future scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions and downscaled climate data. One day, the

Solar panel installation

Solar installation at University of Washington, from UW-Solar

World Bank contacted me to learn more about how I was doing this.  Soon after, I was presenting to their Chief Economist’s Office and putting together a tool that city governments could use. Now, after working with 23 countries with this methodology, I’ve learned that it’s not at all common for cities to incorporate these measures. They need this methodology and training to access the green bond market, and similar forms of climate finance for all of their capital projects. There is more than one way to build something. You can design and build in a way that is carbon neutral, and more resilient. We have a proposal out to the UN that if we get it, we’ll be working with five cities in India, so that’s exciting. Other research that my lab is known for is on smart cities, COVID-19 more recently, solar technology, and giving students a chance to design and build infrastructure. 

What would you say is the biggest urban issue right now, and who is responsible for it?

Climate change. It’s the difference between Earth having this wonderful thin bubble of atmosphere around it that allows living creatures like ourselves to flourish, and what we see on planets that lack our atmosphere, such as Mars. If we change the chemistry of the climate, we put that at risk. Carbon goes up into the atmosphere, and it will stay there for anywhere from 100 to 15,000 years. It doesn’t just fall back from space; it’s there. It’s the crisis of our time, and of all time, for humans on this planet, and we have got to own up.

Another major issue, particularly for this region, is the possibility of a magnitude 9.0 (M9) earthquake. How do you balance the need for reinforcing Seattle’s buildings for safety in light of a possible M9, and the need to not overuse resources and energy? 

It’s a huge issue. To have the scientific realization of M9 so recently means that the urban environment all around us here in the Pacific Northwest, which predates this scientific discovery, has not been designed to withstand it. There is some similarity to climate change in that some of the things we need to do to switch out different sources of fuels are expensive and involve making expenditures that seem like they’re dealing with a far-off problem when in actuality we don’t know how far off the problem is. It could happen tomorrow, it could happen 50 years from now. We do need to make those changes, and people have a hard time doing that and there will be conflicts about the use of limited resources. What kind of materials are we going to use? How are we going to approach this as a design problem? I love some of the work that is happening with the Carbon Leadership Forum, people looking into materials that embody carbon but are also helpful in seismic safety. It’s bringing us back to wood! I actually have a lot of hope and optimism in being able to see what my colleagues are doing with some of these problems and these fields, it’s really encouraging.

What is our role as academics in creating positive change and solutions?

One of the ways that economic theory has helped me to see the world is how people tend to organize themselves. We form organizations, public, private, non-profit for our own kind of collective governance. We create or use rules to govern ourselves. There are ways to work in education, to build bottom-up and help people learn how to frame problems. New ways of seeing the world condition what you decide are the barriers and opportunities, so you can formulate solutions. We in higher education have the ability to influence a lot of change in the world, and I think it’s not just an ability, but an obligation. As long as I have the platform, I am going to work hard to try to encourage changes that bring about a better future, a more resilient future not just for humanity, but across the ecosystems that we live in and depend on. 

How can students get involved in this work?
There are a lot of activities at the intersection of environmental and urban issues. Urban@UW has been a lovely source that connects what’s happening all over campus on urban-related scholarship. Students can participate in the UW Solar registered student organization for hands-on solar infrastructure development. They can get involved in the UW Sustainability Action Plan, which is the new climate action plan for our University. I also teach several courses where students can take on the types of activities that we research in the Urban Infrastructure Lab, on infrastructure planning and finance, global planning, and city technology.

Written by Sammie Kuriyama, Urban@UW Communications Assistant.
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