Skip to main content

Urban Scholar Highlight: Rachel Berney

Published on October 1, 2019

Rachel Berney presenting to local leaders in the community of Ciudad Romero, El Salvador, March 2019.
Rachel Berney presenting to local leaders in the community of Ciudad Romero, El Salvador, March 2019. Image Credit: Eric Chávez, ECOPA.

Rachel Berney is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban Design and Planning, Adjunct Assistant Professor in Landscape Architecture, an Urban@UW Fellow, and author of Learning from Bogotá: Pedagogical Urbanism and the Reshaping of Public Space. Her primary interests include community sustainable design, public space, and international development in the Americas, as well as urban design and planning history and theory with an emphasis on social and cultural  factors. We sat down with her to discuss her work and research at UW and beyond.


What urban challenges does your work address?

Some of the challenges I try to address are a lack of focus in urban design around justice and equity and the fact that we need to be moving much more directly towards that agenda. Environmental degradation and how cities inhabit their landscapes is another really big issue. I’ve done a lot of work in the Global South and I’ve been really interested in bringing what we call southern examples, Southern Urbanism, into the canon of design thinking in the North, to complicate it in a beneficial way. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to kind of cross-interrogate; what’s a problem in one place might suggest a solution in another place, and vice versa. 

What would you say, today, right now, is the biggest urban issue?

Racism, and what we do to address it and mend it. Obviously racism can be an issue anywhere, it’s not just tied to cities. But cities definitely bring a lot of different people together, and that can create exciting opportunities but it can also create friction. I think that there’s also a lot of opportunity in government, and in what universities are doing in cities to breakdown institutionalized racism. Cities are also the sites of long-standing injustices: like neighborhoods that haven’t received the investment they need, like the Duwamish River being polluted and still not taken care of, communities experiencing redlining and not being able to catch up in terms of wealth-creation, that sort of thing. But for all the problems in cities, we’re all here at this public university, studying, teaching, and researching, so we should be able to provide some substantial solutions moving forward, and I think that we have a responsibility to work with others to do this.

What other groups or people are addressing these issues?

Berney presenting to local leaders in the community of Ciudad Romero, El Salvador, March 2019.

Berney presenting to local leaders in the community of Ciudad Romero, El Salvador, March 2019.Eric Chávez, ECOPA.

At the individual faculty level, I think people are really moving important agendas forward: like Urban@UW taking on environmental gentrification, or our new dean Renée Cheng serving on the community engagement steering committee for UW,  and putting her money where her mouth is, so to speak, saying we’re going to support community design and development efforts focused on equity in the College of Built Environments. Work that I get to do to help move that agenda forward with colleagues is all drops in the bucket but it moves things forward. I’m co-directing a studio this fall (URBDP 508) with Al Levine in Real Estate and Donald King in Architecture, working with the Nehemiah Initiative, a coalition of historically black churches in the Central District, to support their examination of their own real estate assets to see how they want to develop them for the benefit of both their church and their broader community. 

What kinds of partnerships do you engage with in your work?

I try to do a lot through and with the university because I’m an alum and it’s my place of business, and it’s where I want to center the care and the energy that I’m bringing to the work I do. So I tend to work with neighborhoods, or groups that are community-based. Beyond the Nehemiah Initiative, I’ve done some volunteer work with Rainier Scholars, a 12-year program to help low-income students of color successfully graduate college. But that connection was created and facilitated by Master of Urban Planning (MUP) students and I was just one of the faculty support people. In the Department of Urban Design and Planning and in the College we’re looking to connect more profoundly with groups outside UW. I’m currently working with Georgetown on public space transformation, with a group of folks from UW, folks in the community, and then folks in private practice. 

What other projects are you working on?

I’ve done projects with Livable City Year since it was founded, so I’ll continue to work with whichever community is selected this year. I’m also working on a book chapter around what a just framework for urban design looks like. And I’m continuing the work that started in Bogotá. I’ve moved more to a community and rural scale, so I’ve been working in El Salvador on public space and community design and development for a couple of small communities. 

Speaking of a book, you have another chapter that came out recently about temporary settlements. Why did you choose that topic?

Berney presenting to local leaders in the community of Ciudad Romero, El Salvador, March 2019.

Berney presenting to local leaders in the community of Ciudad Romero, El Salvador, March 2019.Eric Chávez, ECOPA.

It’s similar to the chapter I’m working on now, about pushing on urban design theory and the urban design canon to be more reflexive, critical, and engaged. I chose temporary settlements and precarious circumstances because we see it all the time in the city around us and around the world. There are so many people who aren’t being considered or included in urban design practice: those who are unsettled, including refugees, the majority of which are urban, all the way to people living in houseless encampments in US cities. So I was calling for the strategic use of surplus public land to house people. And I’m actually not talking about our regular public parks, unless there’s an emergency, because I think those need to be available for everybody to use. But my idea came from my work as a Runstad Fellow in 2017 when our team went to Australia to look at affordable housing models. There’s a great project in Melbourne involving a short-term lease on land owned by the utility. A non-profit housing association backed the project with a 5-7 year lease, essentially for no money, and agreed to rehouse people if they needed to leave that land all of a sudden because the utility company needed it. The utility made the land available and the non-profit houser came in to provide mobile units for folks. Urban design needs to consider everyone, not just some people, and while that project doesn’t house everybody, it’s a start. 

How can students get involved in your work?

Rachel Berney conducts background research with students for the Livable City Year project Planning Video Library, Fall 2017.

Berney conducting background research with students for the Livable City Year project Planning Video Library, Fall 2017.LCY 2017.

I like to involve students in shaping the work, in presenting the work, and in supporting the research I do. MUP students have done mapping and drawn diagrams and different images for me that went into my book on Bogotá. I’ve had students produce aerials and maps to support my fieldwork in El Salvador, since we were going to communities that didn’t really have formal maps of their communities. I took one former student with me to El Salvador, and I traveled with a colleague who also brought a graduate from her program with her, because we presented some material from our classes back to the communities. I really like talking to students who have similar interests and helping advise them on things they can do and groups they can get connected with. In the case of the Rainier Scholars workshop, or the Black Urbanism exhibit, those are actually student-driven things that they invited me into to help support them. So I really like that it goes both ways.

What’s the biggest thing we can learn from urbanism in the Global South?

One of the lessons I took from the Bogotá experience was the contrast between the retrenchment and the drawing back of urban design in the US — we see it becoming more piecemeal, more driven by private interests, and just moving away from public conversation — and what a metropolitan scale, publicly-backed effort could look like in Bogotá, and what it could do to benefit people’s quality of life. It’s not the only thing that people need, but I felt like the keys were the metropolitan scale, publicly-funded projects, and really considering how to connect communities. That was an excellent example of what we aren’t really doing in the Global North, and the role of design to shape not only quality of place but quality of life for people. Other than that, the dynamic qualities and the need to problem-solve and be creative, and the recognition of informal economic practices, are all really important things that I think the Global North can learn from the Global South. We need to be reminded that we can think outside the box to solve urban issues, and then we can pitch the idea to the community or to the city and ask them to buy in, to say let’s work together and make this happen.

Written by Rebecca Fogel, Urban@UW Communications Assistant.
Search by categories

Twitter Feed