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UW initiative aims to tackle city, region’s most pressing urban issues

Published on October 27, 2015

In September 2015, Urban@UW co-organized NextSeattle, a four-day boot camp bringing together teams of students to tackle urban challenges in the University District. Photo by Conrado Tapado

When Thaisa Way put a call out last spring to see if University of Washington faculty members working on urban issues wanted to join forces, she wasn’t sure what the response would be.

“There were a lot of people who said, ‘You’re not going to get anyone to show up,‘” said Way, a UW associate professor of landscape architecture.

But more than 80 people representing 12 of the UW’s colleges and schools turned up to the gathering, held on a Monday afternoon at the tail end of the quarter. The meeting launched the creation of Urban@UW, an interdisciplinary effort that has been incubating for more than three years to bring together UW researchers, Seattle officials and citizens to collaborate on the most pressing issues facing a rapidly growing city and region.

There are more than 200 UW faculty members working on urban topics, Way said, from geographers using GIS technology to address the complexities of homelessness to data scientists working on transportation challenges to teams of researchers working on food access and Seattle’s minimum wage.

Faculty members, particularly younger ones, are increasingly motivated by a desire for their work to have a real-world impact, Way said, and urban issues present a significant and compelling opportunity to make a difference in their own backyard, as well as around the globe.

“I think the generation of faculty who have come into the university in the past decade want to be part of a larger effort,” said Way, Urban@UW’s executive director. “Urban issues are a very visceral, very present challenge and a remarkable opportunity. That’s the fantastic thing about cities — they’re both our problem and our answer.”

Urban@UW will hold its kickoff event from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. this Thursday, Oct. 29, at theSamuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center. The keynote speaker is Nathan Connolly, an associate professor at New York University who studies race, housing and poverty.

UW President Ana Mari Cauce and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray will discuss the new MetroLab Network, a partnership between the city and university spearheaded by UW’s eScience Institute and Urban@UW. The collaboration, part of the White House’s new Smart Citiesinitiative, will focus on infrastructure, service delivery to citizens, democratic governance and increased civic participation and data-driven policymaking.

Following the presentations, more than 90 faculty members, city and county decision-makers and local stakeholders will brainstorm ideas for collaborative projects in six areas: disaster preparedness and response, food and economic disparity, housing and poverty, climate change and environmental justice, growth and transportation, and the MetroLab Network. Each topic will have a UW faculty lead and a designated community member going forward.

The goal, Urban@UW Program Manager Jen Davison said, is to develop pilot projects that will be launched over the coming year and supported by Urban@UW, anything from a series of conversations to a small-scale research project.

“We don’t want to be too prescriptive for what they come up with,” Davison said. “We want these projects to be driven by the needs of the community and the capacities of our researchers and teachers.”

Other universities have launched urban-focused initiatives, but Way said they tend to be more narrowly focused and involve fewer departments. Seattle is an ideal city for the effort, she said — small enough to be nimble but large enough to have big-city problems, a place where bold thinking and ambition thrive.

“We’ve got this creative, innovative community that can help us think about what it takes to do something differently,” Way said. “We have this wonderful opportunity to think across disciplines in a lot of different worlds and practices.”

The effort will take a holistic approach, Way said, with the goal of fostering well-being and opportunity for all Seattle residents.

“These problems are multifaceted, and that means cities can’t address housing without addressing where schools are, without addressing transportation, without addressing employment,” she said.

Urban@UW received funding for three years from the UW Office of Research and is working in partnership with CoMotion, the UW’s innovation incubator, as well as with UW’s eScience Institute. Its headquarters are in Startup Hall, just off campus, and Davison is its sole employee.

Way envisions Urban@UW becoming a hub that the mayor of Bellingham or an NGO in Bogota could tap into for expertise on a range of issues, and where urban scholars might come from around the world to build and gain knowledge that can be applied in other cities.


“We want to be able to show that we can be a resource for more than Seattle,” she said. “I hope we can continue to build these partnerships so that in ten years, we’re an internationally recognized center for innovative urban research and practice.”

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