“I’m exactly where I want to be.”
For associate professor of Urban Design and Planning Jan Whittington, this statement sums up her feelings about being on the faculty of a large public university, doing what she loves, with good opportunities to secure research funding.
Her statement applies equally well to the 1906 Craftsman near Ravenna Park that Jan calls home.
As Jan settles in front of a thick wood-framed nook characteristic of the Craftsman style, she lovingly describes her house–with its distinct spaces and muted colors–as perfect for an academic and perfect for her.
Her story began, coincidentally, in the birthplace of the Craftsman bungalow: Southern California. More precisely, in Oak View, a “two stoplight town” well outside the urban sprawl of Los Angeles near the artists’ haven of Ojai.
Describing fond childhood memories, Jan, whose career has been mainly in the male-dominated field of infrastructure planning, noted two small but impactful moments of empowerment as a girl: becoming the first female voted as foreperson in her 7th grade woodshop class and playing baseball with the boys as one of only two girls in her local Little League.
This sense of being empowered continued when, thanks to a caring high school counselor who took the time to show her options for funding higher education, she became the first in her immediate family to attend college, heading up the coast to the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Her first academic loves were biology and environmental studies, but a pivotal moment came during a Smithsonian Institution-funded internship on San Nicolas Island, the most remote of the California Channel Islands.
Assisting biologists observing sea lions in their natural habitat more than 60 miles from the mainland, she found that both the biologists and the animals were continually disturbed by the U.S. Navy’s presence on the island. In that moment, Jan realized that there were probably no completely pristine natural environments left on the planet.
She decided to switch her focus to the impact of infrastructure projects on these environments, a decision that would change the course of her career.
A winding path to academe
Considering herself a lifelong learner in a broad sense, Jan’s journey to becoming a faculty member was far from typical. After completing a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning at the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo–and a brief stint as a planner at the Santa Barbara campus of the UC system–she chose not to immediately pursue her doctorate. Instead, she took a position working for infrastructure giant Bechtel Corporation.
If the name is unfamiliar, the mega projects conducted by Bechtel–a fifth-generation family-owned corporation–are most certainly not. The Hoover Dam, Channel Tunnel, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, and Boston’s “Big Dig” are just a few of the many huge construction projects Bechtel has been involved with worldwide over the past 130 years.
Jan’s varied work at Bechtel, which over time spanned the environmental/nuclear, civil/structural, and enterprise divisions, took her around the globe with projects in East Asia, Central and South America, the Middle East, and Africa.
As well as an opportunity to gain practical experience in the infrastructure world, Jan considers her ten years at Bechtel to have been valuable experience learning how large corporations are able to pursue such large-scale infrastructure projects with major environmental impacts.
The importance of economic theory
At UW, Jan’s professional home since 2005, she wears many hats; as well as associate professor in the Department of Urban Design and Planning, she is Director of the Urban Infrastructure Lab (UIL), a core program faculty and steering committee member in the Interdisciplinary PhD program in Urban Design and Planning, and associate faculty at the Tech Policy Lab.
The research thread that weaves through these various roles is applying economic theory to the analysis of infrastructure planning and especially to its impact on the environment. She attributes the success and strength of this theoretical approach in large part to the mentorship she received during her PhD studies at UC Berkeley from economics Nobel laureate Oliver Williamson.
In Williamson’s teaching of transaction cost economics, an approach that he developed, Jan felt she had finally found an economic theory that could fully consider environmental impacts. “In that theory, I saw everything that I needed,” she noted.
Although her PhD was in City and Regional Planning, Jan believed this theoretical framework from the field of economics combined with her real-world infrastructure experience would allow her to create and teach the kinds of urban planning courses she wished had been available to her earlier in her education.
Arriving at UW
In many cases, graduating PhD students seeking academic positions enter a competitive job market, where they apply to posted vacancies by sharing their research to date and relying on strong references from their faculty advisors to open doors. Jan’s experience was, once again, a little different.
Attending a conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, a key organization in the planning field, as a dissertation-stage PhD student, she was approached by the then-chair of UW’s Department of Urban Planning. Not only did the chair say that she was using Jan’s publications in her infrastructure course, she also asked her to consider applying for an open faculty position in the department–a recruitment that was ultimately successful.
The Urban Infrastructure Lab (UIL)
Today, an important focus of Jan’s time and energy is the Urban Infrastructure Lab, a research group she founded early in her UW career that brings together faculty and students with shared interests in wide-ranging facets of infrastructure, including planning, finance, economics, and environmental impacts. Through the integration of empirical and applied research, those at the Lab seek the means to obtaining long-term objectives through decisions made today.
Two projects exemplify the kind of work undertaken at the Lab. As the Washington State Legislature has earmarked $150 million to beginning planning for a possible high speed rail network in the Cascadia region, the UIL, together with UW’s Mobility Innovation Center, was tasked with examining feasibility and determining best practices. Key takeaways were the need to plan slowly but act quickly and to shore up public engagement before undertaking any project of this magnitude.
When asked for her opinion on whether she thought we would ever actually see a high-speed rail link in Washington, Jan laughed, saying “that was not part of the study.” She did concede, though, that if done right and with sufficient planning, high speed rail could be a viable alternative here to regional air travel.
The second project, Cities and Climate Action, is informed in part by a class Jan took in her early undergraduate years where she was introduced to the Keeling Curve–a now well-known graph showing the ever-increasing concentrations in atmospheric carbon dioxide since the Industrial Revolution.
As Jan puts it, she knew just enough chemistry for the Keeling Curve “to scare the…living daylights” out of her (the pause suggesting she considered using slightly stronger language).
The Cities and Climate Action project, funded in part by the World Bank, Rockefeller Foundation, and numerous other international organizations, provides “climate-smart methodologies” for capital investment planning to city planners and financial officers around the world–impacting cities in more than 30 countries to date.
This project, which continues to grow in impact and is on the verge of scaling into something much larger, is one of which Jan is particularly proud. “It is a very exciting time to be able to provide something people can really use to assist them… on climate change.”
Her work with the UIL has not gone unrecognized at UW. In fact, she is the winner of a 2023 Husky Sustainability Legacy Award for a third project: UW Solar. The group conducting this work, led by Jan, is directly responsible for almost every current solar installation on the Seattle Campus. Furthermore, she is working with UW Transportation to create solar installations on parking lots to help facilitate electric vehicle charging and the electrification of UW’s fleet vehicles.
Closer to home
Even with the wide-ranging impacts of Jan’s research on infrastructure, planning and environmental impacts, she is equally invested at a local level as well. The conversation drifts back to her neighborhood and the house she so obviously cherishes. She mentions how much she enjoys getting outside to garden, “making little changes for the better in my own backyard.”
She feels grateful to live in an established neighborhood so close to UW’s Seattle campus. “I can walk to my office [in Gould Hall] in 20 minutes,” she says, an important reminder that mitigating impacts on the environment can be done in ways both large and small.
Written by Simon Reeve-Parker. Simon is a Program Operations Specialist in the UW Graduate School.