How Can We Make Cities Thrive?

A Podcast Interview With Professor Catherine Brinkley

People tending a garden with city in background
People need to think about urban spaces and green spaces at the same time, says UC Davis Professor Catherine Brinkley. (Getty Images)

The Mindscape Podcast hosts conversations with the world's most interesting thinkers. The podcast covers science, society, philosophy, culture, arts, and ideas. The goal is to break down barriers between the disciplines, dig deeply into important concepts, and provoke a few thoughts along the way. 

In episode 197 “Catherine Brinkley on the Science of Cities,” Catherine Brinkley, associate professor of Human Ecology and faculty director at the Center for Regional Change at UC Davis, speaks to Sean Carroll about the structure of cities, including the fractal nature of their shapes, as well as what people can do to make cities thrive as much as possible.

The concept of the city is a crucial one for human civilization: people living in proximity, bringing in resources from outside, separated from the labors of subsistence so they can engage in the trade of goods and ideas. But we are still learning how cities grow and adapt to new conditions, as well as how we can best guide them to be livable as well as functional. 

In the podcast, Brinkley asserts “how we need to do city building differently, to think about green space and urban space in the same breath, so that we’re not building an urban theory that’s only science of cities, but it’s science of cities plus green space plus food systems.”

“All of those think about feeding the city something, and the political process for a while was starving cities of funding, of capital of redevelopment opportunities.

“When that shifted, inner cities were able to rethink themselves, to build new buildings, renovate new buildings, attract younger families. And younger families were then moving into older buildings and renovating them themselves as well.”

Blond woman in headshot

“I am an optimist and I believe that generally people want to live in a really nice place and they’re gonna try and make that so. 

“We’ve created a portal that’s just for California right now, but we’re going to expand to other states, where advocates can look up whatever they care about. It could be parking lots, it could be mountain lion habitat, it could be a safe routes to school, and they can see how other cities have planned for those similar features and then pull those policies or talk to those cities about how to do better. So I think that level of transparency will help with advocates who are trying to move the needle in their own cities.”

Listen to the full podcast episode here

Catherine Brinkley received a Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning as well as a degree in Veterinary Medicine from the University of Pennsylvania. She has been awarded fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, and the Santa Fe Institute.

Sean Carroll is a research professor of Physics at Caltech and fractal faculty at the Santa Fe Institute.

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