Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, Communications and Outreach Manager at Project for Public Spaces

Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring practicing anthropologists who work outside the academy. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to anyone who is interested in the application of anthropology in the real world, including anthropologists, anthropology students, prospective anthropology students, employers, policymakers and the general public. It seeks to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists, and create clarity around where and how we work. While all of the interviews follow a similar framework, each one is unique in its reflections on anthropology training and education, workplace applications, and advice for current and future practitioners.

The following interview features Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, Communications and Outreach Manager at Project for Public Spaces in New York City. Katrina, who has a BA in Anthropology from Arizona State University and a MA in Urban Studies from Portland State University, discusses her passion for urban anthropology and Placemaking, her perspective on the current paradigm shift toward a more sustainable, people-centered urbanism, and how her anthropology training has influenced her approach to creating more livable cities.

Why did you decide to study anthropology? What drew you to the subject?

Katrina Johnston-ZimmermanMy interest in anthropology was actually apparent at a very early age. I always found myself interested in the things that boys were “supposed to” like, like dinosaurs, geology, the natural sciences and playing outdoors. Once I discovered books on ancient cultures, I became obsessed with everything from ancient Egypt and Greek mythology to pirates and Vikings. In school I studied every language that I could, and was even lucky enough to have the opportunity to take both archaeology and anthropology as a senior in high school.

Coming out of high school, I decided to pursue a degree in fine arts because I had always excelled in art and I knew it would be a way to start my college career. After one year of fine arts studies, I made the transition to a state university and, after a short stint as an art history major, finally found my place in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.

What really solidified my commitment to anthropology was embodied in the very name of the anthropology department: evolution and social change. Anthropology’s emphasis on understanding human beings – homo sapiens sapiens – was a liberating concept. We as people are all the same species, having gone through millions of years of evolution together, but we’re often segregated based on physiological – that is, observable – differences. If we were to unify around this idea of sameness and shared experience, we could work towards more inclusive, equitable societies based on the health and happiness of all.

I got a lot out of the program, going on an archaeological dig, studying linguistics to compliment my love of languages, and focusing on sociological and ethnographic studies. I knew that whatever I decided to do with my degree, anthropology would always be the underlying core of my intentions.

What is one of your favorite projects from your time as an anthropology student?

It has to be my archaeological experience in Cyprus. For a time I wanted to go into archaeology due to my love for all things ancient, and took the opportunity one summer to join an amazing professor, Dr. Steven Falconer, on a dig. I was put in charge of a 5×5 meter plot of former farmland in what was before that a small village during the Bronze Age outside the contemporary small town of Pera. I can still recall the smell of the Cypriot countryside at sunrise, riding in the back of the truck to the dig site before it got hot, eating more than I ever have in my life to keep up my energy during hours of sifting. I could be happy as a shovel bum, I think. But I decided I wasn’t positive in my ability to be happy as a professor while doing this research. If professional archaeology ever becomes feasible though, I could see myself exploring ancient urban settlements for the benefit of contemporary urban knowledge.

Tell me about what you do for a living and what your job entails.

I am the Communications and Outreach Manager at Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit based in NYC, which pioneered the observational and people-centric focus on public spaces following William H. Whyte’s seminal observations of New York’s public life. I am a member of a communications team made up of broader areas of PPS; I manage several social media profiles (mainly on Facebook and Instagram), and coordinate the dissemination of content on the Placemaking Blog. Much of this involves explaining the core concepts of PPS – most importantly the process now known as Placemaking. I also manage various outreach projects like our biannual in-house training courses and biweekly newsletter.

A lot of what I do is extremely time-focused. If I’m not posting on Twitter, I’m keeping track of my Tweetdeck with its constant stream of information, while also planning Facebook posts, scouring news sites for urban-related updates, and creating or editing the next article for the blog. More importantly, after wrapping up the largest active transportation conference in the US in Pittsburgh this September, my sights are now set on the 9th International Public Markets Conference taking place in Barcelona this March. I love the myriad of tasks I do, and organizing the many bits and pieces that need to come into place in the run-up to a large event or an announcement on the website is never a dull moment.

What I like most about my job is being a part of the ongoing paradigm shift that we’re now seeing with regard to creating cities for people. It used to be that all city planning was managed top-down, as opposed to bottom-up, without the consultation of the people impacted by those changes. While some places (e.g., Sweden) moved forward with an emphasis on the human element, most places carried on the old tradition despite the backlash from pioneers like Jane Jacobs or William H. Whyte. Like any change in culture, the effects of the original outcry were gradual, and it is only now that we see Placemaking becoming a mainstream idea to improve the lives of our mostly urbanized public. This shift is still taking place today. With the advent of social media, the ability to continuously shift the paradigm is easier in some ways, and a lot of what I do involves joining the collective “shouting at the rooftops” so-to-speak to create the new norm in urban design.

How do you apply anthropological perspectives and approaches in your job?

What amazes me is how often people don’t realize they are applying anthropology to something. Whether they know it or not, I think a lot of people have this ability simply because of what anthropology inherently is – the study of ourselves.

In my job, when I’m coordinating social media and doing outreach, I am constantly using anthropology; from communicating more effectively to analyzing statistical information, the essentials of anthropology are always there. I still draw from the research that I did after I got my bachelors at ASU, which looked at cities from the beginning of our urbanized era. It’s helpful because we constantly discuss the changes and challenges of modern cities. In terms of the application of urban theory, I think the understanding our urbanized past is important to keep in mind when trying to create better cities today.

I think one of the most valuable skills in any anthropology program is the ability to think multi-culturally. For example, if you’re conducting archaeological fieldwork, you are most likely living momentarily outside of your own culture. Studying abroad has a similar effect, even if you’re not thinking about it anthropologically, in that it gets you to think outside your limited scope of observation.

On a trip to Scandinavia as an undergraduate, I was exposed to what could only be described as the exact opposite experience of my daily life in Phoenix, AZ. The cities were walkable, people were plentiful, and outdoor activities in the lively public spaces were the norm. Chairs faced the plaza, people sat on the waterfront, and bicycles and trains were everywhere – the cities were simply livable. Being able to experience these drastic differences firsthand allowed me to question the status quo. Back in Phoenix, while I was already a non-driver by choice, I promptly bought an electric bike, then an upright bicycle, and while working at ASU rode my bike five miles to the bus stop for an hour ride to the school while studying how to bring Scandinavian livability to the US.

How did you get interested in urban studies? What is your area of focus in this field? 

I stumbled across the field of urban studies while at ASU. After my trip to Scandinavia, I was looking for another research project to get involved in as a student worker and was offered a part time position as a part of the Late Lessons in Human History: Urban Organization Through the Ages project. We gathered data on key areas of human urban settlement: neighborhoods, urban life, and open space. The latter appealed to me – looking at urban form and analyzing the types of spaces between buildings in urban areas throughout space and time.

My interest eventually became not only open space, but public space and how this impacts the lives of our now mostly urbanized species. The most crucial revelation for me during my studies is the fact that for the first time in human history, we are mostly urbanized. This is astounding given that for all of our history prior to the agricultural revolution we were hunter-gatherers, never stopping to create permanent settlements and all of their byproducts (like social hierarchies and inequality.) In the next century, the majority of these urbanized areas will be in places like Africa and India, areas that are growing so quickly and often making the same mistakes that western countries made when they urbanized without putting people first.

On your LinkedIn profile, you say “It is my belief that with an emphasis in comprehensive urban studies, through the lens of anthropology, we can create better cities for all people.” Can you expand on this a bit?

That’s right, and I do firmly believe that! We seem to think of cities as mechanical constructs outside the context of the human condition. However, our worldviews, perspectives, and our sense of smell and sound, all need to be taken into consideration when creating our built environment. Like designing an artificial habitat for a rescued wild animal, we are essentially doing the same thing for the human race. The travesty is that not all of us are involved in creating our own habitat nor do some of the “creators” have the rest of humanity’s best interests in mind. We know what makes us happy, what makes us comfortable, and if we’re going to live in something as malleable as cities, we may as well do it based on the ideal parameters for its occupants. By applying the lens of urban anthropology, the study of humans in their new urban environments, to the existing sectors that control the physical design of space, we can prevent the mistakes of the past and create the best possible cities for people in the future.

Placemaking is the name given to the idea of “undoing” the status quo of urban design. As humans, we are prone to taking what we can get – whether it’s binge-eating when given the chance, or a buying a larger house for a smaller price (or anything with a seemingly large reward.) The downside is that this can lead to negative side effects if overindulged, like diabetes, or environmental and social damage in the case of sprawling, auto-dominated suburbs filled with big houses.

Purposefully creating a place means ignoring our ability to “take what we can” as human beings and going back to a time when city centers were compact and lively by necessity, due to the need to have a walled city for instance, or living in a hinterland that could only support a certain about of people. By undoing our past mistakes and preventing them in the future, we recreate the idea of Place, with sustainable systems that ultimately create an authentic sense of place that’s desirable, livable, and equitable. Thinking about it in this way allows you to better relate to people and communicate these big ideas. Without the anthropological long-term view, it can be confusing!

Is there anything you think anthropology training programs could do better to prepare students for the working world?

Yes! While I had an excellent, well-rounded experience in anthropology, it would have been helpful to have a better understanding of how to apply anthropology to “normal” career paths.

When I got my bachelors at Arizona, I found that the majority of jobs that required a bachelor’s degree in anthropology were jobs with the park service, and maybe a few working in human resources at a company. I didn’t quite understand what an actual workplace was like and didn’t have the ability to take what I learned in a more or less purely academic and research-based setting and apply it to “real world” skills to expand my job search. Once I had a master’s degree, I was able to find an internship that required the quantitative and qualitative research skills I had mostly gained while I was an undergraduate. As people with anthropology degrees understand, the question “what are you going to do with that?” most often follows in a conversation about your field of study. Knowing these issues and being able to strategize while still in school can do wonders when looking for a job.

What advice do you have for current anthropology students?

When I graduated with just my anthropology degree, I was able to find work as a researcher in the college, but only for a limited time due to university restrictions. Finding a private sector job in research is possible, but may involve things like doing user experience (UX) research, which is not something that is necessarily advertised in an anthropology program. It was only after I got my master’s degree that I could combine my anthropology degree with something more easily accessible to the working world (albeit marginally). If there were something I could have done differently as a student, it would have been to find an internship or work opportunity outside of the university while still in school. It’s definitely true that connections make all the difference, and the experience in an organizational environment – rather than a university – can help you understand how transferable your skills in anthropology really are.

To find out more about Katrina’s work, check out her website on all things urban anthropology and the PPP Placemaking blog. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and connect with her on LinkedIn.

One thought on “Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, Communications and Outreach Manager at Project for Public Spaces

  1. Reblogged this on THINK.urban and commented:
    Here’s a reblog of my recent interview with Amy Santee! Loved spilling my guts about what anthropology means to me in the “real world”.

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