July 2, 2018
Arizona State University School of Sustainability alumna Genevieve Pearthree knew what she wanted to do in a career and forged her own educational path to get there. After creating her own bachelor’s degree in California, as she explained in the interview below, Pearthree graduated with concurrent ASU master’s degrees: a Master of Science in Sustainability in 2018 and a Master of Urban and Environmental Planning in 2017.
In April 2018, Pearthree attended the American Planning Association’s national conference in New Orleans and was awarded the American Institute of Certified Planners Student Project Award for Applied Research. She received this award for her grant-funded work discussing affordable housing in Ketchum, Idaho — a small city that relies heavily on tourism. Pearthree also serves on the School of Sustainability Alumni Board and is involved with the American Planning Association and the Arizona Planning Association.
Pearthree is now an Associate Planner with the City of Flagstaff’s Current Planning department, working with planners and developers to shape Flagstaff's urban form and meet long-term city goals around sustainability, walkability, public transit, open space preservation, affordable housing, historic preservation and more. She took a break from her busy schedule to talk sustainability and offer advice for current and future School of Sustainability students.
Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?
Answer: I created my own Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Justice and Environmental Science when I was an undergraduate at the University of Redlands in California. I chose this focus area because I wanted to study human relationships to environmental problems. Social inequality and environmental injustice have become etched in the urban landscape in cities across the U.S. in terms of how neighborhoods have differing levels of access to opportunities (such as jobs and transportation), and how some neighborhoods are exposed to environmental hazards at higher rates than others.
I wanted to study why these processes happen and what people are doing about it now. I realized that sustainability would allow me to continue to focus on these issues, but from a more proactive perspective. Instead of responding to these issues after they happen, why can't we rethink how cities are planned in the first place? This realization made me see that a concurrent Master of Science in Sustainability and a Master of Urban and Environmental Planning was the best option for me in terms of accomplishing my professional and personal goals.
Q: How did your two master’s degrees intertwine?
A: For my Master of Urban and Environmental Planning degree, I focused on housing affordability as an important aspect of social sustainability in the City of Ketchum, Idaho. The social aspects of sustainability are sometimes overlooked, but if people can't afford to live close to where they work, for example, then they have to travel farther, which has many ramifications in terms of air quality, fuel consumption, [traffic] congestion, stress and quality of life. So, I think it's important to include social issues, such as affordable housing, under the sustainability umbrella. Otherwise, we won't get a complete picture.
For my sustainability degree, I decided to focus more deeply on the intersections of sustainability and planning. I became interested in the concept of regenerative design and development — an eco-centric approach which suggests our most challenging sustainability issues stem from a disconnect between humans and the ecological systems upon which we rely, and that addressing these issues requires fundamental changes in our social, cultural and economic systems. I was curious about whether planners are familiar with this concept, and if so, how do they engage with it?
I looked at river restoration restoration projects in Milwaukee and Los Angeles, since planners often play important roles in these projects. Further, these projects require planners to think about social, economic and ecological dynamics across multiple geographic scales (e.g. neighborhoods, the river, the watershed, the city, region, etc.) and time frames (five, 10, 20, 50 years). I found that there is some engagement with regenerative design and development in both cases, but that structural, financial, institutional and other barriers prevent these projects from achieving their full regenerative potential.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?
A: The social-ecological systems framework that I learned about in my sustainability classes really opened my eyes. It's the idea that our planet is composed of complex systems that consist of social, economic and biogeophysical elements and processes that interact with each other across multiple scales and create non-linear dynamics — basically, the butterfly effect. Urban areas are great examples of social-ecological systems, and I had never thought of them that way before.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those currently studying (or interested in studying) sustainability at ASU?
A: It's important to explore different aspects of sustainability when you first start to figure out the best fit for you. The school is very interdisciplinary, and I learned so much when I started that I sometimes felt it was hard to find my focus area. However, the field of sustainability is emergent, and I think it's important to eventually identify your specific focus area. Are you focused on renewable energy, policy, education, conservation, business practices, climate change, city or regional planning, or something else? Identifying your focus area will streamline your graduate career, and will set you up nicely for the types of jobs you want after graduation.
Q: What does sustainability mean to you?
A: Sustainability means expanding how we think about the consequences of our actions and the actions of others. Does this individual action, or city or regional policy, move us in a more sustainable direction? Also, how are we defining sustainability? Policies and plans need to tie in short-term, functional goals (like water consumption and waste reduction, for example), with broader, long-term goals about the health of the broader urban system.