Employee QA: Linda Samuels, Project Director of the Sustainable City Project
Name: Linda Samuels
Position: Project Director of the CAPLA Sustainable City Project
Number of years at the UA: 1
Favorite thing about working at the UA: The access. I have access to people who know things that I know very little about. … Access to experts in environmental science, GIS, anthropology, renewable energy, community engagement, climate adaptation, water resources – that is exciting for me.
You're a certified spin instructor. Do you like to ride as well? I bike to work, and I have been trying to bike for fun, but it's not at all like a spin class. I’m still a bit slow, but I’m trying.
Linda Samuels, project director of the Sustainable City Project, doesn't want to just teach students about architecture; she wants to help create a sustainable future.
For Samuels, architecture is about much more than buildings. From traffic and economics to playgrounds and people, there are countless elements she believes contribute to a city's architecture.
"I've never been interested solely in the autonomous building," she said. "I'm really interested in the complex combination of things that make a city."
The Sustainable City Project is housed at UA Downtown in the historic Roy Place Building. It is a joint collaboration between the College of Architecture + Planning + Landscape Architecture, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the Institute of the Environment.
In addition to being an educational resource, it also serves as a research institution and an outreach center to form partnerships between the UA, public agencies, private industry and the Tucson community. Although she sometimes feels a bit isolated from her fellow faculty, Samuels says she enjoys working downtown, which is just a 15-minute bike ride from main campus.
"The idea is to look at UA Downtown and the Sustainable City Project as laboratories that we don't have on campus," Samuels said. "We have a unique opportunity to bring together different disciplines and devote our creative and intellectual energies on solving the complex problems of sustainable urban environments. Plus, there's a lot to do downtown."
Samuels came to the UA from Los Angeles after earning her doctorate in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has lived all over the country: She grew up in Atlanta, got her undergraduate degree from the University of Florida, taught in Charlotte, N.C., for nine years and lived in London for a year.
The certified spin instructor reads The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Arizona Daily Star headlines every day to make sure she's staying on top of sustainability news trends and posts relevant articles on the Sustainable City Project's Facebook page.
She says she works to provide her students with real-world applications of what they're learning.
"In an architecture curriculum, the great thing is you're building knowledge for students that you will pretty much know your whole life," Samuels said. "The investment is so big. You spend so much time with them and you invest in them so much. You're never giving them information that you think is extraneous."
Last semester, she assigned a project titled "Linking the Warehouse Arts District" that examined the Downtown Links project and involved redeveloping three key areas of downtown Tucson. As a result of the project, she was selected by the American Architectural Foundation to participate in the Sustainable Cities Design Academy over the summer.
More recently, she received a $60,000 grant from the UA Renewable Energy Network to research sustainable alternatives to the typical interstate highway. The research will be used as part of a larger project examining the proposed Interstate 11, which would become part of the "Canamex" trade corridor linking Canada and Mexico through the United States.
"The most rewarding part is we are having impact already," Samuels said. "We are asking hard questions and opening up opportunities and hopefully providing good models, and trying to hold everybody accountable for making the best city we can. And that's really exciting."
Samuels recently took time to talk with LQP about her career.
What was your first job?
I was a camp counselor for kindergarteners. It was like a day camp for 5-year-olds. That was my first formal job. However … (in) second grade I used to make little books – write stories and make little books – and sell them to my fellow second-graders for 2 cents. I remember years later finding a little jar that had 125 pennies in it, my income from my book-making business.
Describe what you do.
I do outreach, research and teaching. In the spring I teach CAPLA’s interdisciplinary urban design studio which includes undergraduate architecture and graduate landscape architecture and planning students. Currently, I'm teaching Introduction to Sustainable Development for the School of Geography and Development; those efforts are related to work done with faculty in the Institute of the Environment. I'm also running a sustainable film series. The Sustainable City Project just partnered with Living Streets Alliance, Exo Roast Co, and Tap & Bottle to build a temporary parklet. We're trying to show the public what it would look and feel like to take back car space for public space. We also just received a grant to do some research on I-11 with partners at ASU and UNLV. I really do find ways those three things can interact – outreach, research and teaching – through a series of related projects. I'll be teaching a class next semester called "Metro Tucson" with another professor, Bill Mackey. We're going to look at specific topics in Tucson – poverty, transience, density – and develop creative installations that change the way Tucson’s built environment is understood.
If you didn't have this job, what career would you have?
I think spin instructor and life coach. I think I'd be good at that. I think I'm observant about people's motivations, and I think I can motivate them to achieve their goals. I'm very supportive, and I try to be motivating and encouraging. Plus, I make people work hard and help them figure out ways to get where they want to go.
Who have been your best mentors and why?
My dad has been my biggest cheerleader. He's the person who's always said, 'You can do anything you set out to do. You can accomplish anything you want. You can be anyone you want to be,' which is a really significant thing to hear your whole life. Then I think of my previous dean at UNC Charlotte, Ken Lambla. His model was, 'I'm here to support you and to help you fulfill the great things that you're going to do and then get out of your way and let you do them.' So it was a real leadership model for me. Then, I would say my Ph.D. adviser, Dana Cuff. She just models excellent scholarship, amazing teaching, and runs an unbelievably focused and successful urban laboratory called cityLAB. I look at everything she does and I just think, 'Wow.'
What career advice would you offer to someone just starting out?
Learn how to write. Write a lot. And read a lot. Read good writing and try to write like the people you read. Read a lot to be worldly and broad.
How would you like to spend your retirement?
I'm not going to retire. The thing with what I do is, I can't separate my job from my life. There's no retiring from trying to make the world a better place.