April 25, 2022

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable Spring 2022 graduates.

Emily Harding spends a lot of time thinking about cities and how to improve them.

Emily Harding, College of Global Futures Outstanding Spring 2022 Graduate
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“Over 50% of the world’s population lives in cities and more and more people are moving there,” said the native of Cave Creek, Arizona. “By 2050, the United Nations predicts that 68% of the world’s population will live in cities.”

Rapid urbanization brings with it a host of problems, ranging from environmental – such as pollution, destruction of surrounding environments and loss of biodiversity – to social, such as affordable housing, poor infrastructure and unequal distribution of resources.

These interrelated and complex problems are the type of problems Harding wants to solve with his double majors. Harding will graduate this spring with a Bachelor of Science in Sustainability from the Global Futures College’ School of sustainability and his bachelor’s degree in urban planning from the School of Geographic Sciences and Urban Planning in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She is also a student in Barrett, the Specialized College.

“They really go together,” she says of her two degrees. “There are no simple answers to the problems of urban planning, but I believe sustainability – an intersection of science and the humanities – positions me best to solve them.”

After graduation, she plans to pursue a master’s program in urban planning and hopes to specialize in sustainability. She is currently hesitating between doctoral schools.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

To respond: I’ve had an interest in the environment since I was a kid, and my dad used to take my family on road trips and camping. I knew I wanted to study the environment somehow, so when I started at ASU, I became a specialist in earth and space exploration. But I really wanted to dive deeper into solving environmental issues, so I took a little leap of faith and switched to sustainability. Then I took a course called Sustainable Cities and it was only in the first course that I learned about the importance of cities. So I also added urban planning as a major.

Q: What did you learn at ASU — in class or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I was never too candid in class, although I wanted to share my thoughts. That changed for me after co-founding and eventually becoming president of the ASU badminton club, sun devil birds. My perspective on myself changed, as I never really imagined myself as a leader, speaking in front of everyone. I enjoyed contributing to a community at ASU and meeting people from all over the world, making friends that I would never have had otherwise. It also helped me prepare for my Barrett thesis – I defended my thesis in an hour-long presentation, which for me was the ultimate test of public speaking. Everything went well, and even now I find myself looking for new opportunities to challenge myself.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Every year in high school I would go to Open Door at ASU, where all the different fields of study come together and you just walk through campus and check out the different majors and clubs. Going to this every year and seeing the wide variety of opportunities was really heartwarming, because at the time I wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to specialize in.

Q: Which professors taught you the most important lessons at ASU?

A: Kailin Kroetz, my thesis director taught me to have a balance. I started working with her on research right after the pandemic started and she encouraged me to take time to rest and recharge. I think it really helped me not to burn out and to have a much better balance in general. Candice Carr Kelman had such a positive mindset when the pandemic hit in the middle of our class. We had a partnership with the City of Peoria that had to be in person, but they quickly adapted it to working online and we needed that resilience and positivity. Scott Cloutier transformed what I even considered “sustainability”. I have always approached sustainability as solving problems on a global, national or local scale, but he showed me how to focus on individual sustainability. Personal happiness, focusing on one’s own well-being. This fits well with what I learned from Drs. Kroetz and Carr Kelman too – part of personal sustainability is having good balance and a positive attitude.

Q: What is the best advice you would give to those still in school?

A: Embrace change. Please be aware that our paths are not linear and may not go where you expect them to. Be proactive in reaching out to professors who might have similar interests to yours, even if you’re not sure about joining clubs or research opportunities. There are so, so many people who want to support us at ASU.

Q: As someone who has studied urban planning and sustainability, are there any cities that you think could be a model for more sustainable urban development practices?

A: Rotterdam, the Netherlands. After being destroyed during the Second World War, it was completely rebuilt. But it was rebuilt to be car-dependent, like many cities in the United States. Now, however, the city is coming back and trying to reverse that car addiction. I think it’s something a lot of cities could emulate because they see it’s possible — Rotterdam is a car-dependent city that brings positive change. They are starting to create more transit options and closing streets to make them pedestrian only. All of these pedestrian-friendly and bike-friendly initiatives are trying to reverse the damage of car addiction and I think that’s something we could be looking for.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve a problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would try to solve the urban heat disparities in Phoenix. Recent studies show how low-income and minority areas of Phoenix experience temperatures three to five degrees warmer than wealthier white communities. We could spend that money trying to fix some of those disparities.

Q: What do you see as the most pressing sustainability issues in urban planning today?

A: The fact that vulnerable communities tend to bear the brunt of the negative consequences of climate change, especially since they are not even really responsible for it. It is not the communities that have a large carbon footprint. Addressing inequality in cities is important because many people are moving there and the situation will only get worse unless we do something about it.

Q: If you could change one thing about the way urban areas are planned in the United States, what would it be?

A: I wish American cities were less car-dependent and more transit-oriented. Not only does it reduce pollution and increase accessibility for people who don’t have a car or can’t afford a car, but it also connects a city. Getting people out of their cars creates more random interactions with other people, promotes community, and just gives a city more identity and culture.