Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, an ASU alumna who works as an urban anthropologist. Photo courtesy of ASU Now.
When Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman first arrived in Phoenix in 2005 to attend Arizona State University, she was surprised by how poorly the city was designed for people without a driver’s license, like herself.
That observation was augmented when she entered her senior year at ASU and was pursuing her bachelor’s degreein anthropology. She took a course taught by archaeologist Michael E. Smith on city development. This course, and a later project on which she worked as a research technician for Smith, would spark her interest in the study of open spaces and the impact that these public spaces have on people in cities.
“Thinking about the ways in which people look at public space is really challenging the norm of public space,” Johnston-Zimmerman said. “It can be privatized or inaccessible or, in the suburbs, it can be nonexistent other than the private open space you have around your house if you’re so lucky.”
Following her graduation from ASU, Johnston-Zimmerman attended Portland State University where she earned a master’s degree in urban studies. In the past few years, she has worked as an urban anthropologist in New York City for City ID to establish better signage in the expansive park system of that city, and consulted with Boise State University to help that institution design its online Design Ethnography Certificate program.
Both assignments are part of a shift to working as a consultant in urban anthropology. That move, she says, will allow her to do more research on public spaces, as well as write and present more about her findings.
“When I’m investigating cities, it’salways in the back of my mind where we came from as a species and trying to think about ways to insert urban formations that are more natural or intuitive for use as people,” Johnston-Zimmerman said.
Johnston-Zimmerman focuses on making cities people centered again; whether that looks like developing bike lanes and public transportation in Phoenix to make the sprawling city more accessible or taking over a parking lot and making it a traditional park for the day.
Urban anthropology utilizes observations and “people-watching” in order to understand what people need and want in public spaces.
“It’s about being a human being in a city and having your rights and your needs taken care of, as opposed to just trying to survive,” Johnston-Zimmerman explained.
Johnston-Zimmerman encourages everyone to think about and impact public spaces, starting with even the smallest of actions.
“Get in there. Even just with little things like putting out a chair or a bench or a flower pot, try to impact your environment and claim your right to space and your right to the city and really make your voice heard,” she said.
~ Written by Courtney Kock, a student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.