CNUdc Interview Series: Abbey Oklak

In 2012 Catherine Vanderwaart interned with CNUdc, and she interviewed several of our active members. Read about the great work they do and their thoughts about DC.

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How did you get involved in new urbanism?

I went to the University of Notre Dame for my undergraduate degree, and even though it was a traditional architecture program, every project I did had an urban design aspect. Many of my professors were also involved with the Congress for New Urbanism, and they taught us the principles in studio. My third year was spent in Rome, living in the historic center. I grew up in the suburbs, and I had the epitome of a suburban childhood. I didn't know there was another way to live until I experienced it. During that time in Rome, I could walk to school, to restaurants. I have family who can’t drive, who are limited by disabilities, and I experienced another way to live where that wouldn’t be such a limitation. Through that experience, I realized that this is where I want to make an impact on the world.


You spent two years in the United Kingdom as a Fellow with the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment. What is PFBE, and what was the Fellowship about?

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PFBE is a nonprofit set up to educate about sustainable development, which translates to traditional urbanism here in the United States. Prince Charles founded it, and he is president of the board. It’s not an architecture charity, it’s an urbanism charity. PFBE's work is through community consultations, teaching the public at project sites during design charettes they call Enquiry by Designs. The Foundation is invited by local governments and private developers to come in and teach about sustainability and urbanism as well as design the project. Most of their projects are infill and urban extensions. This allows them to teach about why historic cores work, and why the new should be formed similar to the old.


There are typically three pillars when people talk about sustainability: ecological, financial and social. The Foundation adds a fourth, the built environment. They call this mixture the Community Capital of a place, and they use these four aspects to understand and develop each project. The money PFBE earns from each project goes back into research. They’ve done studies on the economic benefits of building mixed use communities, for example.


I found out about PFBE's fellowship program when I went to a CNU lecture at the Building Museum a few years ago by Hank Dittmar, the president of the Foundation. The program is a two year work-study initiative where I spent one year as a staff person at PFBE and the second working at a member practice [Stanhope Gate Architecture and Urban Design]. The theory is that you learn the Foundation's core messages and then take it to a member practice to teach them about the Foundation. The second year is also about learning additional supporting skills. The fellowship is how the Foundation hopes to teach and continue the urbanist education in the young workforce. There are few universities who teach urban design in traditional patterns in either the United States or the United Kingdom. The Foundation is hoping to cover some of that gap.


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What are some of the differences working in the United Kingdom versus the United States?

The biggest difference is the public. People in the UK still understand walkability. They have a sense of what it means for their daily life when you can walk to a town center. The other big difference is the built environment. American big cities have urbanism, but in the UK even small towns still have urbanism. People still walk to the high street to take a train to London or other big city to work. They know you can have the small town life, be out of the city on weekends, but still be able to walk and to access the city via public transportation. People still have cars, but they are a privilege and used for non-daily activities.


What are you doing now?

I work for Cooper Carry, a national architecture and planning firm, on mixed-use urban design and architecture projects. I worked for Cooper Carry for the two years before I completed the fellowship, and I have recently returned. When I graduated from Notre Dame, I wanted to work for a firm that created places, not just a building. I wanted to work on both architecture and urbanism, and I happened to find Cooper Carry. Every project team I work on has landscape architects, planners, and urban designers. Having a mixed team takes some of the ego out of the architecture, because you’re not trying to design a building that everyone will recognize as yours. You’re building a community.


What do you think of the work being done in the DC area in urbanism?

I’m working on a project near one of the Purple Line stops. I think it’s great that people here are planning and building new transit lines. It’s the best way to get people out of their cars. DC has the Silver Line, the Purple Line and streetcars, plus BRT and light rail in Alexandria and Arlington. Right now, it's still hard to know whether all of them will actually be built, but it’s great that they’re even in the planning stages.


What do you think those in the next generation of urban designers have to do?

My generation has benefited from the great work that has been done in the last 20-30 years, but we have to begin to take these examples and bring them to the general public. We have to find ways to make them affordable and available for all incomes and cities.


Walkable, mixed use developments are desirable and profitable, but now it's up to my generation to make them approachable for all. It will take added density and re-urbanization of suburban locations to achieve much of this in the changing economic climate. My generation is going to have to become more creative and use existing infrastructure to create these walkable projects because the funding won't be there to build completely new grids.


What do you see yourself headed?

I want to educate people that there are other ways to live. You can’t take everyone to live in Rome for a year, so you have to find other ways. You have to convince people that a project will be for the good of the community, that they want these other options, and that these projects will add value to neighboring homes once built. It’s not just about bringing new people in. It’s about making things better for the people who already live in that place.


I want to design places where I would want to live. I also want to design something the community can take on as its own. With architecture, that can be hard to do. With urbanism, there’s no ego in it. At the end of the day it's about creating a better place, regardless of who gets the credit.

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