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For the Love of Cities: Architecture Alumna’s Passion Leads to Major Research Initiative on Urban Planning

Alumna Rachel Thurston.

Northeastern alumna Rachel Thurston, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Architecture, is currently a Designer, Assoc. AIA at Stantec, a global design and engineering firm. Working in Stantec’s Philadelphia office, her responsibilities range from master planning to architectural design and project management in the higher education and healthcare spaces. While no two days are the same, in her unique role, she transforms clients’ conceptual, high-level ideas of what they want into something that can be implemented, and eventually turned into reality.

She also works on the design side of projects, collaborating with her team members to research, draw, design (and re-design!), and then ultimately, construct.

“Recently, I have been working on the early stages of a design project for a medical complex in York, Pennsylvania,” Rachel explained. “It is a large-scale project, with an accelerated, condensed design schedule. Every trade is at the table. The process is highly collaborative.”

The architecture field, and design process generally, is fast-paced and deadline-driven, but also incredibly exciting and rewarding. Given Rachel’s level of experience, she is now leading projects, and works to coordinate moving parts, identify and help resolve issues, and provide strategic direction to the team. She also has the opportunity to travel to the sites she is working on, and a change of scenery tends to be welcomed – exploring new places and landscapes has always been Rachel’s style.

“I grew up in many different atmospheres and environments, moving between urban and rural,” Rachel explained. “I lived in cities, as well as in the middle of nowhere – and I really loved urban environments even from a young age. I went into architecture because it’s one avenue to better understand cities.”

Beyond her day job, Rachel has a passion for urban environments, and has in interest in discovering how cities become what they are.

“Back in 2013, I wanted to learn what it meant to be an urban planner,” explained Rachel. “So, I began working for Tantillo Architecture, a firm that lived inside of a private developer’s office. I had the opportunity to tour the buildings that they wanted to buy, create 3D models of them, report on development limitations, and dream up ways to improve the site.”

Exposure to local zoning codes, and learning why they exist fueled her fascination with city planning – a fascination that opened the door to a major ongoing research project, entitled Urban Analytics, with C. Humphrey, S. Jensen, and D. Small in the Department of Statistics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, with funding from the The Wharton School Social Impact Initiative. This research, initiated in 2015, sprouted from an idea that Rachel had and proposed to a statistician at Wharton. It serves as a quantitative study and evidence-based evaluation of urban planning theory, made possible in part due to a recent increase in the data that is available on human activity and the social sciences, as well as advances in data science and statistics.

It is a mission of many urban planners to activate the ground level of a facade by providing commercial space.  This makes a place subjectively “nicer,” but some also believe that this makes a place safer.

As Rachel elaborates, “our study sets up artificial experiments that use available data to investigate the association between the built environment and safety as it exists in Philadelphia. Our framework creates matched ‘pairs’ of intersections that are balanced on a large set of control variables (i.e. demographics, income, property value) but intentionally unbalanced on a particular ‘treatment’ variable. Our findings show that commercial zones are highly correlated with criminal incidents, but when activated with certain types of uses, and for more hours of the day, that correlation declines dramatically.”

You can learn more about the research here.

Rewinding back to her time at Northeastern, Rachel recalls her co-op experiences as being especially valuable. Her first position, at an applications engineering company, exposed her to Revit, the building information modeling software that was new to architects and engineers then but is industry standard now.

“During this co-op, Revit was brand new at the time, so it was really, really helpful to get ahead of the curve on that,” Rachel said. “With this skill set, the options available to me for my next position were endless! When I started my second co-op at KlingStubbins, I was teaching the entire staff how to use Revit.”

Through travel opportunities, her position at KlingStubbins also introduced her to Philadelphia, and piqued her interest in technology and collaboration. Rachel just completed her seven Architectural Registration Examinations and is pending official licensure in Pennsylvania.

From an undergraduate student at Northeastern to an experienced architectural designer, Rachel’s passions and interests have fueled her choices and direction every step of the way. She shows us that passions and career can combine.

We wish her continued success, and look forward to seeing her future projects!