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Doctoral student helps cities envision a sustainable future

December 11, 2012

Most five year olds may be more concerned with cartoon TV shows rather than their neighborhood community garden. But Braden Kay started his life mission early – at a local youth garden when he was just a kid.

“I grew up in Washington, D.C., and saw the challenges of providing quality services to an economically and racially segregated city,” he says. “From starting at the local youth garden at age five, I always wanted to be part of producing solutions that bring diverse people together to make their city better with opportunity for all.”

Kay says it was ASU President Michael Crow’s vision of Arizona State University as a New American University that drew him to the School of Sustainability to study urban development and sustainability challenges.

“The School of Sustainability provided me with the opportunity I was looking for – to become a world-class urban solution developer,” he says. 

Kay is graduating from ASU’s School of Sustainability with a doctorate, and was a National Science Foundation GK-12 Fellow at Phoenix’s Bioscience High School, where he co-generated sustainability-oriented curriculum and projects with students and faculty. For his dissertation, Kay was a project manager for Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row’s Adaptive Reuse of Temporary Spaces’ Valley of the Sunflowers program and Growhouse urban farm. There, he helped turn a vacant lot into a field of sunflowers that produced biofuel.

But it was when he was a Teach for America corps member in St. Louis and a teacher with the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) in Gary, Ind., where he learned that the challenges faced by urban America are intimidating, and that possible solutions require hard-working people and strategic planning.

At ASU, Kay explored those possible solutions as a student researcher in Sustainability Scientist and professor Arnim Wiek’s Sustainability Transition and Intervention Research Lab. There, he co-developed sustainability transition strategies for the City of Phoenix General Plan Update.

“We have been able to contribute to innovative planning efforts in Phoenix, and I have been able to learn from amazing graduate students in my lab who are tackling sustainability challenges from water scarcity to the effects of nanotechnology on society,” Kay says.

After graduation, Kay will continue improving communities by working as a postdoc with sustainability scientists, planners and graduate students on Reinvent Phoenix, a city project that is developing sustainability strategies and solutions for the neighborhoods along the Metro light rail.

Kay hopes his work in community enrichment and urban sustainability will create a new type of sustainability science.

“We need to have a piece of sustainability science that focuses on creating strategies for how we get to a sustainable future,” he says. “To help with this, I want to contribute strong leadership and collaborative solutions to the city that I live and work in.”

So far, Kay has a bright future. After his postdoc, he’ll continue the work he’s been doing since he was five years old.

“I hope to work on sustainability strategy building and solution development in American cities,” Kay says. “I think I have the ability to be part of entrepreneurial teams that are invested in making urban sustainability a reality in their cities. I hope to find cities, like Phoenix, that are excited about sustainability and ready to get to work.”

Natalie Muilenberg,
Editor Assistant
Global Institute of Sustainability