Dr. Brinkley's Story

From Veterinarian to Urban Planner: An Ecosystems Approach


As we head back to school, both for my elementary school-aged children and the university writ large, I am reflecting on educational journeys. 

People often ask about my career shift from veterinary medicine to community development. When I was five years old, like many in my kindergarten cohort, I said I wanted to become a veterinarian. I spent hours doodling images of a future where cities are infused with nature and the rural livelihoods of people and wildlife thrived. It now seems naïve to have imagined a world without poverty, pollution, or superyachts. But the vision was sustained wherever our military family moved every two years, and into my undergraduate studies where I literally immersed myself in the biodiverse wonders of coral reefs (and their suffering from coral bleaching), incredible freshwater lakes that yielded annual bounties to their indigenous caretakers (and increasingly also yielded algal blooms), and rich forests (and their shrinking borders). Each marvel seemed paired with an impending threat. And each threat seemed avoidable if only people could balance the needs for jobs, housing, and ecosystem protection.

I entered veterinary school wanting to continue documenting the benefits and consequences of preserving or dismantling natural ecosystems. Vet school gave me a wonderful grounding in health across multiple species, as well as training in systems thinking. Yet, I kept wondering how I would treat animals that were suffering from malnutrition because their habitats were lost? I needed to be able to prescribe a cure that was entirely off the books.

Like many young people, I simply did not know about urban planning or community development. But once I found out, the drift turned to drive. While still in veterinary school, I embarked on an urban planning PhD. Naively, I thought I could draw the urban-wildlife boundary to help keep natural ecosystems intact, the job-housing ratio balanced, and commute times short. A triple win for animal, human and environmental health! However, I realized early on that drawing that boundary alone might push people who worked in the city out if they could not afford housing. The solution is rarely as easy as making a line on a piece of paper.

Having children accelerated my drive and my insights into the problem. I moved with an urgency I had not known before. My children may never see a coral reef that is not bleached. The field sites where I worked have all dramatically changed.

Now I work on changes within and outside academia that are aligned with my 5-year old self’s vision, although the connections between veterinary medicine and community development are not always apparent to outside viewers. Within the academy, I am attempting to topple a century-old theory that considers wilderness and farmland at near zero economic value. The CRC’s effort to measure and model the Bay Area Megaregion with colleagues at USC Price and Occidental College Cities shows how the recent pandemic has changed transportation and housing in an ever-wider region. With our work with CARB on Climate Readiness, we are partnering with nonprofits across the state to help prepare communities to update their plans to reduce emissions and create health, livable regions. Part of that work relies on making plan data publicly available through our PlanSearch tool which acts like a Pinterest board for communities to search for new ideas deployed elsewhere to use in plan updates.

These efforts may seem a far cry from stopping coral bleaching and global warming- but they meet the sweet spot of human-animal-and-environmental health. My own experiences underscored how the future I longed for absolutely required a regional approach- particularly one that addressed the forces of racism, sexism, and income inequality- and with an eye for providing for the next generation. 

With this letter, I invite you, our community, with deep roots in changemaking, to reflect on how your own mission has transitioned over the years. What part of that drift was necessary for change-making or growth- both personal and professional? When was the drift a delightful adventure? When was it painful? Where did the opportunities for growth come from a classroom- and where did they come from lived experiences?

As you reflect on the back-to-school season and your own journey, feel free to reach out and share. We would like to spotlight stories from our community in upcoming Region Matters and look forward to connecting more with you.

Catherine Brinkley