Gabby Abou-Zeid’s path exploring transportation and urban planning has been anything but linear. That seems fitting for someone who graduated from the University of Arizona with a Bachelor’s in Sustainable Built Environments, is now halfway through the Master’s in Civil Engineering at Portland State University and next plans to pursue a PhD related to transportation planning.
The journey, after all, is much of the fun—or should be. “Undergraduate students should be able to spend some time discovering what they’re really passionate about,” she says. “That’s why I loved my time at College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture and the Sustainable Built Environments program: it gave me the opportunity to explore, to learn, to find my way.”
Finding her way through college started well before her time at CAPLA. Though Abou-Zeid was admitted to the architecture program, she opted to attend another school to major in women’s and gender studies and chemistry. But when she transferred to UArizona after a year, she found her new path of chemistry and math wasn’t quite right, either.
“I felt creatively stifled in chemistry,” she says. “Sustainable Built Environments solved that.”
Creativity is essential for Abou-Zeid, who is classically trained as a singer and performed across the state when in high school.
“I shifted to SBE at the end of my first year, but that meant adding another year of school, and I was apprehensive,” she recalls. Fortunately, SBE advisor Sean Kramer-Lazar eased the transition. “He was amazing,” she says.
That Abou-Zeid found her focus in sustainable communities may not be so surprising after all, despite her unplanned route. Originally from Oro Valley, a suburban community north of Tucson, she enjoyed coming into the city, particularly downtown. “It’s so lively—the walking, the stores and restaurants,” she says. “There’s something beautiful about that mix.”
As much as she adored the Old Pueblo, it wasn’t until she visited San Francisco and Washington, D.C.—experiencing large cities for the first time—that she truly discovered how much she loves the urban form.
That passion was nurtured at CAPLA, especially by Associate Professor of Architecture Clare Robinson, whose architecture history and theory course introduced Abou-Zeid to the “visionary field” of urban planning and “how it can be a tool for creating healthy cities,” and by Assistant Professor of Planning and Sustainable Built Environments Ladd Keith, for his work in developing and leading the SBE program.
Abou-Zeid was also inspired by Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Kristina Currans, who served as teacher and mentor during Abou-Zeid’s last two years, including her senior capstone project on walkability in Tucson.
Abou-Zeid’s capstone was informed by her participation the previous year in the Transportation Undergraduate Research Fellowship, a program at Portland State University funded by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities. “That expanded my understanding of transportation and its links to the built environment, policy, land use and engineering,” she says. It also helped her recognize that while transportation and planning are interesting, what matters most is that her “work is directly related to trying to improve people’s lives.”
As a Transportation Undergraduate Research Fellow she worked with Currans and Portland State’s Kelly Clifton, professor of civil and environmental engineering, spending time at Clifton’s Sustainable Urban Planning and Engineering Research Lab examining the transportation impacts of affordable housing developments.
After graduating from the SBE program in 2019, Abou-Zeid joined Clifton at Portland State for her master’s degree, where she was awarded a 2019 Eisenhower Fellowship by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Her current research with Clifton assesses the relationship between travel behavior and urban freight demand for the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
“The transition to civil engineering has certainly been interesting,” says Abou-Zeid, who will graduate in June 2021. “I chose this program to become more technical—there’s historically a rift between engineering and planning and I am interested in bridging the two.”
“I do miss the more human elements of urban planning, but the opportunity to focus on engineering is really valuable,” she says. “It’s hard work, but it’s passionate work, and I couldn’t be happier.”