Karen Johnston (J.D. ’08) comes from a long line of engineers. Her father and grandfather were engineers and they passed on to her a love of science and nature. They also taught her the art of problem-solving and developing creative solutions, both essential to the field of engineering. It’s something that stays with her as associate director of the Georgia State University College of Law Center for the Study of Metropolitan Growth.
“I grew up seeing the Exxon Valdez spill and baby birds being scrubbed with Dawn dish soap on the news,” Johnston said. “Those are powerful images when you’re a child. I remember that very vividly and it launched my interest in protecting the environment.”
Johnston, who grew up in Richmond, Va., came to law after working as an environmental engineer, but her interest in the law arose while she was pursuing a graduate degree in engineering. As a student at Virginia Tech, she worked on a research project, investigating the impact of copper-based pesticides applied to tomato fields on nearby estuaries and aquatic life. She was hooked after meeting the owner of a clam aquaculture facility whose operations had been nearly wiped out from polluted intake water.
After graduate school, she worked as an engineer for four years before moving to Atlanta. After leaving engineering, she started at The Home Depot doing sustainability and regulatory compliance work. Her interest in law deepened, and she enrolled in the part-time program at the College of Law. While there, she learned about the new Center for the Comparative Study of Metropolitan Growth and was excited to see a job posting for the center a few years after graduating.
Johnston has worked for the center for the last 10 years. In the center, she helps oversee the Urban Fellows program, is managing editor for the Journal of Urban Law & Policy, and collaborates with students on research projects related to environmental and land use law. In her time at the College of Law, Johnston has worked on projects for a wide range of organizations, including the Georgia Department of Transportation, UN-Habitat and Natural Hazards Center.
“I love working with students on research projects and developing creative solutions for real world problems,” Johnston said. “I enjoy finding practical solutions and helping to develop policies that can be implemented today.”
Right now, Johnston’s focus is on transportation. She wants more walkable and bikeable cities so that people can get where they’re going in a safe, affordable and environmentally friendly way. She is especially interested in how micromobility—e-scooters and bikes—might connect with public transit systems in order to make commuting easier and more accessible. She is also interested in how micromobility regulations can be better crafted to promote equitable access.
“Recently, I have been looking at the impact of COVID-19 on public transit ridership, talking to riders and bus operators about mask usage and compliance, other COVID safety measures, and the impact of service changes,” Johnston said. “Public transit provides an important service and ensuring it’s continued availability and accessibility is important to communities.”
Because of the center’s global perspective, Johnston has been able to get an international view of how countries across the world are dealing with these issues. In the annual Study Space Workshop, attorneys, scholars, city planners and government officials gather in a different city to brainstorm solutions to a variety of urban issues. They have traveled to Brazil, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Poland, France, Turkey and Portugal to look for sustainable solutions to housing, development, transportation and climate change.
“For the most part, cities face the same challenges,” Johnston said. “We’re not dealing with these environmental and housing issues in the U.S. by ourselves. We can all learn from each other and this knowledge sharing worldwide is beneficial.”
Interview by Kelundra Smith