Darby Cowles is a Bellingham senior city planner on the special projects team. She’s currently working with city-owned properties, like the Aloha Motel site, to reimagine their future within our community.

What brought you to Bellingham?

I came for Western. I was one of the lucky few who was able to stay and get a job. It was mass exodus after graduation.

Had you planned to stay in Bellingham?

I didn’t really plan it, but I loved it here and figured I’d stay if I could get a job. I spent about a year bartending in Edison at the Longhorn. I realized I wanted to get into planning, and starting volunteering with the City until they started paying me.

What’s your favorite spot in Bellingham?

Floating out on Bellingham Bay, either in a kayak or on a  boat.

Would that be part of your perfect Bellingham weekend?

Absolutely. Pre-baby, it would be going to see a band—we have so many awesome musicians that come through town. My weekend would also include dropping crab pots and hanging out on the water, then going to the farmers market. And going for a hike.

How old is your baby?

He’s going to be two in October. He’s a maniac, oh my gosh. He keeps us so busy!

What do you love best about your job?

There’s two things that I love most—one is the connection with people. I interact with a lot of creative folks and a lot of diverse types of people and organizations.

I also love the convergence of so many disciplines. That was really what got me into this in the first place. I always volunteer for everything. I like to stick my nose in many different topics.

I love that planning affects the environment, the community’s health and happiness, economics, and jobs. It affects everyone, even if they don’t realize it. Science, politics, community—it all converges. It keeps me interested.

For people who don’t understand, what’s the simple explanation of what a planner does?

If you’re talking about planning in general, it’s, “How do we use our land? How are things laid out? How are the transportation connections facilitating what’s being built? What does our community look like? What is there to do?”.

I’m in the Community Development division—we focus on funding affordable housing and social service support and outreach, implementation of urban village plans, and economic development. One thing we’re currently focused on is redeveloping city-owned properties. We acquired the Aloha Motel site, and have property in Old Town. We’re putting together Requests for Proposals to solicit interested developers to build something that will recuperate the city’s investment and get things rolling in those districts.

What do people not understand about what you do?

There’s sometimes neighbors or developers that think there’s vast conspiracies around projects. I can say that’s definitely not the case! Everyone that I work with is passionate about their community, is trying to make a difference, and very aware and respectful of the established rules and procedures.

It’s a constrained environment because we deal with regulations that have evolved and become more complicated over time. Sometimes you wonder what reason a rule came about. People wonder why government can move so slow, or can’t be more practical, but most of the time it’s due to some regulatory construct. It can be frustrating, but it’s there to protect the public interest, and provide predictability and fairness.

Is there a new business or organization you’d love to see in Bellingham?

I’d love to see a hotel downtown. That’s been on the wish list for awhile. I’d also love to see a hostel somewhere in Bellingham.

Is there a book you’ve read recently that stood out to you?

I’m reading a really interesting book right now called Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks. It’s about how our brains react to music, and how we’ve evolved as human beings to respond to music, and what the evolutionary basis is for it. I’m a total brain science nerd.

Is there restaurant, brewery, or store in Bellingham that the world needs to know about?

I’ve been telling everyone I know—I just toured The Foundry. They have some of the most amazing technology there. I’d never seen a 3D printer in action, or understood the capacity. They have this other machine; there’s only 25 in the country—you use copier paper and you can scan an object, and it will compress the paper to create a solid 3D model or replication. They also have a laser etcher where you make a drawing and it’ll scan it into leather or metal.

You can make anything you can dream up at The Foundry. We’re so lucky to have this here, and I don’t think a lot of people know about it.

What’s your favorite spot in downtown?

What’s happened in the Arts District is so exciting. Concerts, food trucks, new businesses—the really neat thing about it is it’s an example of public and private contribution. It’s the convergence of all these really neat projects.

What are people always surprised to learn about you?

People are usually surprised to know that I play the piano. I end up doing little shows, or accompany people when they ask. It’s a hobby of mine that I don’t get to pursue often, but I love to do it.

If you had to go back to Western today, what would you study?

Behavioral neuroscience, for sure. I always say if I were to switch careers, it’d be neuroscience … or become a chef, because I really like to cook.

Is there any special cause or charity that you want to call out?

What ReUse Works has done with Ragfinery is really awesome. They also run the Appliance Depot, where they rebuild and resell old appliances.

Talk about convergence with Ragfinery. They take fabric and clothes that typically end up in the dumpster, and do job training, material reuse, and formed this amazing community of crafters that are doing classes to teach people how to sew and reuse materials in functional ways. They’re knocking out all these benefits in one little space.

What is on the horizon for downtown?

One of the most exciting things is all the residential growth. We’ve started to see a different market open up, and all different types of people living down here.

We have a giant downtown, and all this retail energy that’s spread out. It’s going to take a lot to fill in the corridors. If we can get 1,000 more people living down here, it would help to fill in the spaces.

January 3, 2017

Jeff Jewell

December 30, 2016

Matt Mullett

December 26, 2016

Todd Elsworth

December 23, 2016

Corrinne Sande

December 21, 2016

Downtown Improvement Gardens

December 17, 2016

San Juan Airlines

December 15, 2016

Holiday Classic

December 9, 2016

Baker Beacon Rally