Kaarin Knudson has never actually held elected political office since graduating from college. But that doesn’t mean she lacks ideas about how to run City Hall, should Eugene ever again have such a building. And politically experienced or not, she just might be Eugene’s next mayor.
The 47-year-old Eugene architect and University of Oregon architecture instructor filed Tuesday, Oct. 17, to run for mayor in the May 2024 primary election. So far, she’s the only candidate who’s taken out papers for the race, and she has drawn wide support from local progressives, including endorsements from current Mayor Lucy Vinis, who plans to step down when her current term ends in 2025, and from popular former Mayor Kitty Piercy.
In a message to Eugene Weekly, Piercy says her support grows out of watching Knudson in action as a behind-the-scenes administrator, dealing with contentious issues. “She remained calm, pleasant and well spoken, no matter the tenor of the discussion,” the former mayor writes. “Over time I saw her take leadership in housing discussions, many fraught with strong and differing opinions. She stayed focused and came back again and again, bringing varied points of view together. These are great qualifications for a mayor of Eugene.”
With months to go before the election, Knudson has endorsements from a broad array of other local politicians and activists, including five of the eight current Eugene City Council members. As of Oct. 16, her campaign had reported more than $43,000 in contributions, according to the state Secretary of State’s office.
A good-humored if slightly cerebral academic, Knudson is running on a platform of using her knowledge and experience as a planner and an administrator to help craft solutions to the problems that beset Eugene — from homelessness to the lack of an actual city hall building.
On homelessness, she is definitely in the housing-first camp. “We will need to build more housing for people to live in. And while we are doing that, we will also need to organize ourselves in a way that mitigates the harm that people are experiencing for the duration when they don’t have housing,” she says. “It’s, of course, doing more than one thing at a time, but it really comes back to a decision in our community that we want for homelessness to be rare, brief and nonrecurring.”
She is founder and current board member of Better Housing Together, a housing advocacy organization that addresses the homelessness crisis in Eugene by creating more housing opportunities in the city.
Knudson was born in Alaska and largely grew up there, an “energetic, curious” child, as she describes herself, who was mostly a straight-A student in school. Well, she notes, there was that B-plus in her Advanced Placement chemistry class. It still rankles. “I’ve always been a good student,” she says. “I love learning, and that helps a lot. I grew up with a family of teachers. It helps when your family are people who are educators and care a lot about public education.”
Her background embraces a wide range of disciplines. She majored in journalism and fine arts as an undergraduate at the UO, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1999, and got her master’s in architecture there in 2007. While a student, she was a seven-time NCAA qualifier running track for the Ducks, and was a member of the UO’s 1995 Pac-10 championship cross country team.
Between her undergraduate years and the master’s degree, she moved to the Bay Area and worked in communications for the Peninsula Community Foundation, a predecessor to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Later supported by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, it’s now the largest charitable foundation in Silicon Valley.
Asked to name the first book she ever read that mattered, Knudson cites two: The first is Bridge to Terabithia, a children’s novel by Katherine Paterson, in which two children create an imaginary kingdom together before, in real life, one of them dies in an accident. “That’s a wonderful children’s story that I probably read in third or fourth grade,” she says. “You should read it. It’s great. It’s a book for any fourth grade kids reading books who are for the first time thinking about death and complex family systems — and people working hard.”
The second book she mentions is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a memoir of his time spent in Nazi concentration camps in World War II. “That book is half his story of surviving the concentration camps and the Holocaust and half his theories about psychology, and how it is that humans can be so resilient in the face of extraordinary circumstances. I read that book as a part of my AP journalism class when I was a 15-year-old junior in high school. And it was wonderful,” she says. “You’ve gotta read them both.”
Decades after her collegiate track career, she remains a runner — which she says gives her a unique understanding of Eugene and its problems. “I’ve run hundreds of miles on our city’s streets. Running in our community is a great way of studying the way in which our infrastructure supports healthy experiences and safe experiences across the community. It’s a very different experience running in different parts of our community.”
The idea of running for mayor came about gradually, Knudson says. Friends have encouraged her to run for local office for a number of years; she started thinking seriously about running a year or so ago. “It became very clear to me I could be of service to the community at this point in time,” she says.
As is often the case with candidates running for the first time, Knudson frames her lack of political experience as a plus. “It presents me an opportunity to look at things with fresh eyes, and also to bring people into the conversation who might not have been thinking that the conversation is for them, or is relevant to them,” she says.
As an architect at Rowell Brokaw Architects in Eugene a decade ago, she led the firm’s proposal to win the Eugene Water & Electric Board’s Riverfront Master Plan commission and designed an award-winning lighting retrofit of the Hult Center lobby, among other projects. Since 2017 she’s been principal and partner at LARCO KNUDSON, a Eugene firm dedicated to sustainable design. With her partner Nico Larco, Knudson is also co-author of The Sustainable Urban Design Handbook, which is due out in spring 2024 from Routledge.
“The further I go,” she says, “the more relevant all of that experience feels.”
Knudson says she doesn’t necessarily believe in quick fixes to civic problems. But she definitely believes in long-term solutions.
“Architecture is a long game. Building a community is a long game,” she says. “I don’t feel like our best days are behind us and we’ve missed all the opportunities we’re going to have. Every week, every month, every year is a new set of decisions for a community to grapple with. And I am continually optimistic when thinking about what we can accomplish in the public realm.”