Faculty Stories

Exploring the Urban: Professor Emily Talen

Professor Emily Talen’s love of urban planning dates back to her own college experience, while studying abroad in Paris nearly 30 years ago.  

“I spent hours on end walking that city and that’s what I did to survive because I was desperately homesick,” she said. “That’s what got me really interested in Paris because it was so planned, it’s just so not-like American cities.”

Her walks and exploration of Paris led to a senior thesis on the design of the city, a master’s degree and a professional career as an urban planner, and then a doctorate and career studying urban planning. After serving as a professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Talen joined the UChicago community earlier this year in the division of the Social Sciences, bringing her professional and academic experiences to the College. She calls herself UChicago’s only Professor of Urbanism and has dedicated herself to studying the “built environment,” a concept in the social sciences that encompasses the man-made surroundings humans interact in and with.

Talen’s academic research studies the social factors that affect the built environment. Her work focuses on segregation in American cities and the mechanisms urban planners can use to foster diversity. She is currently researching Chicago neighborhoods that have maintained economic diversity since 1940, which include Portage Park and Beverly. She is also currently writing a book, Neighborhood, that focuses on the historical evolution of the idea of a space.

In addition to her research, Talen is involved with the New Urbanism movement, which emphasizes walkable neighborhoods with connectivity, diversity, and quality architecture.

In her first quarter Talen taught “Chicago Neighborhoods,” focusing on the built environment and its relationship to the life of the city, and “Urban Design: The Chicago Experience,” an introductory urban planning class with a focus on the city. All her assignments in both classes are team-based, encouraging students to work together to study Chicago.

“I really like how this class uses the city of Chicago as a classroom,” third-year Cosmo Albrecht said. “This class actually forces you to engage with the city and think about the city and explore the city.”

Talen credits students’ experiences with urbanism as an invaluable source of information with fresh perspectives.“You guys are out there in the world walking the streets, you’re not sequestered in some suburban house somewhere, you guys are here and that’s really a lot of information to tap,” she said.

In an innovative format, students upload all of their work onto a class website, documenting their study of the city publically.

“After having taught for maybe 15 years now in this field, all the great student work that has been done gets lost and is just buried,” Talen said. “I want to start keeping track of all this incredible wisdom and insight that the students come up with.” She envisions this site becoming a hub of information about the city for students to build upon.

Fourth-year Juliet Eldred praised the hands-on focus of the class and assignments. “Writing isn’t our only type of evidence, you’re supposed to use visual material to make an argument as well and use the best supporting evidence to talk about something.”

Talen is excited to delve into the city of Chicago. “This is my dream city and my dream place,” she said.