Student Stories

Reimagining the Environment

A classroom doesn’t always need four walls, rows of desks, and a whiteboard. Sometimes, a classroom can be the towering skyscrapers on Michigan Avenue, or the train car on the CTA Green Line, a restoration area on an old industrial site in the Calumet region, or even the small garden tucked away in Woodlawn’s Jackson Park.

Starting this fall, a new track within the newly renamed Environmental and Urban Studies major will allow students additional opportunities to leave the classroom and experience their city as a laboratory, a space to experiment and learn.

“The expansion of the program recognizes the growth of student interest in urban and environmental issues, which has appeared in several of our majors, in internship applications, and in the Chicago Studies Program, among other places,” said John W. Boyer, Dean of the College. “This is a splendid opportunity to organize these initiatives and connect them with the rich context of the city around us.”

Before now, students had the choice of focusing their studies within the major along two tracks: environmental economics and policy as well as socio-natural systems and frameworks. The first focuses on issues like environmental law and globalization, emphasizing the way that present-day environmental issues are addressed in politics and law. The latter delves into the study between the cultural and historical constructions of nature, environment, and human ecology.

The new urban environment track is focused on the built environment; cities and spaces created by and for humans, broadening the perspective of what we usually think of when we hear the word “environment.” All three tracks have the same core requirements, offer experiential learning opportunities, and rigorously engage with the environment as a focus of study—just through different lenses and perspectives.

“Environment goes beyond natural settings. It is the air you breathe, the water you drink and what sustains our cities,” said Dr. Sabina Shaikh, senior lecturer and the director of the Program on the Global Environment, the group which houses the new major. “It’s also your physical surroundings and how that affects the way you live and how you interact with each other.”

This interaction between the natural and the built environment is a critical entryway for students to understand the purpose of the new track. Professor of Urbanism Emily Talen hopes that the major will make students confront difficult questions, and think deeply about their role in a world, a role that increasingly blurs the line between spaces considered to be “manmade” and those considered to be “wildlife.”

“A central concern [of the major] is the relationship between cities and ‘nature,’” said Talen. “Urban vs. rural, city vs. nature—these realms are sometimes seen in conflict, when in fact they are deeply interconnected, such that the diversity of a healthy city is analogous to the diversity of a natural ecosystem.”

Third-year Shreya Sood was immediately attracted to the major because of its interdisciplinary focus, and how she can use the city in order to look at a variety of different issues from a number of perspectives.

“Studying cities from an interdisciplinary perspective is critical, because their intertwined issues range from involving public policy and economics to art history, geography, and urban ecology,” she said. “An urban perspective encompasses all of these disciplines and more.”

However, to truly understand the city, classroom lectures aren’t enough. Students need to truly engage with the community, physically seeing the spaces and learning from the community members and leaders. The major’s structure takes these ideas into account, requiring students to participate in an approved internship or field studies program to complement their studies. This idea is not new to the major, which has long been the home of the innovative Calumet Quarter, an urban interdisciplinary field study including components of anthropology, ecology, economics, history, planning and policy on the Southeast side of Chicago.

In lieu of the internship requirement, students can now also participate in the new Chicago Studies Certificate Program, an intensive, quarter-long program where students take classes centered on Chicago. The new certificate program is a way to tie the previous Chicago Studies Quarter into an actual major, giving students greater opportunity to participate. As of now, there aren’t too many changes to the actual structure of the quarter: in addition to their classes, students embark on weekly excursions to a different city neighborhood to learn more about its history and how its physical space fits into the rest of Chicago as a diverse, urban city.

chicago studies uchicago university of chicago study chicagoChris Skrable, UCSC Associate Director for Chicago Studies

The Certificate Program is a collaboration with the University Community Service Center (UCSC), which provides students and faculty with invaluable networks and connections to community activists and leaders.

“[The Certificate Program is] a transcript designated program of engagement and study that’s designed to help students build paths to enriching their academic inquiry with meaningful community engagement and apply their academic inquiry to have impacts on the city,” said Chris Skrable, UCSC Associate Director for Community-Based Research & Experiential Learning.

Skrable notes the importance of civic engagement as a way to enhance one’s academic pursuits and that students can aspire to use the critical thinking skills they gain from the University of Chicago to give back to the surrounding communities.

“[Civic engagement] opens up the possibility for students to learn in ways that feed some of their own deeper hungers for meaning and for making a difference that help us all think a little more about what our learning means in the broader context of which we live,” he said.

Students who participate in the track don’t solely have to focus on the city of Chicago. Rather, Chicago is used as a baseline that students can then use to compare to other cities or think about urban planning as a whole.

“We want to encourage learning about Chicago. It is a global city with complex and historical urban environmental dimensions. The Chicago Studies framework offers a unique opportunity for conscientious and engaged civic inquiry.” Shaikh explained. “We want to get students involved in local civic awareness and projects. But, we are very interested in being able to compare Chicago to other local [and global] cities, like New York, Delhi, Beijing and Paris. We hope to emphasize that the study of cities is not only through study abroad.”

To students interested in the major, a formal academic study dedicated to urban environmental planning and design is a necessary step in today’s day and age, when, as Sood said, “the majority of the world’s population living in urban areas [and] cities are collectively responsible for most energy and resource consumption as well as greenhouse gas emissions.”

Sood, who is majoring in philosophy and environmental and urban studies, also notes that the major’s focus on civic engagement has the opportunity to inspire and train the next generation of activists and urban planners.

“Doing service, raising citizens’ awareness, and engaging with local leaders, community organizations, and residents to create impact from what we learn from our studies is an essential aspect of an environmental and urban education,” said Sood.

“The requisite understanding of a city and its functioning parts cannot just come from inside a classroom; to gain a deeper understanding, you must dive in and find your feet.”