Last semester I left Yale to pursue something I couldn’t find here: an education in urban studies. After taking a range of classes relating to cities in my sophomore year and the first semester of my junior year, I was finally fed up with the fact that Yale offered not one single class about non-American cities. I went on a program called “Cities in the 21st Century,” which took me to Sao Paulo and Curitiba, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; and Hanoi, Vietnam. I studied urban planning, politics and culture, and I realized how much my education had been lacking at Yale.
When I returned this fall, the chorus of voices appealing for more urban studies options had grown. One of the consistent trends of shopping period this fall, apart from the usual complaints and disorganization, was the overwhelming attendance and enrollment in the few urban-related classes offered.
Over 60 students showed up for a new political science seminar titled “Infrastructure,” yet only 18 could take the class. Classes like “American Cultural Landscape” and “Urban Politics and Policy” are consistently full or overenrolled. Students are turned away and left wondering: Why aren’t there more urban studies classes, and why is there no coherent program?
I could write far more words than this column allows explaining why we need urban studies at Yale, but there are four compelling reasons that stand out.
The first reason is to attract the type of students who will get involved in the life of the city beyond Yale’s walls. Town-gown relations are ever-evolving and have improved in recent years, at least in part thanks to University President Richard Levin’s commitments to the New Haven community. But students must take a central role in improving and deepening the relationship between Yale and New Haven. There are myriad ways to become active in the city — through teaching, mentoring, sports, politics and more — yet too many students have no conception of what this city or its people are about. A prominent urban studies program could change this and recruit students who will take an active and passionate interest in New Haven.
Second and relatedly, New Haven presents extraordinary and unique learning opportunities for Yale students. The city has been a natural laboratory for almost every urban policy experiment over the last 100 years or more — from urban renewal in the postwar years to the current transformation of the Farmington Canal as part of the “rails to trails” movement. You can walk the streets of New Haven and see urban history and transformation right before your eyes.
Local politics are accessible to students here in a unique way. We have student representation on the Board of Aldermen, and Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and City Hall reach out to students on a regular basis. No amount of reading can supplant first-hand experience as an educational tool. There is no better place in the United States to study cities, and Yale is wasting the incredible resource this city could be to urban studies students.
Third, from a comparative and competitive perspective, we are losing ground. Our competitors — namely Harvard, Princeton, Penn and Columbia — all have well-developed urban studies programs that offer undergraduates an opportunity to pursue a multidisciplinary approach to the study of the urban form and urban society. We are simply falling behind our Ivy League brethren if we cannot offer potential students a coherent option to pursue urban studies.
Finally, our position as one of the leading institutions of higher learning in the world compels us to address the major issues of the day. The trends of globalization and urbanization are the twin forces shaping the new century. They must be studied, researched and debated at places like Yale in order to reach a better understanding of how our world is changing and what we can do to influence that change. We have the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, which hosts lectures, conferences and workshops and attracts prominent voices to campus. Where is the Yale Center for the Study of Cities? The absence of a meaningful institutional commitment to the pursuit of urban studies is conspicuous and must be addressed — now.
It is time for the University leadership — the administration, the Yale Corporation, alumni — to step up and heed the call. The students have spoken: we need Urban Studies at Yale.
Jacob Koch is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.