A group of undergraduates are working to codify the study of urban planning and development at Yale into a cohesive program.
Last year, Andy Sandweiss ’19 and Robert Scaramuccia ’19 founded CITY Yale, a group that discusses local urban studies issues and organized occasional guest lecturers and events. This fall, CITY Yale is transforming from a weekly, discussion-based club into a solely event-based organization. Though an urban studies program existed in the 1950s, Yale currently offers only a handful of topical classes in the Architecture, American Studies and Political Science departments. One of CITY Yale’s goals is to facilitate an urban studies community in the absence of a formal program.
“The big problem is that there are a lot of people on this campus who are interested in the issues that urban studies encompasses, but they’re all disparate, in their own majors, doing their own thing,” Scaramuccia said. “The question is, how do you bring all these people together? Especially in such a big bureaucratic place like Yale, you need to have this critical mass of people coming together saying ‘Hey, this is something that we want to study institutionally, or very seriously, as a major or even as a program.’”
Yale first established a city planning initiative in 1957 through the School of Architecture and offered some undergraduate courses through the program. But a decade later, Yale had cut the program down to a single, one-semester class, “Study of the City,” taught by professor Alexander Garvin ’62 ARC ’67. One student of Garvin’s in those early years, eager to learn about urban planning, was American Studies professor Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02, who had entered the city planning major as a first year. Halfway through his sophomore year, however, Yale scrapped the major and Gitlin switched to history.
Today, both Garvin and Gitlin teach at Yale, and continue to advocate on behalf of the field that Yale discontinued all those years ago.
“Cities are a part of everyday life of most people at the University,” Garvin said. “The notion that it ought to be an interest to them is obvious. They ought to be interested in how they operate, city government, how it runs and so on.”
After years of diminished interest in the field, a cohort of students and professors made a renewed effort in the late 1990s to revive urban studies. Several professors formed an urban studies faculty group at the behest of students, Gitlin said, noting that the two most vocal students at the time were Seth Brown ’99 and Adam Gordon ’99.
This initiative formed new classes including “Perspectives of the City,” taught by professor Harry Wexler, and “New Haven and the American City” taught by professors Alan Plattus ARC ’79, Cynthia Farrar ’76 and Douglas Rae. In 2001, the faculty group also created the Richard Hegel Prize for the best senior essay about New Haven, and they proposed an agenda for a program similar to what city planning had been in the 1960s. The University, however, turned the proposal down.
Brown and Gordon, meanwhile, pursued their interests after graduating. The pair founded the magazine THE NEXT AMERICAN CITY, which Gitlin called the “single best magazine about cities out there.”
The second wave of student interest for an urban studies program came in 2013 when David Kemper ’13 formed the urban collective, a student group that focused on studying cities. Urban collective ended in 2015.
Students are again searching for a place to discuss and explore urban issues outside the few classes on offer. Sandweiss and Scaramuccia have planned guest lecturers lined up for the rest of the semester, ranging from Chris Schweitzer of the New Haven/Leon Sister City Project to Yonah Freemark, the founder of the website The Transport Politic.
“There are a number of good ways to pursue the field of urban studies at Yale, including concentrations that are embedded in existing departments and majors,” Architecture professor Elihu Rubin said. “Motivated students will seek out faculty and courses from across the University to flesh out their interests in urban studies. I think there’s more we can do to make these offerings more legible and coherent, perhaps even developing a program that cuts across the different majors.”
CITY Yale is also planning film screenings and potential field trips into New Haven and around the region.
Students and professors interviewed expressed their desire for a more formal program, though some students interviewed expressed concerns that it was already too late.
“I’m a film major, so I’m not really studying anything about urban studies, but I was for a while considering it,” Emma Keyes ’19 said. “I maybe would have pursued it more, had there been an actual, formal way to do so.”
There are currently classes offered across University departments, and a Yale urban studies website offers a complete list of these courses for students interested in pursuing the subject without an established program. Gitlin said he has been following the tide of urban studies interest among students over the years and is glad to see the current work of CITY Yale.
Yale designated the School of Architecture as its own separate professional school in 1972.
Audrey Huang | firstname.lastname@example.org