Sustainability Comes of Age-School of Architecture - Carnegie Mellon University

Friday, January 15, 2010

Sustainability Comes of Age

The New York Times Discusses Advanced Degrees in Urban Sustainability

When Andrew Pattison was looking to pursue a graduate degree in sustainability, he drew on his post-college experience working as a conservation biologist in upstate New York. Butterflies were his thing, and he produced numerous recommendations about what should be done to protect them. “I found that quote-unquote important people who were decision makers would read the reports I filed and then not follow them,” Mr. Pattison says.

Those frustrations led him in a different direction. “I knew I wanted to study the way decisions were made on environmental policy,” he says. He also knew where many of the important decisions were made: in cities. With energy and climate policy, he says, “the problem is global, but all politics are local.”

Mr. Pattison, 32, is now a doctoral student in the sustainable urban infrastructure program at the University of Colorado, Denver. It’s one of a growing number of graduate programs in sustainability where the issues affecting cities are front and center.

“We’ve seen a growth in programs that are more focused, either on a particular geographic area or on a discipline,” says Paul Rowland, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. The organization’s Web site, aashe.org, lists nine universities offering doctoral or master’s degrees in urban sustainability studies, and many more programs include the urban environment as a central part of their studies.

In some ways, the shift reflects a coming-of-age of sustainability as a field, away from the back-to-nature ethos of earlier efforts and toward a realization that there are grittier problems — and solutions. “The environmental movement has expanded to understand that people are at the center of these issues,” Mr. Pattison says. “It’s not just save the trees for the trees’ sake.”

But beyond that, sustainability programs are also beginning to better reflect the demographics of their students.

“Too much of environmental planning and policy focuses on wilderness and rural areas,” says Julian Agyeman, professor and chairman of the department of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “Yet most students’ lives are lived in the urban environment.”

Mr. Agyeman’s department is one of the pioneers of urban environmental studies — it was founded in 1973 by Herman Field, who had been planning director for the university’s school of medicine from 1961 to 1972. Writing some years later about why he created the program, he said, “I was appalled by the mindless despoiling of the physical environment essential to any quality of life, urban or otherwise.”

The University of Colorado’s program began in 2003 with money from the Department of Education, but expanded in 2007 with a five-year National Science Foundation grant to finance 26 doctoral students, according to the program’s director, Anu Ramaswami, a professor of environmental engineering. The program has about the same number of master’s students.

In New York, City College announced in October that it would begin a master’s program in sustainability in the urban environment. The plan is to enroll 18 to 20 students the first year, says Latif Jiji, the program’s director, and students will be able to focus either on architecture — sustainability issues relating to buildings and parks — or engineering, where recycling and clean power will be major subjects.

But as with most such programs, the emphasis will be interdisciplinary. “The philosophy is that the problems these people are going to face are really complex,” Mr. Jiji says. “They don’t fit into nice little categories. We want people with different backgrounds to work together.”

Like other students in Colorado’s multidisciplinary program, Meghan Bernard is working with a city — in her case, Broomfield, northwest of Denver — as she pursues her master’s in engineering. Much of the work has involved crunching numbers to come up with a baseline greenhouse-gas inventory for Broomfield — the climate-related costs of transportation, shelter, food and other aspects of urban life. But now she will be working with residents to develop an action plan for improving the city’s carbon footprint.

“I don’t see myself as an engineer or a policy person,” Ms. Bernard says. “I enjoy the hard numbers, but the engagement part is important for me as well.”

Mr. Pattison’s area of concentration is public policy — he’s been working with the university on analyzing its carbon footprint and developing a climate action plan, and with his class work done he will soon be starting a job as the university’s sustainability officer for its downtown campus. But as he put it, the program has not involved “just sitting in a room full of policy geeks.”

“Here you are taking classes with engineers and planners, and hearing about different things — it’s like, ‘Wow, that wasn’t even on my radar screen.’ ”

New York Times Article

By: Henry Fountain