Urban Ignorance: On Yale’s Lack of an Urban Studies Program
If there were ever a model city, it would be New Haven. And if there were ever an ideal place to study a city, it would be Yale. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight published in 2016 that New Haven and its associated metropolitan area was the most demographically representative in the United States. With an astonishing 93.2% similarity to the US’s demographic breakdown, New Haven became a microcosm, a model, and a standard.
In the mid-20th century, during an era of traumatic city transformations nationwide, New Haven received the largest amount of federal funding per capita for urban renewal of any city in America. Spent on sweeping “reforms” from neighborhood clearance to highway construction, this money created artificial crevices that tore the city into isolated, disconnected neighborhoods. Similar renewal plans in cities across the country suffered the same, now familiar consequences. The history of New Haven resembles the history of other cities across the country. The same goes for its contemporary issues.
Just like many cities around the country, New Haven suffers from rampant income inequality, harbors growing gentrification, confronts the complex issue of documented and undocumented immigration, and deals with a corporate entity inhabiting a swath of central city land. And Yale students should confront these problems, perhaps even within their courses of study. The global issues of overpopulation, slum growth, and urban migration are not particular to any existing major at Yale. Yale’s urbanized context cannot be ignored. It would seem practical then, if not obvious, that Yale would have a major for Urban Studies. Yet, since 1970, Yale College has offered no major, and students yearning to study the city have been thrown into a murky, nebulous system of separate concentrations and courses that many do not discover until it is too late.
This is not the case elsewhere. Columbia, UPenn, Princeton, and Cornell all have undergraduate programs or majors in Urban Studies. Even Dartmouth, nestled among villages rarely exceeding 10,000 people, announced a new Urban Studies minor last year. Yet Yale, despite such a tight connection to a significant city, makes no such recognition of an important field of study.
At several universities, Urban Studies is treated as an interdisciplinary field, combining classes from disciplines such as History, Architecture, and Environmental Studies. It is considered a social science that lies at the intersection of sociology, ethnography, economics, and design. It is an academic pathway to careers in urban planning, public service, real estate, and development.
Yale has several of these components: many of the aforementioned majors have a concentration in Urban Studies. Courses are offered within these fields with a focus on urbanism. But what Yale’s curriculum lacks is consistency and transparency. “Majoring” in Urban Studies requires an initiative not needed in traditional majors like Economics, Classics, or Art. Architecture professor Elihu Rubin was recently quoted in the Yale Daily News saying, “motivated students will seek out faculty and courses from across the University to flesh out their interests in Urban Studies.” This is a process not necessary for students in other fields at Yale and not necessary for Urban Studies students at other universities.
The Urban Studies-related courses that Yale does offer, such as “New Haven in the American City,” “Race, Class & Gender in the American City,” and “Study of the City,” are informative and eye-opening. But, unfortunately, there is no easy way to discover them. Cross-listing does occur, but it is still difficult to navigate these disparate courses. Only last year did an Urban Studies “bluebook” appear on the Urban Studies at Yale website.
This year, the School of Architecture introduced two new undergraduate courses in its Urban Studies concentration: Urban Lab I & II. Focusing on an urbanized world, Urban Lab I, which is offered this semester, draws upon a number of disciplines. The creation of these two courses is promising, but the Urban Lab is still part of the Architecture major, untied from and uncoordinated with classes beyond Rudolph Hall. For instance, both “Race, Class & Gender in the American City” and “New Haven and the American City,” two of Yale’s most popular Urban Studies courses, meet during the Urban Lab’s scheduled class time.
An Urban Studies major would allow for the creation of an interdisciplinary capstone, perhaps similar in scope to the Urban Lab, but bringing academic strands from across the university together to provide students with a holistic perspective on urbanism and Urban Studies. Students will need a multifaceted perspective to work on urban issues in the real world.
Without a formal space for students interested in studying cities, undergraduates have attempted to fill in the void by providing a space young urbanists. Now a year old, CITY Yale, the college’s only Urban Studies group, is hosting its third semester-long lecture series, inviting top urbanists from around the country to speak and host discussions with interested Yalies. Through speaker events, field trips, and film screenings, the group is attempting to develop a community of students who might collectively push for the development of an Urban Studies program.
Despite the lack of a formal program, one can’t deny the importance of the interaction between New Haven and Yale. The hard work of groups in Dwight Hall, as well as the benefits gained thanks to programs like New Haven Promise, should not be overlooked—but neither should the absence of an academic program focused on this relationship and other relevant urban issues. The creation of a workable Urban Studies program at Yale will not be easy. The process will involve undergraduates, graduate students, professors, alumni and administration officials working together, but this cannot be treated as an optional journey. It is long overdue.