I just learned about this exciting new interdisciplinary focus. With funding from the Mellon Foundation, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Washington University in St. Louis, and NYU have recently launched “urban humanities” initiatives to create collaborations between scholars of urban environmental design and the humanities. Their initiatives appear practice-oriented, meant to illuminate new approaches for understanding and addressing issues of urban environmental sustainability, such as development-induced displacement, socioeconomic inequalities, climate change, and ecological degradation. Animated by the knowledge that more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas and that “the world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history,” these initiatives all ring a tone of urgency. Highlighting the importance of rethinking current approaches to urban environmental design and study, they emphasize the need for a new paradigm that brings together the cultural analyses of humanities disciplines with the spatial tools, design knowledge, and social science research of urban architecture and planning.
UC Berkeley wrote a very readable “manifesto” regarding their approach to Urban Humanities: J. Wolch and A. Cascardi “The Global Urban Humanities Initiative: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design in Pedagogical Innovation”
Some of its main points are:
- Collaboration between the humanities and urban studies and design can “inject questions of materiality and place into humanistic discourses on space,” including use of geospatial visualization tools.
- In turn, the humanities can help urban planning and design professionals/scholars “focus … on individuals who experience the built environment, modify it, and reshape it”; this includes the effects of fugitive art (like this) or other visual, aural, tactile urban expressions that may be new, unrecognized, transitory, or controversial. I was in Milan in January and saw a number of these vehement protestations to the coming World Expo, possibly contesting the “new energy coursing through cosmopolitan Milan”; a parallel may be the Highland Park, LA protests against gentrification (also see this LA Times article and the first image on the Marketplace York & Fig website).
- Urban Humanities can help “produce new opportunities for urban transformation, civic engagement, and participatory practice” that address the challenge of sustainable environmental growth as megacities around the globe continue to draw more and more people to its cultural and economic centers.
The article offers Mexico City’s vertical gardens (video below) created by VerdMX as one example of the intersection of environmental humanism and urban architecture in a megacity.
This new interdisciplinary field is thrilling to discover because it speaks to the cross-disciplinary focus of my dissertation and some of the learning goals I have for my new class, Mapping Stories of the City. So excited that I started a Twitter List for Urban Humanities. One of the things I was most struck by in the UC Berkeley manifesto/article is its observation that identities are mutable not just in time, but also through space. It made me think of Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics, in which he makes the case that a “poetics of world making” is a dynamic expression of cultural identity and a potential springboard for social transformation in public spaces. The key to transformative world making, he suggests, lies in the “poesis of scene making,” public-generating acts of expression that may not be recognized as such, but are critical to the survival and expression of marginalized groups. By recognizing these poetic acts as forms of public making, we may expand our understanding of different histories, different socio-cultural formations, and different ways of being. Publics and Counterpublics may be one of the critical theoretical “bridges” for thinking about the connections between humanities and urbanism. Warner offers Urban Humanists such a rich opening for thinking about the everyday practice of urban living via an interdisciplinary lens.
Final word, I was also excited to find that the Association of American Geographers will be turning out a new journal, GeoHumanities, in the near future, and also to find this new online Journal of Urban Cultural Studies. If we’re lucky, maybe we shall see a journal emerge from the Mellon-funded initiatives as well.