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Judith Martin, director of the Urban Studies program, researches traditional urban geographical questions, landscape and cultural concerns such as historical preservation and urban design, and, increasingly, comparative urban issues.
Putting the U in urban affairs
Co-directors of the new University Metropolitan Consortium
provide decades of experience in urban affairs and engagement
By Jim Thorp
Brief, Dec. 13, 2006
The University of Minnesota has long maintained well-established connections with the state's rural populations, thanks in large part to its statewide network of coordinate campuses, extension offices, and research and outreach centers. By contrast, the needs of city and suburban citizens are quickly outstripping the current University resources dedicated to metropolitan issues.
That's a problem, according to geography professor John Adams, since the state's population has become almost completely urbanized.
"Sixty percent of the state lives in the Twin Cities commuting area, and the rest of the state is a mosaic of city-centered regions," says Adams, who also serves as a core faculty member in the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program in the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. "For half a century, the U has been connected to the rural parts of the state, but we lagged in doing it for the metro areas."
WHY URBAN STUDIES?
"Cities are inherently interesting places. They're always changing--you can't write a formula for it. When you have so many people in a relatively small area, their behaviors and actions impact each other. People who live in big cities are people of great faith--it's a miracle that cities function as well as they do!"
- Judith Martin, director, Urban Studies Program
"In other countries history and geography are core subjects in elementary and secondary schools. In this country, we dabble in history and don't really teach geography. We seldom address how housing, land use and transportation issues are related, or how runoff from roofs, streets and parking lots affects water quality and the life forms it supports. If you go after issues piecemeal, you fail to understand the systems of which they form a part."
- John Adams, Department of Geography
To help remedy this situation, Adams and fellow geography and urban studies professor Judith Martin were tapped in early November to co-direct the new University Metropolitan Consortium--part of the University's larger Urban Agenda that includes working with other research universities to study urban issues nationally. The two have decades of experience helping to address the challenges of urban development and city living--and both agree that the University must become more actively engaged in urban affairs.
"This discussion began a few years ago," says Martin, who directs the U's urban studies program. "People began asking, 'Why is the University not more visible in the debates and discussions of what's going on in this metro area?' We have lots of activity around urban issues on campus, but it's never really risen to a high level of visibility in the Twin Cities."
With strong support from Metropolitan Council chair and University Regent Peter Bell and spurred by President Robert Bruininks' push to transform the U into a top-three public research university, a new metropolitan consortium was proposed to coordinate and refocus University efforts in the urban arena.
"We have numerous centers and departments that touch on urban issues," Adams says. "The president's strategic positioning agenda is to rally these resources and redirect them toward the issues that are most relevant today."
The trick is to refocus these efforts without losing existing momentum or interest.
John Adams is a professor in the geography department who also teaches in the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs Master of Urban and Regional Planning Program.
"We know the issues we've worked on in the past, but what our emerging strengths are remains to be seen," Adams says. "We need to identify the people and pockets of expertise we have, then identify our priorities, and then figure out what activities support those priorities and will work best to get something done. I'd rather we focus on doing a few things really well than doing a bunch of things with little impact."
Adams and Martin agree it's premature to say what issues the consortium will focus on, especially since they won't convene their first meeting until January. But the report from the consortium's interim steering committee identifies several possible areas of expertise, and Martin sees a few obvious points of engagement.
"The Center for Transportation Studies and the Metropolitan Design Center, for example, are doing amazing work outside the U," she says. "And the UMore Park project plays right to our expertise: Can we do it better?"
Martin says the consortium--and the U's renewed emphasis on interdisciplinary scholarship--should also benefit existing centers, departments and faculty, as well.
"Many of us start and end our careers within our own discipline," Martin says. "But if we find ourselves in an environment where resources are harder to come by, it makes sense for us to ask how we can collaborate to work smarter."