Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

What is Urban Studies?

As a college student, I am endlessly required to inform people of my chosen course of study. The discussion always takes a decidedly analytical bent as I try to explain what Urban Studies is. Majoring in a course of study that most people are not familiar with creates an awkward situation where one must be descriptive without overindulgence. For those of us who are drawn to Urban Studies for the very fact that it can’t be summed up in a simple and categorized manner, this leads to a hasty decision between simplifying what we find intellectually stimulating or delving in to see how far we can get. Inevitably, the keyword that listeners always pick up on is “urban planning/design.” 

I spent the majority of my time as an Urban Studies undergrad responding to the steady stream of “Ohhh, you mean urban planning” with a nod in the resigned affirmative – especially with the more aged subset of questioners. But I’ve completely shaken off this habit of late because of a recent realization: planning is bogging down municipal governance in endless and eventually irrelevant political battles and standing in the way of efficient city-building.

The city of the future, the city that I study, isn’t found in its room covered in a pale, cold sweat from making plans all day only to scrap them tomorrow and begin anew; that is the city of overabundant planning – the city of today.  Once a city’s price point is hit with developer’s incentive package, urban planning efforts bend to the will of monied developers anyways – the height limit on buildings in Palo Alto is an excellent example and the Redwood City Saltworks Project will eventually provide another.

Much like people, there are two types of cities: planners and doers. The planners all sit around and scribble down notes as the doers steer the course. The planners even have a jargony word for those steering the course: “case studies.” For me, it’s this steering that Urban Studies is about. Training leaders who will make new connections, take risks and reap rewards as they lead cities in the future and push off the social inequities and environmental catastrophes created by the generations before us. Why haven’t you heard of “urban studies?” Because it is only a recent reaction to how things have fallen apart. 



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