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Harvard Needs an Urban Studies Department

By Aimee K. Choi, Contributing Opinion Writer
Aimee K. Choi ’27, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Matthews Hall.

Coming from South Korea, where intensely law-abiding citizens do not dare to set foot on the road before the pedestrian light turns green, the norm of jaywalking in Harvard Square took some time to adjust to. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to learn that despite its supposedly disruptive effects, for some urban planners, ubiquitous jaywalking signals success at prioritizing pedestrians over vehicles.

This difference is one of many I have noticed about urban living in Cambridge. A myriad of unfamiliar systems of public transit, streets, and buildings in this new environment left me fascinated by the culture-specific nature of urban design.

For an undecided freshman scrambling to explore potential concentrations, fascination meant opportunity — an opportunity to explore the field of urban studies. But amidst the scramble of course registration, I was confused to learn that Urban Studies was not among the 50 concentrations and 49 secondaries offered at the College.

It is time for Harvard to establish an Urban Studies department.

Urban studies epitomizes Harvard’s interdisciplinary mission. As a student in a first-year seminar about the subject, I’ve learned about topics ranging from symbols of power and fascism in Nazi architecture to the tensions between environmental activism and public housing projects. These ideas transcend departmental boundaries and connect seemingly unrelated corners of society, embodying the liberal arts education that Harvard promises to offer.

Urban studies is also at the core of the most pressing socioeconomic and environmental problems that Harvard is committed to addressing — particularly the climate crisis. Sustainable urban design is fundamental to reducing our buildings’ carbon footprint, planning green spaces, and making green transportation options available. A comprehensive response to the climate crisis requires urban planning as an integral part of Harvard’s agenda.

In light of the glaring relevance of this field, every college in the Ivy League offers urban studies as a major or minor — every college, that is, except Harvard.

Outside of urban planning and design programs at the Graduate School of Design, the Harvard Mellon Urban Initiative and the Bloomberg Center for Cities seem to support urban studies on the broader campus. However, these resources lack the centralization or accessibility to undergraduates of a full department. HMUI supports “public events, exhibitions, course activities, community engagement, and workshops,” while BCC primarily focuses on research, training, and collaboration with city leaders. Both are a far cry from conventional academic departments that offer dedicated faculty, classes, and degrees for undergraduates.

Demand for undergraduate urban studies education certainly exists at Harvard. In recent years, a group of students formed the Harvard Undergraduate Urban Sustainability Lab as a hub for urban studies on campus, and others have crafted their own special concentrations to pursue the field.

Special concentrations have often been a preliminary step to establishing an academic department at Harvard: Dramatic studies and global health were popular topics for special concentrators before the advent of the Theater, Dance, and Media concentration and Global Health and Health Policy secondary. Harvard can meet a similarly unmet academic need with an Urban Studies concentration or secondary.

While the argument for an Urban Studies department may sound strange coming from a student considering many concentrations, that is precisely the point. For someone like me, whose interests are somewhat scattered, the lack of an Urban Studies department eliminates the possibility of pursuing the subject at all.

College should be a place where students get to tap into every bit of curiosity they have for a field of study. Undergraduates should not have to rule out potential interests because of the school’s lack of available concentration pathways — especially at a college like Harvard, which prides itself on its academic resources.

Harvard should support students wishing to explore the ever-relevant subject of urban studies. Doing so will enhance students’ understanding of the liberal arts, equip them with tools to resolve grave threats to sustainability and quality of life — and teach them to feel less ashamed the next time they jaywalk.

Aimee K. Choi ’27, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Matthews Hall.

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