(Desperately seeking) An orientation to the field

I just started a wonderful job in the very different field of health research and, for the first time in my life, am earning a comfortable living, so rushing headlong into another graduate program for urban studies, even part time, just doesn’t make sense for me at this point.  Fortunately, there now exists a flourishing blogosphere focused on American urban studies which I’ve alluded to, with a flavor for every persuasion.  Journalists like Ray Suarez, nonprofit leaders and former elected officials have all contributed significantly to discourse on the American metropolis.  In fact, modern urban studies begins with Jane Jacobs, who never even earned a college degree, whose economics treatises were among her most influential work but in which nary a quantitative algorithm may be found.

This hasn’t stopped me from fantasizing in my leisure time about getting a PhD so I could devote my life to research on cities.  What’s astonished me as I’ve learned more about the field is how incredibly fragmented the field is.  There’s urban economics, urban sociology, urban planning, metropolitan planning, urban informatics, demography.  Race relations, transportation, social work, migration and immigration, public health, public policy, real estate economics, criminology and criminal justice, nutrition and even agriculture — there is room for study of the city in an ever-expanding array of disciplines.  William Julius Wilson and Saskia Sassen come from sociology, AnnaLee Saxenion is now dean of an i-School, Ed Glaeser is at the Harvard economics department, and Michael Porter studied inner city business from Harvard’s b-school.  Thanks to the fragmentation of the academy, trying to identify the optimal range of programs has not been a trivial effort.

My own educational background is a BA in political theory and a (rather unhelpfully named) MS in information.  (Coming up with a one-sentence explanation of the latter for friends and family has been a two-year challenge, and I’m still not sure how well it translates for the layperson.)  The emerging field of urban informatics, or the much more established one of public policy, would each seem to provide a logical home if it were not for my severe intellectual attention deficit disorder.

Maybe this disciplinary homelessness helps explain another phenomenon Aaron Renn writes about, in his latest post at Urbanophile:

“(W)hen it comes to understanding the function cities and what makes them successful, we are still in that pre-scientific phase.
In 2008 economist Joe Cortright did a study for CEOs for Cities called City Success: Theories of Urban Prosperity that examined no fewer than 18 different theories about urban success. These range from business climate to distinctiveness to industry clusters. Clearly, there is no consensus yet.
“The other problem is that this question of urban success is fundamentally normative. It concerned with the type of communities we want to have and the type of world we think we should live in. Unlike describing the behavior of light, there’s little agreement on what urban success looks like. In that regard, it’s unsurprising there’s little consensus on how to get there.
“Indeed, the very theories of success that are promulgated often leave the distinct impression that the strategy itself is actually the goal… (P)eople who claim their policies are right invariably also claim they will bring the greatest benefit…
“Given this situation, it’s unsurprising that various camps of urban policy advocates spend most of their time talking past each other. They inhabit entirely different worlds. What we at best hope for at the moment is at least some awareness of the true state of affairs, so that we don’t see all others who don’t share our own convictions as unscientific savages, but rather as fellow grovelers for the truth in a ‘hundred schools of thought’age in which a true science of cities has yet to emerge.”

There’s definitely room for scientists to attempt to bring order to this chaos, but with urban thinkers scattered across an ever-growing galaxy of departments, are they finding common ground?  Are they able to identify a canon, a shared fount of authority?  Are they even talking, or listening, to one another?


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