What makes a city a good place to live?

That’s the question at the core of the new MA in Sustainable Urban Development, as Euan Hague, professor and chair of the Geography Department, explains:

“When we designed this program, we were careful to make ‘sustainable’ an adjective, to peg it to best practices in urban development. When we talk about sustainability, we’re talking about making cities better, for today and tomorrow—better in their design, housing, transportation, employment opportunities, energy consumption, cleanliness—better in every way, better for everyone.”

Joe Schwieterman, a professor in the School of Public Service, echoes that idea: “It’s easy to get abstract and emotional talking about sustainability, so we made this program highly practical: Our students learn how to navigate a complex urban environment in order to make a positive difference.  DePaul’s great urban tradition makes this degree uniquely ours.”

[From left: Hugh Bartling, Alec Brownlow, Euan Hague, Julie Hwang]

Big-Picture Perspective

The MA program reflects the principles laid out in the 1987 United Nation’s report, “Our Common Future” (also called the Brundtland Report), which argued that sustainability has three parts: economic development, environmental stewardship and social equality.

“A sustainable urban landscape is a win-win-win scenario,” says Alec Brownlow, an associate professor in geography.  “When people hear the word ‘sustainable’ they think ‘green this’ and ‘green that’—but the concept also has to include the other two components because without economic growth and social justice a sustainable environment is impossible. Sustainability is all about a responsible and fair use of resources, including labor. The ‘green city’ can’t be only for the rich, only for those who can afford it. Social justice is the real litmus test of sustainability. Given our mission, I can’t think of any university better suited for moving this idea forward.”

The big picture is apparent in the MA’s interdisciplinary structure that pulls from urban planning, public policy, sociology, geography, public service management, environmental studies, public health and real estate. Hugh Bartling, an associate professor in public policy studies, describes the way this works in the program:

“Right now, there are very few MA programs like ours—very few programs that explore sustainability in all its complexity. Our students identify a site in Chicago and propose initiatives based on environmental conditions such air and water quality, economic conditions such as businesses and occupancy rates, and social conditions such as affordable housing. Often, and not surprisingly, these three are out-of-balance. For example, gentrification will price people out of a neighborhood, but local businesses still need affordable labor, so people have to commute a longer distance, which increases pollution and traffic congestion.”

DePaul’s commitment to experiential learning supports the MA’s integrated practical and big-picture focus, says Howard Rosing, executive director of the Irwin W. Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning: "Our students engage in hands-on work in Chicago with a critical understanding of the relationship among the social, economic and environmental components that make a city sustainable."

A few of the places students can work as interns include Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Chicago City Hall and the Small Business Center, the Chicago Chamber of Commerce, the Center for Neighborhood Technology and Habitat for Humanity. 

Real-World Skills
In the MA program, students learn to use geographic information systems (GIS) to analyze and map large data sets for presentation to the public.

“No one can work in urban planning without skills in GIS,” Hague contends.

“Every engineering company involved in environmental management makes digital maps. Every city, every village, every zoning department uses GIS. Every real estate company that’s rebuilding a neighborhood needs GIS as part of the design process. Every initiative has to be ‘sold’ through pictures that tell the story. We happen to be very, very good at that: In fact, DePaul is the leading provider of GIS-competent professionals in the city of Chicago.”

According to Julie Hwang associate professor in geography, GIS fits into the big-picture framework of sustainable urban development because it allows users to put together data that cuts across multiple parts. “Mapping can combine demographic data and environmental data, for example,” she says. “And people understand maps intuitively—they can actually see what’s going on—so GIS provides a way for stakeholders to talk to each other. Students in this program become proficient in using information technology to enhance understanding.” 

A Foothold in the Future

Of course, the definition of “good place to live” changes over time, as Hague argues:

“Sustainability is dynamic, and we need to ask questions constantly so we can keep moving the target. What else can we do? What else is an issue? What could become a new issue? In their careers, our students won’t dictate what an urban environment should look like; rather, they’ll work with an organization, or with a city’s planning department, or with an alderman, to decide what works best based on the everyday lives of people, neighborhood by neighborhood.”