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Three urban studies students
Zoe Macomber, left, Lindsey Hu and Charlie Colasurdo put together their own urban studies curriculum using Duke’s “Program II” option. Photo by Lacey Chylack

If You Build It ... They Will Study It

Initiative for Urban Studies makes the case for a new city-focused major

When Charlie Colasurdo ’23, Li Chen “Lindsay” Hu ’23 and Zoe Macomber enrolled as Duke freshmen, they had an interest in cities and urban life as both a field of study and possible future career. But each discovered that Duke did not offer what they were looking for – a program focused on urban studies like those at some other top-tier schools.

So they set about building one themselves. After finding each other while asking around about who had similar interests, Macomber, Colasurdo and Hu joined forces to form the Duke Initiative for Urban Studies. Using Duke’s “Program II,” in which students create their own specialized major, they crafted the beginnings of a curriculum to study the way people live in cities. It has already yielded a course, a conference and an academic mindset.

“This is an amazing group of students that has really pushed faculty to see across different departments to understand the issues,” says Paul B. Jaskot, an art, art history & visual studies professor who serves as the initiative's primary faculty adviser. “The energy around this has had major curriculum impact and it absolutely would not have happened without the urging and energy of the students who started it.” Indeed, it’s already having an impact in different classrooms at Duke.

“When I got into this, no one at Duke seemed interested in the built environment,” says Hu. “It was more about humans’ interaction with the natural environment. But the timing is ripe for Duke to have conversations about how cities form networks in this age of globalization.”

“The future is urban” is a mantra for the initiative’s members, who point to United Nations estimates that more than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by the middle of this century. And cities everywhere have many of the same issues – affordability, livability, mobility.

“The Initiative’s goal is to build awareness and even cultivate interest in this space,” says Jerome P. Lynch, Vinik Dean at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, who has met with the students leading the initiative and been impressed.  “As our Duke students get ready to go out into the world, they are wondering what role they will play in shaping the future of society, including urban environments.  Whether it be work they do professionally, or as urban citizens, they will need to know the issues cities face today as they wonder how they can help communities navigate them for a more just future.” 

The Initiative for Urban Studies began as a series of discussion meetings among interested students in 2021. Because the Coronavirus pandemic was still on, they started with outdoor meetings – socially distanced on the steps of Duke University Chapel. Among the group’s initial goals was to encourage faculty to adopt an urban mindset in teaching existing classes, and they’ve had some success at that.

“A lot of faculty, after we talk to them, say, ‘I am doing work that’s closely related to this but I never thought about it that way,’” says Hu. “We want to give enough of a nudge to change their mentality in how they see things.”

The initiative’s principles also started up a student-run Program II class, Urban Studies 101: Breaking the Duke Bubble. Colasurdo taught the class for the first three semesters before graduating in May 2023. It was his first time teaching and he describes the experience as “intimidating,” in part because some of his pupils were older than he was.

“We looked at public spaces, the way people move,” says Colasurdo, who currently works at a real-estate development firm in Durham. “The Bryan Center was being renovated and that was part of the discussion, and we did a walking tour of downtown Durham. Students came from disciplines running the gamut – engineering, econ, math – and from all around the world. We drew from their experiences.”

Hu has also graduated and is pursuing a master’s degree at MIT, while Macomber will graduate in the spring of 2024. But there is a framework for the Initiative for Urban Studies to continue, with a five-member board already in place. The initiative has also spun off a separate student club, Our Urban Future, started by Macomber.

“We distinguish the Initiative for Urban Studies apart from urban planning,” says Macomber. “What we’re interested in is urban studies, and it can relate to any major at Duke. We have a chemistry major on our executive team now. It’s interdisciplinary, not just about government structure.”

Macomber is also planning the initiative’s first conference, Build Better Cities, in partnership with Southern Urbanism Quarterly. Scheduled for Feb. 10, 2024, the conference will bring together urban practitioners and students to discuss urban solutions. Duke’s interdisciplinary approach to academics, as well as its new Office of Climate and Sustainability, makes it just the right setting.

“Duke is strong in public policy, the environment, engineering, and also has a huge health system,” says Hu. “So do we leverage Duke’s various schools and approaches to bring urban issues into the conversation? There’s not yet as much interaction about this as we want, but the resources are there to build conversations around urbanism.”

The initiative has 144 individuals on its mailing list, with students pursuing more than a dozen projects, including a proposal for Pratt to offer an urban resilience certificate program. Longer-term, the group hopes the initiative will develop into a free-standing unit that sponsors more academic programming. Much of the architecture is already in place with classes such as Sustainable Cities and Urban Design in the Nicholas School of the Environment.

“Studying cities should be non-partisan work,” says Colasurdo. “If you live in New York, you could be a deejay or banker. But the same things are still relevant to you about safety, affordability, transportation. These are universal issues that should be unifying for everyone.”