Sunday, April 14th, 2013
Camus said that the ultimate question of philosophy is: Why not kill yourself? For urban studies, that question might be: Why start yet another urban studies institute? This is certainly top of mind as New York University trumpeted a $40 million gift from Donald Marron to form and endow the Marron Institute on Cities in the Urban Environment.
In part, as Marron Institute Director Revesz notes, it is to bring order to the large number of other urban oriented or related institutes already at NYU, saying, “The Marron Institute isn’t just another center to add to the mix—it isn’t a competitor, it is a convener for these centers. What we have found is that the University’s scholars and centers often work in disciplinary silos and haven’t always taken advantage of important synergies we know are there. The Marron Institute is a unique effort to solve that problem. Our University-wide vantage point allows us to connect and support existing research from the Medical School to the Law School, the social sciences to the data sciences and everything in between.”
While the research agenda of the Marron Institute isn’t yet finalized, one idea that has been put forward comes from Paul Romer, NYU Professor of Economics, Director of the Urbanization Project at the NYU Stern Business School, an affiliated scholar at the Marron Institute. It’s called the “city as unit of analysis.” The idea is that as the factory as unit of analysis birthed chemical engineering and the firm as unit of analysis birthed the business school, examining the city as unit of analysis potentially opens to the door to the birth of an entirely new academic discipline spawning out of work in a variety of current ones.
As we sweep into a time of increasing urbanization globally, he believes the time is ripe for this field of study to emerge into its own. “It’s no surprise chemical engineering developed when it did,” notes Romer. “It was when we were building a lot of chemical plants.” Similarly, as we are building, rapidly expanding, and radically transforming the cities of the world, there’s potentially demand for a new discipline of the city.
In 1910 only 10% of the world’s population was urban. By 2050 nearly 75% of the world’s population will be urban. We are undergoing perhaps the most profound demographic shift in the history of mankind, going from, as Romer puts it, “living like packs of wolves to living more like ants or termites.” This is a shift that will be largely completed during the next century.
Supposing this new discipline did emerge, what would that mean practically? It’s too early to say, but Romer offers a couple of potential examples rooted in how abstractions could be applied to the city from other disciplines. For example, startups are important to the overall health of an industry. So could “startup” cities play a similar role in the urban landscape? A recent, though failed, proposal for so called “charter cities” (in the manner of charter schools) in Honduras shows how this might possibly play out in real life. The failure of this proposal isn’t even necessarily a knock against it, as there is a high expected failure rate for startups.
Another application is potentially applying business bankruptcy concepts to city. Corporate bankruptcies not only restructure debts, they ensure assets are allocated productively. But municipal bankruptcy today is almost entirely about paying what is owed. “How can we make sure that civic assets end up used more efficiently in municipal bankruptcy?” Romer asks.
Romer would like to see the study of cities develop into a recognized academic discipline, a “School of the City” perhaps, analogous to the “School of Business.” He thinks there’s potential for the Marron Institute to evolve into such a degree granting institution.
Director Revesz is carefully non-committal on this point, saying only, “We know that the study of cities will be central to the planet’s future, and NYU is poised to be a global leader in the field. We are working with faculty from across the University to think through a range of new approaches to teaching about cities. I’m not sure yet what shape that will take. But I do know that it will not follow the path of traditional urban studies program, which typically study one facet of the urban ecosystem while failing to understand the whole urban environment.”
Given the formation of a new institute and announcement of a $40 million grant to back it, it’s somewhat odd that they don’t yet have a more firmly developed concept of what is they actually want to accomplish.
However, with its prime location in Manhattan making it possibly the world’s ultimate urban university, NYU would seem to be in a nearly ideal place geographically to study the city. This is particularly true since the Marron Institute plans to integrate NYU’s global network universities in places like Shanghai and Abu Dhabi to ensure a global perspective. There is also already a ton of urban oriented work being done at NYU through the various institutes that are already up and running there.
So while ultimately the jury is still out on whether or not they can answer the ultimate question of urban studies compellingly, the field is certainly wide open enough for the Marron Institute to stake their claim.