Shaping tomorrow's cities: SCARP and Geography introduce an innovative Major in Urban Studies

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The School of Community and Regional Planning and the Department of Geography at UBC has introduced a Major in Urban Studies — the first of its kind in British Columbia.

For the first time in human history, the majority of the world's population lives in cities. And over the next century, the world’s net population growth will take place in urban regions and nearly every aspect of economic, social, political, technological and environmental change is now urbanized. Now, more than ever, we need people who are trained to understand and shape urbanization from the public, private and civic sectors.

Addressing this need, the School of Community and Regional Planning and the Department of Geography at UBC has introduced a Major in Urban Studies — the first of its kind in British Columbia. This major, which launched earlier this year, represents the unique synergies between the Faculty of Applied Science and the Faculty of Arts.  

Led by co-directors Dr. James Connolly, associate professor at SCARP and Dr. Elvin Wyly, professor at the Department of Geography, the Major in Urban Studies was conceived in response to a surge in demand by students interested in solving the existing urban issues. 

While the Urban Studies program has existed at UBC since 1971, its formal conception as a new major builds upon the success of UBC's existing Minor in Urban Studies and marks a significant milestone in addressing the multifaceted challenges presented by the urbanization of our planet.

“This program differs from other urban studies majors, because it isn’t just a collection of urban classes that already exist at the university. It's a combination of those existing classes and purpose-built courses designed to balance the breadth and depth of capacity needed to act in contemporary settings,” said Connolly. “We’ve tried to provide a broad container for all these issues — economic innovation, social and cultural change, science and technology, sustainability and climate change — and incorporate the depth that one needs to fully engage in a specific area of city making.”

As the world increasingly and rapidly migrates to urban regions, cities have become central to people’s lives. This major acknowledges this shift and, given it's unique in BC, positions itself as a key player in tackling the critical questions and challenges that emerge from an urbanized world. The major involves five distinct areas of specialization, each addressing a crucial dimension of urban planning:

  • Indigenous Urban Futures: Focuses on Indigeneity and the city. 
  • Nature of Cities: Explores the environmental effects of urbanization. 
  • Globalizing Cities: Examines policy and socioeconomical impacts. 
  • Technology and Cities: Analyzes the impact of new data and technology on urban living and planning. 
  • Cities and Communities: Explores the meaning of community and participation in urban planning.

Students currently enrolled in the program spoke to the strengths of the new major. “Urban planning is a unique field that requires a lot more than knowing basic geography. There is so much that goes into it that never really sees the spotlight, and the major really does a great job at highlighting it,” said Matthew Chen, co-president of UBC’s undergraduate urban planning club, CAPACity, and a current student in the program. “The program is extremely diverse and offers courses covering the many facets of the subject, which is an amazing way for students to get involved and engaged!”

The major also incorporates practical experience through community-engaged capstone projects and the opportunity for co-op placements. The set-up of this major included conversation with employers to set students up for success and equip them with the applicable real-world skills through the major.  

“You need people who can sit down at a table and fully conceptualize the bigger picture of the problems of equity, climate change, Indigenous reconciliation and more,” said Connolly. “We need graduates who know how to speak with diverse communities, then can take that information and bring it into the work we’re doing in shaping cities.”  

Connolly’s hopes for the future of the program include facilitating closer connections within the cohort itself to have a strong operating community within the major. Long-term goals include the set-up of an external advisory board that will help the program be more responsive to the changing conditions around us. The urban studies major aims to be a home-base for urban scholarship and a landing pad for all the urban issues existing today.  

In a world where every issue is increasingly becoming an ‘urban issue,’ there is no better time to be an urban studies student. As the first cohort of students embarks on this journey, the Major in Urban Studies is poised to leave its mark on the future of city-making and urban sustainability, and stands as a testament to the Faculty of Applied Science’s commitment to addressing the complex and evolving landscape of urbanization.  

As Connolly said, “The Urban Studies major is very responsive to the current dynamics of working in cities. If the big picture of cities draws you in and makes you want to know how you can bring a positive change to cities, then the Urban Studies major is the place for you.”

Applications for the 2024/25 cohort of students open in January. Interested students can read more about the program on SCARP's Urban Studies webpage, and co-op employers can visit the UBC Arts Co-op website to learn more about hiring UBC co-op students. 

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