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U of T’s School of Cities to take urban research and collaboration to new heights

A crosswalk in Santiago, Chile (photo Mauro Mora via Unsplash)

University of Toronto researchers have started to look for ways to leverage the School of Cities to connect with colleagues across the university to approach urban issues from multiple angles.

There are a number of School of Cities initiatives in the works that will help to make those connections, including the Urban Genome Project, which brings together experts from disciplines like engineering, sociology and architecture to understand the way neighbourhoods change and develop using data, and the Urban Lab where students, faculty and industry partners can work together on solving urban problems.

The School of Cities will also be a hub for U of T’s urban-focused scholars to collaborate and add new dimensions to their current research.

“We're all working on common problems that relate to our research areas and relate to the different experiences we've had in working in different parts of the city,” says Daniel Silver, an associate sociology professor at U of T Scarborough and one of the leads of the Urban Genome Project.

“We talk about that a lot as an ideal of the University of Toronto but to create a place where it will be built into the basic self-understanding and organized principles – that's an exciting proposition.”

 

Marieme Lo, director of African studies and associate professor of African and women and gender studies, looks forward to collaborating with members of different faculties “to tackle complex challenges of urban transformation and development in the 21st century.”

Lo’s current research, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, looks at African women entrepreneurs across several cities and three continents. She says the School of Cities has exposed her to faculty members with shared research interests who can help her expand the scope of her work to include academics, activists, policymakers and entrepreneurs.

“It's exciting to see colleagues who are working on issues of globalization or urbanization, urban planning and economics, and others who would be really wonderful colleagues to work with on this long-standing project,” she says.

She is planning an international conference in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019. It's “an opportunity for students and colleagues to get a feel for the dynamics of urban transformations and the daily rhythm of a bustling African city,” says Lo.

Shoshanna Saxe, an assistant professor of civil engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, says her research into the environmental outcomes of large-scale infrastructure projects would greatly benefit from collaboration with other disciplines.

She cites rail infrastructure as an example.

“Colleagues in geography look at transportation as well as planning questions, but then there's also questions about people's quality and experience of life,” she says. “Is the new station near somebody's home? How does that improve their quality of life and equity across the city, or if it doesn't, where are the opportunities to do better?

“I think these are interdisciplinary questions that need answers from different perspectives.”

Read about the School of Cities announcement

Read about initiatives underway at the School of Cities

 

Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor in the department of geography & planning in the Faculty of Arts & Science, is researching buildings that have multiple uses – public and private.  They include a building currently under construction that integrates a women and children’s homeless shelter with a condo building and Maple Leaf Gardens, which houses an athletic centre and a grocery store.

“Folks who understand the architecture side of this can provide insight on how in the future we might design these buildings differently, people from the business school can help with the economics of these types of arrangements,” he says. “People in engineering, public health and medicine who have extensive experience in implementation studies can try to evaluate, work and collaborate on how to understand the success of these types of initiatives.”  

For a discipline like architecture, the School of Cities will not only allow the faculty to tap into the diverse knowledge that exists at the university, but it will also help expose other disciplines to the work of its architects and designers, says Liat Margolis, associate professor of landscape architecture at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.

“Other faculties and scholars would find that a collaboration with us would be something they've never encountered before – the ability to visually map a place, to visualize natural systems and dynamics, to understand how that affects communities, and how a new future or a new place is materialized,” she says.

These collaborative research projects will explore urban issues within Toronto and the wider GTA, utilizing the expertise of urban scholars at the downtown Toronto campus, as well as U of T Mississauga and U of T Scarborough.

“We have the opportunity to look at Mississauga, a city that is younger than downtown Toronto, and see how you can evolve a city along slightly different lines and have different challenges and opportunities,” says Rhonda McEwen, associate professsor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information & Technology at U of T Mississauga and an associate professor in the Faculty of Information.

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One of the big issues affecting most cities around the world is rising inequality. David Hulchanski, a professor in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, has found that the growing gap between rich and poor is driving lower-income residents to the edges of the city, and beyond to the suburbs and neighbouring municipalities.

“Geographic or spatial inequality is a very under-researched topic,” says Richard Florida, University Professor and director of cities at the Martin Prosperity Institute at U of T’s Rotman School of Management.

The School of Cities will provide an opportunity to look at the complex issue of inequality using resources from across the university.

“Once we place the city as a unit of inquiry, a subject of a school, then we begin to elevate those issues in the eyes of the public, experts and critical leaders,” he says. “We need to dissect the things that create prosperity, inequality, unity – our cities are really containers for economic growth and division, and that's hopefully what the school will do.”

Addressing issues like inequality means giving a voice to marginalized and underrepresented communities, says Eve Tuck, associate professor of critical race and Indigenous studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

“For the School of Cities to have integrity, it will need to prioritize the needs of Black communities, Indigenous communities, and immigrant communities of colour in this city, especially by addressing housing, policing, access to health care, and schooling,” she says.

This means not only providing communities with resources and expertise, but working in partnership to address the urban issues that affect them, says McEwen.

“Academics working in conjunction with members of the communities they research with – not just as research sites but as peers who work with us to evolve the research – is a different approach, a different philosophy to the research where we're talking about inclusion with the people who are on the ground living these experiences in our cities,” she says.

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