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April 21, 2011 — Urban studies students take Manhattan

by Sean Bettam — Thursday, Apr 21, 2011

April 21, 2011
Sean Bettam

Urban studies professor Shauna Brail and her students take a break at a public housing basketball court in New York City's Harlem neighborhood. (Courtesy of Shauna Brail)

After studying urban issues in Toronto for six months, several students in an experiential learning course at Innis College spent a week in New York City to see how things are done there.

“I've read a lot about developments and initiatives and policies in New York, but it takes just walking around to really "get" how these have played out and are or aren't seen in everyday life,” said Eric Mutrie, a fourth-year urban geography and architecture student from Victoria College. “The city has a decidedly different buzz than Toronto.”

The course, led by Professor Shauna Brail of the urban studies program, examines how a city works by focusing on community development, urban planning, economic development and local governance. The seminar format is complemented with weekly internships at a range of urban-focused, non-profit organizations across Toronto such as offices of city councillors, the Regent Park Centre for Learning, urban planning departments, and economic development organizations.

However, by making New York City their classroom courtesy of the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Internationalized Course Modules program, the students developed an entirely different perspective on what they had been learning in Toronto.

Harlem resident Neal Shoemaker, right, leads urban studies students on a walking tour of the neighborhood during their visit. (Eric Mutrie)

“Our class is framed around Toronto as a case study showcase of urban topics and trends, drawing from each student's experience with a local internship,” said Mutrie, who put in his time at Spacing magazine. “Many of our internships and discussions draw on other cities for context or contacts, and New York is often one of these. Exploring New York and a number of its own urban institutions offered an opportunity to apply some of the topics and trends we'd learned to a setting that wasn't Toronto, but also to translate these new applications back into comparisons to Toronto. The trip was a simultaneous departure from and reinforcement of our case study of Toronto, expanding my sense of this city and cities in general.”

Among their activities in the jam-packed week were: a tour of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to learn about changes in housing and social welfare over the past 150 years; a heritage walking tour of Harlem led by individuals born and raised in the neighborhood; exploring the city's transit museum to gain an appreciation of the cultural, social and technological history of public transportation in New York and how it contributed to and evolved with the city’s growth, and attending a land-use meeting of a community board in Brooklyn.

“One of the goals of the urban studies program is to provide students with a multitude of lenses through which to observe, interpret and understand urban life,” said Brail. “New York City is a place where the themes covered in the course are highly developed and visible. A week in New York, the largest city in North America, is a unique opportunity to learn how this vibrant and dynamic city responds to contemporary urban challenges.”