Teaching urban sustainability to tomorrow's leaders

A new graduate program challenges students to think about urban environmental issues, such as city buses crawling (and polluting) down Manhattan avenues.

Everywhere we turn, we hear and read about sustainability—whether it’s shopping, eating, building or wasting. Now, our colleges and universities are starting to train the next generation of sustainability experts.

This semester, the City College of New York is introducing a one-year graduate program called Sustainability in the Urban Environment. I recently talked to the program’s director, Latif Jiji, about the kinds of problems students will attempt to solve, the jobs they’ll be qualified for when they graduate and how he’s created his own personal sustainable roof (while beefing up his wine supply).

Why did it take universities so long to offer programs in sustainability?

It takes a long time for universities to react to the demands of industry, business and students. It took the last three to four years for sustainability to really be on the map. Universities have started to introduce programs at a very fast rate. Ours is really unique in the sense that it is not an outgrowth of an existing department or program such as architecture or civil engineering or environmental science. Our program integrates all three, because sustainability problems are complex; they are interdisciplinary. They don’t generally lend themselves to dividing into categories, such as, this is a problem for an economist, or this is a problem for a mechanical engineer. That requires teams of professionals with different backgrounds working together.

What types of jobs will students look for after they graduate?

They’ll work for developers, the building industry, waste management, water resources, transportation, government, power generation, alternative energy, universities and new industries that are popping up all over the place with emphasis on low carbon footprint.

What are the skills they’ll learn in this program?

One of the major skills in our program is a six-credit year-long interdisciplinary capstone team project. Students from different disciplines—such as economics, architecture, engineering—work as a team on a problem. This is not a skill typically learned in a master’s degree program--usually they work on a thesis individually. Here, they’ll have to struggle together to decide how to solve a problem that is unfamiliar to them. We think that is the heart of the program.

What are some examples of these problems?

OK, we might be talking about new material for construction. You need someone from engineering to understand the strength of materials and someone from architecture to understand the use of material in building and someone from environmental science to understand what happens to that material when the building is demolished—whether it can be recycled or reused.

Another example: Municipal buses on the avenues of Manhattan stop every two blocks. This is unsustainable. It’s energy consumed, additional pollution and a delay in travel time. We want to explore the possibility of skipping every other stop. How much energy will we save? How much can we reduce the carbon footprint? How much faster will the bus make its trip? How do we deal with the people who will complain about it?

These are good examples. I do hope your students can solve all these problems.

I believe in it. I spent four years developing this program, and I wouldn’t have invested all this time if I didn’t think it was something that could help society.

What distinguishes this sustainability program from one that’s not in an urban environment?

There are universities, in Arizona, for example, that are way ahead. They’re inspired by the beautiful environment around them –the parks, the desert, the plants. They have a different outlook. We’re concerned about recycling, waste, pollution, the rising water level, the overflow of our septic systems, the underutilization of the harbor and of roofs.

What are you doing with your roof on the Upper East Side of Manhattan?

I planted a vine 35 years ago—a grape vine—when my wife wasn’t looking. I let it go up the back wall four stories, another 10 feet above the roof on a trellis, going 45 feet horizontally. I now have about a 120-foot long vine. It is sustainable. It provides shade in the summer and when the leaves are gone, sun in the winter, so it reduces air conditioning and heat. It produces 700 pounds of grapes, and I make 140 bottles of wine. It’s called Chateau Latif.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com


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