Columbia and Barnard College students participating in a new program sponsored by the Center for Urban Research and Policy (CURP) recently completed a study of the development challenges facing two major international cities: New York City and Mexico City.
The program is designed to introduce undergraduates to the importance and rigor of social science research. In this case, students were asked to develop individual research projects that take social and environmental approaches to understanding urban sustainability.
The yearlong study combined classroom learning with significant fieldwork experience. Students spent the year conducting their field research in New York City and traveled to Mexico City for five days in March to observe and document inner-city conditions there.
Using small neighborhoods as units of analysis, the students observed that corruption and the misallocation of natural resources have prevented urban strategists in both cities from reaching their development goals.
Developments such as the one led by Mexican business tycoon Carlos Slim in Mexico City's ancient city center Zócalo, and the redevelopment of Times Square in New York, they found, are aimed at attracting tourist revenue, rather than combating fundamental problems such as corruption and uneven development.
The projects were capped by workshops led by Sudhir Venkatesh, CURP director and associate professor of sociology and African-American Studies, as well as by a series of presentations from experts in the field.
"I think it's important to expose people early to research, which means while they are juniors and seniors thinking about their careers," Vankatesh said.
The students looked at a number of social issues, such as the role of informal economies in each city, and the allocation of resources to security initiatives; as well as at such environmental issues as air quality, green space, solid waste and water. In both cities, they found that a growing investment in policing, private security guards and surveillance cameras represent efforts by municipalities to manage the symptoms of social inequality rather than address its underlying causes.
While both cities have large groups of licensed and unlicensed street vendors, they found that unregulated workers in New York tend to be undocumented migrants who suffer from discrimination and poor working conditions, whereas in Mexico City most unregulated workers are accepted members of society.
Finally, they observed that low-income neighborhoods are more likely to contain pollution and noxious land use, but less likely to contain green areas that would help mitigate affects of these health hazards.
Paris may serve as the comparison city for next year's Urban Research Workshop.