Temple Magazine

Urban Scholars and World Explorers

Researchers in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies explore and improve urban areas around the world.

Story by Maria Raha

In 2008 an environmental group called 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania began marketing regional rail lines as a community asset. To be effective, the organization, which advocates for sensible land use and other quality-of-life improvements, first needed to understand how often people use the regional rails, the accessibility of public transportation in suburban areas and regional population patterns.

To address the needs of the residents they wished to target, 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania consulted
the Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project (MPIP). MPIP is one of many research projects within Temple’s Department of Geography and Urban Studies that measure and demonstrate urban economic and demographic patterns in greater Philadelphia and beyond.

Since the field’s inception in the late 1960s, urban studies research has been necessary for the improvement of urban areas. For example, community organizers can use it to understand the complexities that specifically affect cities; urban planners can study community groups and healthcare providers can learn more about the specific services local communities need, such as job skills, health care and education.

MPIP works as a kind of consultation service for nonprofits that require customized statistics. The project’s staff and student research assistants input and organize data, gather and analyze information, assemble reports and, when necessary, make presentations of analyses in order to help their community partners improve their services.

The project’s web site encourages individuals to engage in their own interactive map-making, and can help academics, activists, students, writers and others to develop their own sets of data. For example, if a community organizer wanted to begin a nonprofit for underprivileged seniors, he or she would need to know where this population was densest and what services should be provided. The organizer might consult MPIP for age, level of education and income statistics in order to open an office that is accessible by public transportation to a large portion of that population. Often, such information is either difficult to compile without experience in statistical analysis, or existing reports are expensive. But MPIP eases the process by providing access to the data its researchers have compiled.

Begun in 2003 by professors of geography and urban studies Carolyn Adams and David Bartelt, CLA ’65, ’79, with Associate Professor of Sociology David Elesh, the project is substantially funded by the William Penn Foundation. According to Adams, the project’s director, MPIP contributes to a more well-rounded sense of the surrounding community.

“Whatever transportation, housing, poverty or education problem you may be working on as a researcher or as an activist, you’re more aware of what the larger metropolitan picture is and you fit your knowledge, understanding and actions into this larger picture,” she explains.

The Department of Geography and Urban Studies also extends its activities beyond the local skyline. The urban studies program at Temple considers issues that challenge cities around the world, such as globalization, sustainability and social and environmental justice.

The entire program, which recently has been reorganized, now focuses around these four broad urban concerns. In fall 2009, the department welcomed inaugural candidates for its new PhD in urban studies. The master’s program, which once offered two separate degrees in geography and urban studies, now offers one academic track that is closely aligned with its doctoral program. Additionally, the department absorbed Temple’s undergraduate program in environmental studies in 2008.

Only one of two urban studies graduate programs in the Philadelphia area, Temple’s program, like its academic outlook, addresses issues of global concern. “We do a better job than a number of universities in recognizing that the U.S. is not a system unto itself, but part of a global system, as well as understanding that there are things that we really can learn from countries around the world,” says Associate Professor Benjamin Kohl.

As the department welcomes new students, research projects such as MPIP are opportunities for them to collaborate across disciplines. It is this breadth that is attractive to students.

“The program gives me the space to work on projects that pull from many directions, to create scholarship that reflects the kaleidoscopic nature of our society today,” says PhD candidate Alan Wiig. Similar to the complexities of urban living, the department’s projects offer a host of learning opportunities.

Recording Expansion

Since international trade and the internet began altering business around the world in the 1990s, cities and their populations have significantly changed. Both Geography and Urban Studies Chair Sanjoy Chakravorty and Kohl are studying the impact of globalization and expansion on two different, developing urban regions.

modern buildings and tents

India's changing urban areas (pictured here) have been studied extensively by Geography and Urban Studies Department Chair Sanjoy Chakravorty. Photo courtesy Sanjoy Chakravorty.

mcdonalds building

La Paz, Bolivia, where Associate Professor Benjamin Kohl has been researching the effects of globalization on urban development since the mid-1980s.


In recent years, new business in India has altered the country. Chakravorty has explored patterns of globalization and economic distribution in Indian cities, which have expanded beyond traditional urban borders. In the outer reaches of cities such as Calcutta and Mumbai, skyscrapers emblazoned with corporate logos transform both the skyline and India’s economic opportunities and population distribution.

Chakravorty has extensively studied the income inequities that arise from such expansion.

“If the private sector is the only game in town, and increasingly, it is, then there are large swaths of the country that will not see a single new, sizable industrial unit,” he explains. “It was one thing to theorize about the behavior of the state and private sectors regarding industrialization, and somewhat more alarming to see how true it was in practice.”

Kohl studies the effects of globalization on urban development in Bolivia. Since the mid-1980s, he has witnessed the transformation of La Paz, the nation’s executive capital.

“When I first was there,” says Kohl, “probably 40 percent of the population was urban. Now, more than 50 percent of it is urban. In one generation, there has been this very rapid process of urbanization that much of Latin America went through 50 years ago. Because of the relatively small size of [Bolivian] cities and the relatively rapid rate of urbanization, it’s possible to see the change that globalization has brought about in the way people live, as well as in the shape and the structure of the city itself.”

Both projects can help to better predict the results of globalization and expansion, and support political and social predictions about the impact of globalization.

Improving Health Care

Associate professors Jerry Stahler, CLA ’79, ’83, and Jeremy Mennis have collaborated on a geographic study that can help healthcare providers better care for at-risk patients. Their work tracks behavior patterns of North Philadelphia patients who deal with both mental health and substance abuse disorders.

“This was a particularly difficult-to-treat population,” Stahler explains. “They tend to be disadvantaged with poor social supports and they have co-occurring disorders. So, it’s a very important population to try to help.”

Stahler and Mennis began studying the basic information available in patients’ medical records, and also began recording neighborhood features that might trigger addictive behavior or make a patient’s mental health difficult to sustain, such as the location of liquor stores and the neighborhood’s number of abandoned buildings, where drug use is generally more pervasive.

“We pulled together a large database to which we’ve added variables that we think might relate to substance abuse, such as the location of alcohol outlets in Philadelphia; the locations of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings; the number of drug arrests, pawn shops and check-cashing stores.”

Such a cache of information can be used as a resource in helping patients to identify what behaviors might trigger disorders and possibly improve their quality of life.

Underscoring Environmental Impact

Measuring neighborhood patterns also can highlight injustice. In addition to his work with Stahler, Mennis studies geographic patterns involving pollution and industry in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He notes that minorities and the poor tend to live in areas where they are more likely to be exposed to industrial pollution due to higher concentrations of manufacturing plants.

“It’s one thing to sort of incidentally observe that in one or two places,” he says, “and it’s another thing to systematically look at larger areas in a lot of data and demonstrate that this pattern holds over a large area. That’s what I’ve done.”

In New Jersey, Mennis found that environmental pollution was linked to race. “While this relationship is partially explained by other factors, such as class and the tendency for minorities to concentrate in urban areas, minorities tend to live in areas where air toxic releases occur,” he says. But further analysis led to surprising connections between different ethnic populations experiencing different kinds of pollution by area.

“This relationship varies substantially from place to place within New Jersey,” Mennis explains. “Different racial groups tend to be exposed to air toxins in the Newark area, for example, as compared to Trenton or Camden.” In the industrialized areas of New Jersey outside New York City, Hispanics are more likely to be exposed to air pollution, whereas black populations are more prone to exposure in Trenton or Camden.

Such breakthroughs can contribute to environmental policy and regulation of industrial pollution. Additionally, in tandem with health geography and studies of diseases related to pollution, such as asthma, environmental justice research also can help to mitigate health inequities and promote well-being in minority and low-income populations.

With these projects and more, including work by Associate Professor Michele Masucci, the Department of Geography and Urban Studies offers a wealth of opportunities for its new doctoral students. Most importantly, these projects aim for a better understanding of urban populations.

Chakravorty says, “We are in the vanguard of a new movement that sees the American inner cities’ issues as intimately tied to what’s happening in the larger world.”

Back to Winter 2010