New School’s New Environmental Studies Degree

Posted inID Mag

By: Shonquis Moreno | July 21, 2008

July 21, 2008. New York’s The New School recently announced the launch in fall 2009 of a new undergraduate degree program in environmental studies. Using New York City as their laboratory, students will take a variety of classes at both Parsons The New School for Design, and liberal arts school, Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. . They will be required to take design studios and science labs, as well. The program will be administered by the Tishman Environment and Design Center, which anticipates that graduates entering the green business sector of the economy will be entering the highest growth job market of the 21st century. I.D. spoke with Joseph Westphal, director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center, who will head the new program.

Why launch an environmental studies degree program at the New School? And why now?

The 2005-6 triumvirate of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the UK-based Stern Report and Hurricane Katrina have clearly shifted ecological sustainability into a mainstream concern for both consumers and producers. For those who remain unconvinced, sustained rises in the price of oil, now impacting first the cost of food and then manufactured goods, make ‘post-abundance’ an unavoidable issue for all businesses and governments. As a result, large-scale investments are already taking place in infrastructure repair and replacement, from energy supply to transport, housing and food supply. Most forward-thinking manufacturing companies are already retooling for the demand for sustainable products and services that will be the core business of the coming decades. The New School’s talents in design and social science will be a source of major innovation in these new economies.

The New School is currently undertaking academic changes to facilitate and encourage the sort of trans-disciplinary work that a problem like urban sustainability demands. While the nature of The New School has meant that many faculty have been teaching in the field of environmental studies for at least the past decade, now is the first time that The New School has been organized in ways that allow those faculty to collaborate intensely on urban ecosystem research and teaching.

What will the role of design and architecture be within the framework of the new program?

All students, whether in the Bachelor’s of Arts or the Bachelor’s of Science degree program, will complete studio-based courses that will expose them to: a) the historical role design has played making our societies so unsustainable; b) the lateral and multi-level strategies that design enables for enhancing the sustainability of our urban environments. These courses, which allow students to learn by making iterative interventions into complex situations, make this degree program unique. Students will be learning about urban ecosystems by designing and testing in the field – New York City and its environs. As a result, all graduates will have a keen sense of the power of design, at its various scales (from miniature devices to urban planning). Aside from the fact that the program is multidisciplinary, what kinds of practical training will students receive and how much will New York City provide a lab for them?

All courses will incorporate New York City in the learning process. Science classes will involve, for example, soil, water, air and biota testing in the city. Social science courses will involve observations and interviews of the institutions and behaviors of New Yorkers. The studio components will have as their design briefs real local problems, with students then prototyping in the city. All students are also required to undertake internships before graduating. What kind of theoretical underpinnings will the program have? Is there a canon yet for environmental studies?

Environmental Studies has been a formal field of teaching and research for more than three decades. In that time various theoretical bases have been established from the sciences of ecology to the social sciences of environmental psychology, ecological politics and ecological economics. However, the deep and complex nature of the ecological problems facing current societies is still being understood. This means that new approaches continue to emerge.

The BA and BS in Environmental Studies at The New School therefore has three key capacities that it aims to instill in all its graduates:

> an ability to recognize that all situations can and must be seen through different frameworks – our graduates will be adept at changing perspective, at never assuming that theirs is the definitive account

> an ability to seek, deploy and coordinate multiple experts in problem-solving

> an ability to make error-friendly and instructive changes in response to live complex problems – our graduates will know the urgency of change needed in response to sustainability, and so will not shy away from taking immediate action, but they will also have the training to only ever undertake reversible actions and to seek on-going feedback about the effectiveness and consequences of those actions

This means that the Environmental Studies graduates will have been educated through what could be called ‘practice-led theorizing,’ learning by carefully intervening in ‘real world’ situations while reflecting thoroughly on what results.