The Penn Urban Research Institute: Research, Knowledge, Solutions

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The planets were already aligned for an urban-research institute. After all, Penn has been an urban university for its entire existence, and engaged in urban issues for a good part of that time. It has brought together an impressive array of top-flight scholars engaged in urban research across a broad range of disciplines. Furthermore, during the last decade, the University has “found new ways to apply our intellectual and financial resources toward the transformation of our own backyard,” as President Judith Rodin noted in a keynote speech in March.

“Today, Penn is viewed throughout the world as a leader in the field and practice of urbanism for the 21st century,” she added. “But Penn can’t sit still even on these laurels. We are well aware that most of the world’s population will be living in cities by the year 2006, and we are driven to become the leader in international urbanism.”

The result is the Penn Urban Research Institute (, which according to Rodin will enable the University to have a “profoundly beneficial impact on the material, cultural, and social life of cities as close as our own Philadelphia, and as far away as Jakarta and Jerusalem.”

Put simply, “cities are where the action is—and will be for the foreseeable future,” she said. And by addressing their complex problems creatively, “Penn can help shape the future of urbanism and promote the future viability and vitality of cities.”

The institute’s twin goals involve research and practice: to “build new knowledge bases by which the dynamic processes of urban life can be better understood and to transfer this knowledge through a strong dissemination function,” in the words of its mission statement. It will have a strong teaching component, including master’s and Ph.D. programs. Service will also play an important role, as the institute hopes to create an “environment for collaboration and dialogue among existing civic-engagement activities” and to promote new civic-engagement efforts. 

“We envision this institute as the catalyst to get everyone who’s passionate about cities—including students who are considering an exciting career in urbanism—to think Penn,” said Rodin.

Serving as co-directors will be Dr. Eugenie Birch, chair and professor of city and regional planning, and Dr. Susan Wachter, the Richard B. Worley Professor of Financial Management and professor of real estate and finance. Although Birch is based in the School of Design and Wachter in the Wharton School, the institute is not based in any school, and the fact that its directors will report directly to the provost is another indication of its importance to the administration, which has provided five years of funding. The institute’s executive committee will be made up of 17 faculty members and deans.

Last month, as the Gazette was going to press, the institute held a faculty retreat to help determine the scope and breadth of its research activities. Some 40 members of the faculty were expected to participate.

“The faculty is going to drive this,” said Birch in a recent interview. “There happens to be a critical mass of scholars already engaged in urban issues here. There’s so much going on that’s basically not been pulled together in a manageable way.” Until now.

While most of the urban institutes around the country “focus on one region,” said Wachter, cross-city comparisons are now possible, thanks largely to new computers with “huge analytical capacity.” Geographic Information Systems, for example, can layer complex data onto maps of a particular neighborhood, right down to individual buildings. The patterns that emerge from those data can sometimes lead to new insights and solutions that can be applied nationally and even internationally.

“Just as we worked with our neighbors to transform West Philadelphia,” said Rodin, “through this institute we hope to form creative partnerships with urban planners, government officials, foundation leaders, urban developers, and all concerned citizens who are looking to transform their cities.” 


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