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New Urban Studies Program Prepares Students to Contribute to Cities Great and Small

By: Cienna Madrid   Published 11:29 am / January 19, 2017

Aerial photo of campusWe live in an urbanized world: 80 percent of people in the U.S. live in urban areas, and globally, roughly 60 percent do – and these numbers are only expected to grow. Even in Idaho, a state known more for its wilderness than urban hubs, more than 80 percent of residents live in an urban area (Idaho Department of Commerce 2016).

Which is why it’s more important than ever to develop savvy students who know how cities tick. Boise State’s new undergraduate urban studies and community development program is designed to do just that. The program received State Board approval on Dec. 15 and will officially launch this fall.

Portrait of Amanda Ashley

Amanda Ashley

“Nationally and regionally, there’s a hunger to give students access to this degree,” said Amanda Ashley, director of the program. “And locally, what we’ve learned from policymakers and administrators across the state is there’s a demand for students who understand community development and have the skills to go out into the workforce and help solve the challenges that medium and smaller cities are facing. We’re answering a call from these employers to create skilled urban analysts who can work across public, private and community sectors, and in many different fields. We’re also focused on inspiring civically engaged community members who have the information and understanding to have a voice in the decisions that are being made in their communities.”

The goal of the program is to educate students through applied learning, experiential opportunities and interdisciplinary studies. While the program is housed in the School of Public Service, it draws on expertise from across colleges.

“You can’t truly study a city without knowing the history, sociology, economics and politics of a particular place,” she added. “That approach doesn’t live within one school, it encompasses many disciplines. We also want students to walk away not only with a broad-based education, but with practical skills that are coveted by employers. Can students go in and facilitate conversations among city officials, stakeholders and community residents? Are they compelling communicators? Do they know how to use and evaluate urban and community data? Can they identify appropriate strategies for community and economic development? Are they able to help our communities make decisions about how to solve problems or amplify our assets? Pulling this off well takes expertise and ideas from faculty across the university.”

Ashley, whose former career touring in the music business inspired a passion for urban studies, credits School of Public Service Dean Corey Cook and historian Todd Shallat with identifying how important this degree track – one that focuses on the needs of mid- and small-sized cities, which will shoulder a lot of growth over the next 50 years – will be for Idaho and the Northwest.

“When people think of urban studies, they picture New York, Chicago and San Francisco,” Ashley said. “But that leaves out a lot of other important communities and places. We want to help fill that hole and help facilitate change and conversation in smaller communities and up-and-coming cities like Boise. We see the value in helping create urban literacy among our students and give them the ability to be empowered and civically engaged in their communities.”

Students will accomplish this through applied learning projects with partnering public agencies and community organizations across the state and Northwest. For example, Ashley’s undergraduate students in SPS 297/397: The Urban Metropolis, currently are engaged in helping the city of Bellevue create a placemaking portfolio that highlights best practices for using art and culture to strengthen community identity and economic development in the Wood River Valley. Students also have helped administrators in Sandpoint survey business owners about their perceptions of the city’s business improvement district.

“Our goal is to scaffold these skills from students’ freshman to senior year through service-learning, internships and a culminating capstone project ,” Ashley said.

The new program is unlike Boise State’s former community and regional planning graduate program, which prepared students to be public planners. The interdisciplinary nature of the undergraduate urban studies and community development program offers more professional flexibility for its graduates.

“Our students will be qualified to work in a number of different fields and occupations, including as community development administrators, economic development analysts, nonprofit program coordinators, urban policy analysts, demographers, city managers, public participation facilitators, real estate project managers, and city transportation coordinators to name just a small handful of opportunities. We also hope to be feeders for graduate schools in Idaho and beyond,” Ashley said. “Local and regional decisions matter. What happens in our neighborhoods, our downtowns and our surrounding communities affect all of us. We hope educating our students will help not only create a stronger workforce but help our students become involved citizens.”

The urban studies and community development program is slated to be just one of three new undergraduate programs to join the School of Public Service. The environmental studies program recently relocated from the College of Arts and Sciences, and a new global studies program will be up for State Board approval in February.

“These programs reflect a push to create public service opportunities for students that are in line with important areas that our communities are facing both locally and globally,” Ashley said. “This is the School of Public Service in the 21st century.”