About Penn Urban Studies

Welcome to Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Urban Studies is an interdisciplinary program in the College of Arts & Sciences. It draws on faculty and resources across the university and the city to offer students a multi-faceted approach to the study of urban trends. Urban Studies was founded in 1970 in response to demand by students interested in engaging the important urban and social issues of the time. The program continues to be driven by a commitment to the connection of theory and practice in its curriculum and pedagogy.

Urban Studies is a flexible and intimate program. You can shape your program through courses that reflect your particular interests and that cover the range of topics in the field - the history of cities, theory and global concerns, the built environment, urban economics, and urban politics and policy. Because Urban Studies is an interdisciplinary field, you choose a disciplinary specialization that serves as an academic anchor for your learning. You will also get some training in carrying out urban research through a research project and writing a senior seminar paper. You will take a course on research methods to prepare you for the senior seminar. Urban Studies is the only major on campus that requires a fieldwork placement in a work setting for academic credit. The fieldwork placement is where the program's commitment to connecting theory and practice is most clearly represented. In addition to spending about 15 hours a week in a work setting, you would participate in a weekly seminar designed to help you structure your learning in the placement experience and to explore relevant theory.

You may have known that you were interested in Urban Studies before you came to Penn or you may have discovered the field after coming to campus. In either case, you may need more of a sense of what it is about and a clear way to explain the major to others.


What is Urban Studies? 

Urban Studies is a difficult "subject" to define - so if you are looking for a simple, static definition, this isn't the major for you. However, Urban Studies scholars share some common interests and approaches to problem-solving.

Urban Studies students have an interest in improving modern life through understanding and applying knowledge of the physical, social, and economic conditions of cities and of cities' relationship to their regions and beyond. In a broad, theoretical sense, the central intellectual frame of Urban Studies is about understanding people and place at different spatial scales. Individuals, groups, and public officials make decisions and policy that affect how people and resources are distributed in space and that defines what kinds of places result. Often, then, students of Urban Studies are able to show how critical decisions can explain the conditions of urban places and advocate for making different decisions that might result in more equity and better quality of life for people living in particular places.


Who are Urban Studies students?

connectionsUrban Studies students at Penn also share some common values that also can be described in spatial terms. They value connections in three senses, described below:

  • Interdisciplinary: First, they are interested in problems that can not be understood from the perspective of one discipline. Urban Studies students seek connections across disciplines in order to understand cities and the processes that influence what happens in and to them. Many of our students complete double majors, most commonly in history, political science, sociology, and environmental studies, among others.
  • Real world: Second, they are interested in connecting what they learn in the classroom to the real world. Urban Studies faculty themselves may be practitioners or they are likely to bring in experts and practitioners to talk about the challenges of running a city, teaching low-income students, and developing housing. Students will engage in projects that deal directly with real urban problems. As a result of their experience with urban professionals as undergrads, Urban Studies graduates are more likely than other major graduates to work in the field after college. Typically, Urban Studies graduates serve as city planners, policy makers, public interest or real estate lawyers, urban real estate developers, urban educators, and policy researchers.
  • Community: The third way in which students seek to make connections is with other students and with their teachers. Students experience a sense of community in the program as a result of small classes, an active Undergraduate Advisory Board, extra-curricular activities, and the opportunity to learn directly from people in the field.