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Wakeman Sees 21st Century Growth of Urban Studies Scholarship


Rosemary Wakeman, Ph.D., sees urban environments as sustainable forms of living.
Photo by Victor M. Inzunza

When Rosemary Wakeman, Ph.D., director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program, relocated across the country from the West coast’s Bay area to the East, it was an adventure she wasn’t so sure about. Her first impression of New York was that it was “ugly, and hostile.”

“We arrived just when Times Square was being redeveloped,” she said, “and the City was moving into a new period of expansion.”
Fascinated by the transformation of the city, Wakeman wrote about the project for a French publication. The experience left her “immensely engaged” and she began to look at New York City in an entirely different way; how a living city re-invigorates itself and its inhabitants through design and planning.

“I’m addicted to big cities,” said Wakeman. “And I see them as very rational, very sustainable forms of living.”

Wakeman’s scholarly background is in European urban and regional planning. She studied the French cultural theorists, like Henri Lefebvre and Michael de Certeau, S.J., who she described as the pre-eminent thinkers about cultural theory. (Father Certeau’s essays strike a contrast between the institutional city, seen as a bird’s-eye-view unit of functionality, and the walker’s city, which is a street-level, neighborhood-based view of a city that often moves in spite of, not in step with, institutional planning.) As a graduate student, Wakeman studied abroad in the Annales School in France. While there, she saw striking differences between European and American land use and planning.

“Americans normally solve urban problems through economics and business,” she said. “Generally, they would develop a business improvement district to revitalize a neighborhood. The French tend to look at spatial issues, before business issues. They can have, in some ways, the same eye toward urban planning as Jane Jacobs did.”

Jacobs, who died in 2006, was author of The Death and Life of American Cities (Random House, 1961), and a scrappy grass-roots advocate who spearheaded the campaign to stop Robert Moses from building the Lower Manhattan Expressway in the 1960s. Some historians credited her with saving Greenwich Village. Jacobs’ emphasis on the importance of neighborhood street life to urban health, said Wakeman, aligns her with many European urban planning ideas.

Fordham’s Urban Studies Program began under the direction of the late anthropologist Margaret Mead, who headed Fordham’s social sciences division in the late 1960s. Wakeman said the program, which fell on “hard times’ during the 1980s and 1990s, has experienced a renaissance that positions it an up-and-coming major in the 21st century. She sees her task as growing the inter-disciplinary program in step with the University’s mission to define itself as the nation’s preeminent Jesuit institution.

“More people are looking to the urban experience, and the metropolitan experience, as one of the most important areas of scholarship,” she said. “Most of the world’s population lives in cities. The largest cities in the world are in undeveloped nations, they are massive mega-regions that are urban in context. We need real solutions for the future in all urban disciplines — the environment, planning, anthropology, sociology — and urban studies introduces young people to the ways that cities work.”

“And you can’t get a better place to build an urban studies program than Lincoln Center, in the middle of the greatest city in the world,” she said.

Assisted by a faculty fellowship, Wakeman spent part of 2006 in Europe working on a book about the use of public space in post World-War II Paris: The Heroic City: Paris 1945-1958. What drew her to the topic, Wakeman said, was her interest in post-war material on song, dance and spontaneous expression in the Parisian streets and public spaces. There existed a sense of “people’s right to the city,” something that Wakeman says can be destroyed with erroneous urban planning.

“To me, the challenge of planning and design is to not over-control the public world of the city, and to allow civic life, public life to take place in spontaneous ways,” she said. “In New York, this is a complicated issue.”

Wakeman has followed the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site. She called the 9/11 attack a “wound to the body of New York of extraordinary proportions” that will take time to heal both on the psyches of the people, and on the space of the city.

“Whatever WTC site the city ends up with,” she said, “It will evolve itself. No matter how hard planners try, they can’t create some monolithic thing that remains eternal. The City is never static.

– Janet Sassi


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