Everything is connected. At the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, new ways of thinking, researching, and learning are breaking down the barriers between science and society, between the natural and the urban, to equip us in the building of a better tomorrow.
The challenges facing the world today are complex and can no longer be approached with a siloed mindset — if indeed they ever could. Explicating this interconnectedness is precisely why York University has created a new Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.
Associate Dean of Research, Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change
With its launch in 2020, the founding of the Faculty heralded a revolutionary change in ways of thinking about science and society. “Central to the university’s thinking was the need to address issues of sustainability, urban communities, and global justice in an interdisciplinary way,” says Dr. Philip Kelly, Associate Dean of Research at the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change. “We have created an academic unit in which that happens. If you’re a social scientist teaching environmental policy, you’re working alongside physical scientists who are studying climate change, pollution, and habitat loss. Or, if you’re a physical scientist thinking about permafrost, you’re working alongside people who are interested in Indigenous environmental knowledge and the political economy of extractive industries in the Canadian north. You can’t help but be influenced by that. You can’t avoid having those multiple perspectives infuse your research and your teaching.”
Science and society are one
Dr. Jennifer Korosi
Professor & Environmental Science Program Coordinator,
Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change
Dr. Jennifer Korosi is, in fact, a physical scientist thinking about permafrost. As a professor, researcher, and Environmental Science Program Coordinator at the Faculty, the multidisciplinary and collaborative approach has affected her work and her thinking profoundly. “What excited me about the creation of the Faculty was the idea of thinking about environmental problems holistically,” says Dr. Korosi. “I tend to work on very fundamental science questions, but these questions have direct relevance for policy, for protecting water quality, for climate change. The problems are shared and the solutions are shared.”
In the Northwest Territories, Dr. Korosi’s work on permafrost thaw is intimately intertwined with the interests of the Dehcho First Nations, with whom she collaborates extensively. And, not only does Dr. Korosi’s research have implications for the future of society in the warming north, but her research also directly benefits from a closer connection to ancestral knowledge and Indigenous ways of knowing.
“There are nuances to environmental change, and they’re really locally driven,” says Dr. Korosi. “For me, as a southern scientist, I go up north a few times a year, but the Dehcho have lived in the area since time immemorial and they know the land so well. Going up there and having conversations with people, I start to get a better understanding of the land and what’s going on. We’re all working together, bringing our own expertise and ultimately understanding how the landscape is being transformed and how the community can adapt to those changes.”
We’re all working together, bringing our own expertise and ultimately understanding how the landscape is being transformed and how the community can adapt to those changes.
From remote subarctic communities to bustling global south cities
Intrinsic to the raison d’etre of the Faculty, encoded in its very name, is the understanding that the environmental and the human are the same. That’s true in Canada’s rural northern communities, it’s true in the dense cities at our country’s southern border, and it holds equally true around the globe.
Dr. Luisa Sotomayor
Professor & Planning Program Coordinator, Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change
Dr. Luisa Sotomayor, Professor and Planning Program Coordinator with the Faculty, is collaborating with researchers in Bogota, Colombia, to investigate how legal tools are being used to contest planning and infrastructure projects. In this area of inquiry, the boundaries between the social, the environmental, the architectural, and the legal quickly blur.
“Planning is a truly interdisciplinary field,” says Dr. Sotomayor. “It’s about understanding current problems and planning for the future. In our highly urbanized world, most of our complex problems, from climate change to xenophobia, play out in intersecting fields, and we are recognizing that there is a shared commitment to ecological and social justice. A fully interdisciplinary approach enriches my research tremendously.”
Urban planning has the capacity to make global positive change and transform the future. And so it must be informed by our diverse understanding across disciplines and perspectives. With urban planning in Canada having been traditionally very white, middle-class, and male, Dr. Sotomayor is excited for the opportunity at York to bring more diversity to the field. “I had never seen such a diverse group of students as I found at York,” says Dr. Sotomayor. “The planning students that are graduating from York are a new face for the profession. They see the big picture, they have the critical thinking and practical skills to problem solve, lead and imagine a more just and sustainable future. Planning, after all, has an obligation and a commitment to transform.”
A holistic way of studying the world
And that’s the fundamental ethos of the interdisciplinary Faculty: working together to transform our world. This interconnection has always existed, and collaboration between these fields is nothing new. But what is new, and essential, is baking that integrative way of thinking from the very beginning, and operationalizing it as an instrument of tangible progress.
“A key part of what we do is being actively engaged in making positive change,” says Dr. Kelly. “We’re not just doing ivory tower research. We’re engaged with policymakers, with industry, with community organizations. And there’s a normative dimension driving for sustainability and social justice that really underpins a lot of the research that goes on here. It defines how we try to train the planners, policy analysts, scientists and others who are going to engage with urban and environmental processes in their careers.”
The research programs being carried out at York’s Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change are, quite simply, laying the foundation for the next era of societal change. The scientists and investigators of the Faculty are embedded in partnerships with governmental and industry decision-makers, injecting their expertise and interdisciplinary ethos into the conversations that shape the future. And the students graduating from the Faculty are set to be the next generation of decision-makers themselves.