News Archive

posted 12/01/05

Urban Design Lab to Help Promote Sustainability and Environmental Justice in New York City
New Earth Institute center will provide practical assistance to community groups working to improve and develop their neighborhoods

The new Urban Design Lab's project work will build on the experience of previous and ongoing design-engineering studios focusing on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and the 125th Street Business Improvement District in Harlem. Image credit: The Sustainable Gowanus Saltmarsh Proposal/Jonah Hansen

On November 16, former New York City mayor and Columbia professor David Dinkins joined members of The Earth Institute in inaugurating a new, interdisciplinary Urban Design Lab. The Earth Institute's newest center is intended to make the resources of the University more readily available to residents of the city by helping community-based organizations working to revitalize neighborhoods throughout New York City to identify the strategies and resources that best address their needs. Ultimately, the UDL will also advance projects that promote sustainable development and environmental justice.

"Communities throughout New York City are facing unprecedented development pressure as the city's population and economic growth continue," said UDL director Richard Plunz, a professor in Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture Preservation and Planning. "These pressures are exacerbated by environmental damage done to neighborhoods in the past and by potential future stresses caused by climate change."

Despite the immediacy of these pressures, many communities lack the resources to hire the experts that would allow them to influence development activities in their own neighborhoods. The UDL's mission is to propose and plan practical solutions to quality-of-life problems and provide experts who can address questions related to:

  • Engineering, environmental chemistry and toxicology issues including the review and design of environmental clean up in brownfields or assessments of development proposals for probable environmental impacts.
  • Design issues to assure that new developments are built to meet the needs and preferences of communities and to preserve community character.
  • Legal issues to ensure that the lawful rights of communities are protected during the development process.
  • Cost-benefit analyses, survey research projects, economic projections and program evaluations to project the likely impact of alternative development proposals.
  • Projections of climate change impacts specific to the New York City metropolitan region.

The UDL's project work will build on the experience of previous and ongoing design-engineering studios focusing on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and the 125th Street Business Improvement District in Harlem.

While the core focus of the UDL is in the physical design of cities — from their physical structure to physical changes they experience — its approach recognizes that a range of expertise is needed to make urban design relevant and sustainable in a dynamic environment. For this reason, the UDL brings together academics and professionals from disciplines that design the built environment, including urban design, architecture, landscape architecture, historic preservation, and real estate, with those that maintain a primarily urban-planning perspective, including public health, environmental science, climatology, engineering, ecology, education, business, journalism, economics, social science, humanities and law.

Core Members of the Urban Design Lab include:

  • Richard Plunz, Director, Urban Design Lab; professor, Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning
  • Kenneth Kaplan, associate director, Urban Design Lab
  • Patricia J. Culligan, associate professor, School of Engineering and Applied Science
  • Dickson D. Despommier, professor, School of Public Health
  • Mindy Fullilove, professor, College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Mailman School of Public Health
  • Patrick Kinney, associate professor, Mailman School of Public Health
  • David Maurasse, adjunct professor, School of International and Public Affairs
  • Addie M. Rimmer, associate professor, Graduate School of Journalism
  • Cynthia Rosenzweig, senior research scientist, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
  • E. Gail Suchman, Esq., lecturer, School of Law

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit