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Faculty Highlight: Sabina Shaikh

Q: Congratulations on the launch of your new book Our Urban Future: An Active Learning Guide to Sustainable Cities. Can you provide a brief summary of the work? 

Thank you! The book evolved from a “Big Problems” course I’ve been teaching with my colleague Emily Talen, who is an expert in urbanism. The course, entitled “Urban Design with Nature,” challenges students to think about how cities do or do not work in equitable, just, and environmentally sustainable ways. We wanted to go beyond what might exist in textbooks (which isn’t much) to challenge students and others to consider their own experiences and observations of how cities work. This might be thinking about historical land use and who it serves, principles of urban planning that may need to be contested in a world transformed by climate change, and to think beyond city limits into how urbanization transforms non-urban landscapes and the planet. So, this is a workbook that could be used in undergraduate or graduate courses, but also a bit of a primer for anyone interested in urban environmental issues.

Q: When and how did you first become interested in the subject of Sustainable Urban Development?

I’ve been interested in the environment since I was an undergraduate student but we didn’t talk quite as much about climate change then. Not that it wasn’t happening, but it wasn’t really embedded in course work then and my interests linked more in local land use decisions and how those affected groups of people differently. I applied to my Master’s programs right after College to study this and did a thesis on urban environmental justice. It was really at a time when environmental justice activism was creating awareness across the country and globally, but it was still a bit nascent in certain academic fields. I was studying economics, which wasn’t overly concerned about these issues, and was lucky to have a faculty advisor who really supported the research even though it wasn’t his area of expertise. I went on to a PhD program really interested in global sustainable development and environmental justice but for various reasons, ended up doing a more methodological thesis on environmental decision making. In the end, this was useful to better understand how economic tools were used for environment, and how no singular approach would be able to address the complexity of environmental transformation and climate change.

Q: How did you go about doing this research and collecting data? What was the most intriguing or unexpected part of the process? 

Much of this came through course development over the past several years. Some of it was informed by my research with Alan Kolata and Marco Garrido in Southeast Asia on environment and migration, but much of it is from my pedagogical development for my courses, including the Calumet Quarter and other Chicago Studies courses. An interesting part of this work was being able to draw parallels between places that you wouldn’t really think to compare like Chicago and Phnom Penh. Both cities are deeply connected to water ways that affect how people experience the cities. Obviously, the cities are distinct in every way, but it is sometimes interesting to find connections in how people navigate different cities.

Q: What challenges, if any, did you face when writing the book?

The biggest challenge for me was time. Not only was I teaching but I was engaged in exciting but intensive work in launching the Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization and renovating the undergraduate major.  While it wasn’t a time that was particularly conducive to writing, it was a complementary process to think about what concepts, methods and experiences are necessary for students to be able to address the most pressing issues of our time like climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental justice.  The other thing that could have been a challenge but was really a very rewarding experience was co-writing the book and co-teaching the course with Emily Talen. Not only does it hold me accountable but it helps me learn about urban planning and urban sustainable topics from a different perspective.

Q: Do you have any upcoming projects or events to follow the launch of your new book?  

I’ll be returning to my research in Cambodia and thinking more about urban sustainability. Our project follows migrants as they transition from rural agriculture to urban factory or informal work in cities, and I’m very interested in how people think about the city versus their home region in terms of environment.  In addition, I’m developing some more local pedagogical and research experiences that think more about the relationship between Chicago and regional landscapes and waters.

Q: What else have you been up to and how does it relate to the topic of this new book?   

The main thing I’ve been working on with Neil Brenner in Sociology is launching the new CEGU major in Environment, Geography and Urbanization. CEGU reconstitutes the Committee on Geographical Studies/Sciences, which was formerly (well before my time here) the highly esteemed Department of Geography. We spent a couple of years integrating the Program on Global Environment into the Committee to form CEGU. While it involved a tremendous amount of administrative work, it also afforded and required a very interesting dive into how to teach environmental and urban studies in a moment of crisis. I learned so much during this process about relationships between urban and environment, between urban and non-urban, between human and non-human, and the historical and spatial dimensions of climate change and its outcomes. This is all directly related to topics in the book and I hope to update much of what I have written in the coming years.

Q: What advice would you give to students interested in similar research? 

Well, one thing I have definitely learned is that the path isn’t straight and the project isn’t singular. I did all of my degrees in economics and have spent a lot of time since then learning about other social science approaches from my collaborators. I consider my work now to be very interdisciplinary within the social sciences, but I still have much to learn from the arts, humanities and other sciences as well. So, I guess my advice is that the environment and climate change are complex topics that are connected to every aspect of human and non-human life. We have a lot of technology, money and public policy but solving these problems clearly goes beyond that into a daunting puzzle of collective action. And while we can’t be experts in everything, we must be open to pluralistic ideas and approaches, as well as reckoning with the status quo and considering what might seem unconventional at the time.

Q: How has your membership with COSAS helped you over the course of your recent projects and successes?

I spend most of my time focused on environment. COSAS has opened that up by offering a community focused on a region of the world of great interest to me. The research and projects are incredibly diverse and really help me understand more about other aspects of Southern Asian life, which can seem separate from environment yet are in fact, deeply connected. In the coming years, I hope to develop a new module or lab of some kind on Asian America and the environment. This would connect my work in Asia and Chicago, but also update my early research on environmental justice and draw from my personal experience as a first generation Asian American. I hope to find others in COSAS who might be interested in collaborating on this project in the future.