Mellon Foundation extends funding for Global Urban Humanities Initiative

Mellon Foundation extends funding for Global Urban Humanities Initiative
Berkeley News
18 April 2016
by Kathleen Maclay
Full original article

UC Berkeley’s Global Urban Humanities Initiative will conduct four more years of interdisciplinary studies on cities and urban life, thanks to $1.5 million in renewed funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The College of Environmental Design (CED) and the College of Letters and Science’s Division of Arts and Humanities have been collaborating on the global cities effort for three years. Now they are preparing to establish one of the country’s first graduate and undergraduate certificates in urban humanities, as well as Global Urban Humanities-Townsend Fellowships in collaboration with the Townsend Center for the Humanities to support related interdisciplinary research by graduate students and faculty.

The additional funding will also support creation of team-taught courses, symposia, exhibitions and publications that will explore global cities by integrating approaches from the arts and humanities with methods from environmental design.

Architecture, literature and performance studies students conduct an exercise in the exploration of physical space in preparation for a study trip to Mexico City. The initiative creates hybrid urban research methods drawing from many disciplines. (Photo by Susan Moffat.)


The grant continues UC Berkeley’s participation in the Mellon Foundation’s Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities initiative, which was launched in 2012. So far, 18 grants have been awarded to 16 institutions, including grants in 2012 to support linked initiatives for UC Berkeley and UCLA. The Mellon initiative engages and connects more than a dozen research universities and institutes in the United States, Canada, Great Britain and South Africa.


In its first three years, the UC Berkeley initiative launched 13 team-taught courses on cities that engaged faculty and students from more than 26 departments, introducing new pedagogical approaches to the study of cities. The courses gave graduate students from anthropology, architecture, art history, city and regional planning, comparative literature, music, performance studies and other departments the chance to work side-by-side in studying contemporary and historical cities.

In the quest for new ways of understanding urban form and experience, students and faculty collaborated in traveling research studios, journeying to Mexico City, southern China, Los Angeles, and diverse Bay Area urban neighborhoods to experiment with alternative theories and hybrid methods of research and visual, textual and auditory representation. They used methods ranging from video, sketching and photography to geographic information systems, audio mapping and cartography in order to analyze, tell stories and conduct experiments in performance and design in urban public spaces.

A student tests an urban sensor installed to both engage passers-by with interactive light art and to collect data about pedestrian activity in San Leandro. Courses in the interdisciplinary initiative allow students to design and build urban field experiments as well as to observe and study cities.


Graduate students created exhibitions and publications as they explored themes including participatory art in public space and the use of dance and performance to interrogate urban areas; examined parallel structures in literary and urban form and in music and architecture; and explored questions of power, justice and materiality in gentrifying American cities and in fast-changing megacities of the Global South.


The UC Berkeley team organized symposia and studio course reviews with faculty and students from the UCLA Urban Humanities Initiative to generate conversations about converging and diverging approaches to studying cities in the two programs. This collaboration will continue in the next phase of the initiative at both institutions.

“We are honored that the Mellon Foundation is recognizing our path-breaking work in bringing methods from the humanities to the study of cities, and in providing opportunities for humanities students to experience the studio-style pedagogy that is central to design education,” said Anthony Cascardi, Irving and Jean Stone Dean of Arts and Humanities and co-principal investigator of the initiative.

Jennifer Wolch, William W. Wurster Dean of Environmental Design and the initiative’s principal investigator, said CED has always been known for incorporating a profound consideration of the human element into the design of structures, landscapes and urban space.

“Through this initiative, we have deepened these investigations and are particularly pleased that this new Mellon Foundation grant will allow us to expand our collaborations with the Townsend Center,” said Wolch.

The Global Urban Humanities Initiative has ongoing and robust collaborations with other campus interdisciplinary programs including the Berkeley Center for New Media, the Arts Research Center and Digital Humanities at UC Berkeley, and with such community organizations as the Eastside Arts Alliance, the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and the Northern California Community Loan Fund.