Which Major Funder is Forging an Alliance between the Humanities and Urban Studies?

This article features the work of the Mellon Foundation's Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities Initiative, including their grant investment in UC Berkeley's Global Urban Humanities Initiative. The text below is taken from the April 25, 2016 Inside Philanthropy article written by Mike Scutari. 

We here at IP are inherently optimistic people. And so far all the talk about the death of the liberal arts education, we prefer to take a more measured approach. There are plenty of funders out there who appreciate the humanities. They're not going anywhere. But the future will look a lot different than the past.

Such is the underlying logic behind some recent gives for what we'll broadly call "interdisciplinary studies." It's an ambiguous term. And while we know that liberal arts are part of the equation, usually it's up to the funders and the grant recipients to fill in the details.

One intriguing example comes to us from Chicago, where a $10 million gift from Steven Stevanovich, will help his alma mater establish an interdisciplinary center dedicated to the study of knowledge, known within the field of philosophy as epistemology.

Another comes to us a bit further west, in Berkeley, California, where the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation provided $1.5 million in renewed funding to UC Berkeley's Global Urban Humanities Initiative. The cash infusion will help fund the initiative for four more years, suggesting that Mellon was quite naturally pleased with its progress thus far. 

Let's first start with the players behind the initiative.

The university's College of Environmental Design and the College of Letters and Science's Division of Arts and Humanities have been working on what they call a "global cities effort" for years. Now these two groups are taking their work to the next level. They plan on establishing one of the country's first graduate and undergraduate certificate in "urban humanities," as well as Global Urban Humanities-Townsend Fellowships, in partnership with Berkeley's Townsend Center for the Humanities, to support related interdisciplinary research by graduates and faculty. 


So what to make of all this? First off, we can rightly assume that Mellon, by providing additional funding, likes what they see. And what they're seeing, most obviously, is the idea of "interdisciplinary studies" in the truest sense. We counted three different entities involved in this initiative moving forward. 

Secondly, the initiative is centered on a very cool concept that should encourage even the most pessimistic liberal arts aficionado—the merging of the humanities with urban studies. The grant continues UC Berkeley’s participation in Mellon's Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities initiative, which was launched in 2012. According to Mellon:

Grants made under the initiative aim to forge relations between schools of architecture and programs in the humanities, to experiment with the architecture studio as a pedagogic model for the humanities, to support thought about the large, humanistic questions that arise in dense urban environments, and to promote broadly based research projects in major global cities.

So far, 18 grants have been awarded to 16 institutions, including grants in 2012 to support linked initiatives for UC Berkeley and UCLA. 

Here's one example of the initiative in action. A Berkeley student installs a sensor to "engage passer-by with interactive light art." Sounds, well, arty right? And perhaps slightly impractical? Not so fast. The sensor also allows the student to collect data about pedestrian activity in the respective city. The initiative, in short, lets students consider the human element when designing structures, landscapes, and urban spaces. It's valuable work.

Add it up, and we consider this grant to be yet another example in Mellon's efforts to prepare humanities students for the real world

Mellon has also been quite hip to other components of interdisciplinary-related grantmaking in higher education as of late. Check out this recent $2.6 million grant to William and Mary University, earmarked for funding projects focused on integrative and interdisciplinary teaching, as well as research and scholarship components.