‘Welcome to Your Urban Future’ class motivates students to pursue urban issues

While studying real estate, University of Wisconsin-Madison sophomore Lily Yalowitz originally enrolled in “Welcome to Your Urban Future” (URPL 215) to fulfill a humanities breadth requirement.

Yalowitz, who was more interested in the community and social aspects of her real estate courses, soon realized the Urban and Regional Planning class was closely aligned with her interests.

“I realized that this was just much more up my alley, and I’m more interested in the sustainability aspect of things and larger scale systematic change,” Yalowitz said. “It was the perfect fit for me.”

Yalowitz changed majors and is now studying Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture and pursuing certificates in environmental studies and business. While she is not sure what career she will pursue, she said she has more options to consider after taking the class.

Inspiring students to build a better urban future is one of the goals that UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter, who teaches the three-credit class, wants students to take away from the semester.

“Cities are going to continue to grow and become more complex, and we need to be preparing students to grapple with those complexities. We wanted to give a wide overview of all things cities do to inspire them to want to learn and study more,” Luter said. “Ultimately, we want students to work in and with cities to make them places that are committed to sustainability, equity, and democratic participation.”

“Welcome to Your Urban Future” is also an extension of UniverCity Alliance’s (UCA) mission to connect a growing community of people on campus looking to improve their communities. UCA is a network of leaders from across campus that serves as the “front door” for local governments to access resources at UW-Madison.

Throughout the semester, students learned from faculty and city leaders across a broad range of topics that include development, sustainability, community engagement in a digital age, inequity in cities, social services, transportation, housing and education.

Bella Smith, who completed her sophomore year, appreciated the variety of issues taught, and like Yalowitz, she changed her major after taking the class. Smith went from studying biology to majoring in Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture and Global Health with a certificate in environmental studies after taking “Welcome to Your Urban Future.”

In Smith’s case, the class “solidified” her choice to change majors.

“I’ve always been personally interested in urban studies, and I’m really interested in sustainable development,” Smith said. “The class is a good, broad introduction, which I really like. It’s useful for people who are not entirely sure what they want to do.”

Village of Windsor President Robert Wipperfurth, left, and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, right, visited the “Welcome to Your Urban Future” class on May 4.

A variety of speakers visited the class throughout the semester. On the last day of class May 4, City of Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Village of Windsor President Robert Wipperfurth shared their experiences as elected officials.

Wipperfurth encouraged students to stay engaged in their communities and to consider running for office.

“If you want to have a voice in your community, it’s the best way to get involved,” he said.

Rhodes-Conway challenged students to notice the “unseen” work of municipal government and find the policy that’s often hidden behind the basic delivery of services.

“If you go into local government–if you go into any level of government–your biggest impact is not going to be that you worked on an individual transportation policy or sustainability policy or education policy, it’s going to be how you changed the system of that government and changed some of those policies for the better,” Rhodes-Conway said.

Both Wipperfurth and Rhodes-Conway both encouraged the students to consider municipal careers when considering their future after graduation.

For sophomore Shealynn Wegner, who is majoring in Landscape and Urban Studies, the class provided tangible examples of possible career paths that include local government and private developers.

Wegner’s personal interest in the environment led her to consider how the structure of cities could improve people’s lives and reduce strain on the environment.

“Taking this class and seeing the people that came in and hearing their stories helped solidify my desire to work in urban spaces,” said Wegner, who also worked with Luter to navigate applying to campus jobs and networking with development companies through the Planning and Landscape Architecture Career Fair, which was promoted through the class.

Students who are not majoring in urban studies also found the class valuable for their future careers.

Junior Kyle Wicks, a sociology major, said he was struck by how much urban development and planning is at the “core of anything that is going to move progress or change in our society.”

“The class was really hitting home that society is becoming more and more urbanized, and there are people urbanizing it,” Wicks said. “The class just gave me a really excellent perspective and understanding on that whole process.”

—By Abigail Becker