A Conversation with Emily Talen, Professor of Urbanism

Author: Cynthia Long
December 12, 2018

Emily Talen is the Professor of Urbanism at the University of Chicago. I sat down with Professor Talen this week to talk about urban design, her research, and what her PGE College Fellow is up to. This transcript has been lightly edited.

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Could you give me an overview of your work and your research interests?

I am primarily an urban planner and urban designer. My interest is in the built environment in cities and how that impacts social, environmental, economic, and cultural phenomena. From that, I study things like how to make cities more walkable, how to make neighborhoods relevant, how to encourage walking behavior, how to support street life, how to make civic spaces more inclusive, how to encourage social diversity.

How did you get into urban design?

I spent my senior year in college in Paris, and I just got really enamored with it. So I got really interested in thinking about built environment issues. I got a master’s degree in city planning and worked as a city planner for the city of Santa Barbara. From there, I got a PhD and got into the whole academic research end of things. That interest in urban design continued throughout my career. Not only these built environment aspects, but how do you actually intervene in the process of city-making to make better quality environments? Because design is about intervention. It’s about actually going out there and changing things.

Is that the ultimate goal of your research, to help make better interventions?

Yes. How to improve spaces, improve the quality of urban environments, and do it in a way that’s inclusive. A big part of the problem has always been: once we start making improvements and creating beautiful cities, do you start shutting people out? Do you start making segregated cities? To have those policy aspects to make sure that doesn’t happen, that’s the end goal.

Could you talk about the current project that your PGE College Research Fellow is working on?

I call it street life — the one component that’s really important in street life is retail spaces. The most land in our city that is owned is probably our streets and our sidewalks, so it’s a huge part of making quality urban environments. How are the storefronts handled? Are they blank spaces? Are they big boxes? Are they chain stores? Are they mom and pop stores? What’s happening to the quality of the uses that are occupying all of those storefronts? I’ve been in this for a couple years now, trying to understand how the change from small stores to big stores has impacted the quality of our streetscapes.

What I’m doing right now is interviewing the remaining small retailers that we have in the city. There’s been a lot of hoopla about the retail apocalypse and how we’re all doing Amazon shopping and our mom and pop stores are dead. But that’s really overblown. They still exist and are still an important part of our urban environment. I want to better understand the ones that are still there. How are they doing? How are they sustaining themselves? What are their stresses? How can we help them? And there’s been very little understanding and surveying of these retailers. The College Fellow that I hired, Mark, is part of a team of 3 students doing this… I’m super happy that I have a College Fellow to help with [surveying neighborhood retail establishments].

What do you think your College Fellow has learned through this project?

I think he’s learning where these retailers are, what their street spaces are like, and what kind of environments they inhabit. The fellows also take photos and make notes about the context of where these small retailers are, and he’s having interactions with retailers and explaining to them about how we’re trying to understand life as a small retailer.

What are your goals for the College Fellow program?

I would love to get more students getting out there in Chicago’s neighborhoods, studying them at the ground level, and interacting with residents and shop owners and neighborhood organizers. Students are just absolutely invaluable to collecting that kind of street-level intelligence because they have the energy, and they have the chutzpah, and they have the moxie. You can’t send old-timers like me out there. We need people who are energetic. And the perspective of being younger is really helpful because it brings fresh eyes and a new perspective. I’ve been walking the streets of our cities for a long time, and I have my certain deep-rooted inclinations about things..

I’m taking a class taught by you and Sabina Shaikh that deals with urban design but also with the environment, resilience, and economics. What are your thoughts on interdisciplinary collaboration and what do you see as urban design’s role?

I think all of these things fit together. To me, urban design can’t really be separated from environmental goals like the sustainable city, lessening land consumption, and being more energy efficient. All those environmental goals are implicit in good urban design. So that’s why it’s been a great opportunity to work with Sabina, who comes from that environmental perspective. I’ve been more focused on the built environment and urban side, so having a chance to explore those synergies and really make it explicit is great. Even though it’s always there, the attraction and integration, having courses like ours is a way to really think through a little bit more what that actually means and what that looks like.

I know you have a book coming out. What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to and where do you see your research going in the future?

I just finished this book on the neighborhood as a concept and how to implement that. I’m also starting a new book venture on a big-picture view of city planning and city plan-making. I think there’s a lack of understanding of what cities actually are, their history, and where they have succeeded. City planning as a profession has been kind of beaten down. People don’t see where it’s actually had an impact. It’s seen as being a top-down, behind closed doors, shady dealing thing that’s mostly for lining the pockets of developers. I’m more interested in taking a global perspective over the centuries and saying, “Here is how humans have thought cities should be designed. These are the plans they have made, this is where their plans have been implemented, and this is all the good that’s come of it.” It’s basically city plans from a happy perspective.

I can’t wait to read it.

Find out more about Professor Talen’s work by visiting the Urbanism Lab's website or by taking her spring quarter class about the theory and practice of urban design, ENST 26003: Chicago by Design.