York launches new CITY research institute

When York yesterday launched its own urban research centre, the City Institute at York University (CITY), the timing couldn’t have been better.

The Keele campus was buzzing with thousands of academics here for the 75th Congress of the Humanities & Social Sciences, whose theme this year is The City: A Festival of Knowledge. And York President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden had just hosted a panel of university presidents discussing The University and the City.

Right: Prof. Patricia Wood talks about the new City Institute at York University. Stan Shapson (top), York vice-president research & innovation, looks on. Roger Keil, the institute’s new director, and Engin Isin, Canada Research Chair in Citizenship Studies, are seated to the left of Wood.

Before an audience of university presidents, regional politicians, faculty, staff and visiting scholars gathered in the light-filled atrium on the Scott Library’s second floor, Stan Shapson, vice-president research & innovation, announced the creation of CITY, York’s 23rd research centre.

The new urban research institute “will continue the interdisciplinary research that is York’s hallmark by bringing many researchers together to work on urban issues,” said Shapson.  “But what is equally important is CITY provides a tremendous base to partner with people in the community. Yes, we will create new knowledge, but we will also create new understanding and we will all go away enriched.”

Then the three faculty members who came up with the idea, presented the proposal and made it happen stepped forward. Geographer Patricia Wood, who wrote the proposal, described the many ways scholars see a city — as an engine of wealth, a wasteland, a war zone, a refuge, a site of road rage, a blur of light, a beacon of hope — and said “York researchers will study the city from all past, present and possible angles.” Citizenship expert Engin Isin listed retired faculty who make up York’s “incredible lineage” of urban researchers whose work has put York on the international intellectual map. “They are still a source of inspiration for us…and the basis on which we are standing.”


 Above:  Unwrapping the CITY Web site are Roger Keil (left), Engin Isin and Paticia Wood

Roger Keil is CITY’s inaugural director. An environmental studies professor specializing in urban geography, politics and planning, he talked of York’s location in the “in-between” city where immigrants come and go and cities grow and change. “We are looking straight into the open heart of the new city.” He thanked Isin and Wood, without whose vision and perseverence there would be no CITY.

The full speeches by Shapson, Wood, Isin and Keil are featured on the new CITY Web site, unveiled at the launch.

The city institute proposal began to take shape about two years ago after Shapson introduced four research themes at York – environment & sustainability, culture & entertainment, health, and international research. It was spearheaded by Wood, who asked Shapson to consider a fifth — urban research. After all, there are few spaces in the world today that lie outside the urban network, she would later argue in the proposal she prepared with Keil and Isin, Canada Research Chair in Citizenship Studies, for an urban research centre. Senate approved the proposal in April.

The institute has wasted no time getting started. Three projects are already underway:

  • Keil, Wood and Isin are working together to identify the infrastructure needs of the “in-between” city straddling Toronto and Vaughan.
  • Wood and law Prof. Peer Zumbansen are editing a multimedia book called Urbanity, Culture and the Law: Reassessing the Global. It will feature interdisciplinary work by legal scholars, economists, cultural observers, geographers, historians and political scientists and linguists and will come with a short documentary film, a series of photographs and a music/sound CD.
  • Environmental studies Prof. Barbara Rahder leads geographer Ranu Basu, environmental studies Prof. Liette Gilbert, social work Prof. Susan McGrath and Wood in a project exploring how diverse, low-income, marginalized people in Montreal, Toronto and Calgary perceive and experience public space. They will map opportunities and barriers these citizens encounter in the city and articulate their needs for a more sustainable and equitable urban future.

Shapson’s office will support the institute for the first three years until research funding begins to flow from other sources. Keil is acting director for two years and will have help from an administrative assistant.

Right: Celebrating the launch are Roger Keil (left), Engin Isin and Patricia Wood

Goals for the first three years include starting a newsletter, raising money for an international lecture series to start in the third year, seeking research funding and aggressively promoting the institute to urban researchers, policy makers and community activists in and outside Canada. Goals for the second three-year period include developing a working paper series and a summer course on urban issues, and offering space to a postdoctoral fellow or visiting professor to promote comparative research.

The City Institute at York University will focus on everything urban – whether it is the areas “in-between” cities and suburbs, or the social forces at work in cities around the globe.