Walking and Talking About City Life

Core course explores urban vs. downtown

Written by Annie Beckmann
Photography by Chris Joseph Taylor
January 14, 2014

CLASS MAKEUP | Mostly juniors and seniors, with about 10 from Matteo Ricci, the rest from the College of Arts and Sciences

Jumping from theory and intellectual exercise to how one actually lives in the world can be a challenge. Yet thinking of themselves as part of a living landscape is what lures many students to Emily Lieb’s Core course, The Livable City.

“It’s really a very Jesuit notion to think about how you’re experiencing your own learning,” says Assistant Professor Lieb.

She retooled what was originally a Matteo Ricci urban policy course into a Core offering that gives students a better opportunity to follow their passions. Instead of a final exam, students now give presentations that involve identifying a contemporary urban problem, examining how it was expressed in the past and posing a solution.

The course is designed to help students develop skills and analytical tools to think critically and creatively about urban problems on a national and international scale, according to Lieb. As they make use of historical sources and methods, they’re better able to create smart arguments to address global challenges.

The course also examines livability in other parts of the world and addresses thorny questions such as growth and development. For the local perspective, Lieb takes students on walking tours of Volunteer Park, Seattle Center, Yesler Terrace, the Pike Place Market and the surrounding Seattle University neighborhood.

Select students lead class discussions based on reading about the history of everything from shopping malls and movie theaters to the suburbs and urban renewal. They might address such topics as whether displacing the culture of a Puerto Rican neighborhood was good or bad for New York City when Lincoln Center became its replacement.

Students lead class discussions based on reading about the history of everything from shopping malls and movie theaters to the suburbs and urban renewal.

During a recent class discussion, Lieb asked her students if they agreed with an assessment by historian Robert Fogelson in his book, Downtown: Its Rise and Fall: “To many Americans, downtown...is neither inevitable nor desirable. Rather it is obsolete, a late 19th-century creation that has no role in the late 20th.”

Students argued that a downtown area in the early 21st century still has elements that distinguish it. Among those factors: Skyscrapers, distinctive architecture, tourists, public transportation, shopping, population density, more crime, social services and public spaces.

Yet a downtown experience is typically one you come from elsewhere to absorb and frequently has nothing to do with living there, Lieb says. Then she offered the next big question: Is it livable?

“You have to drive to get groceries or gas,” said one student.

“Downtown today is more nostalgic,” offered another.

One class member remarked on the diversity of people in a downtown area.. “That’s what’s important,” he said.

“All the people you see when you go downtown.”

Core class shot The new Core curriculum launched this past fall.