Creating healthier and fairer cities: 10 years of sustainable urban development

‘The design of cities is an essential part of improving people’s lives and wellbeing’ argues Dr David Howard, Director of Studies for the Department’s sustainable urban development programme.

This year the Department’s Master’s in Sustainable Urban Development (MSUD) celebrates its tenth anniversary. Launched in 2010, the course has gone from strength to strength, with 196 students enrolling, and more than 140 students graduating. The success of the MSc led to the creation of a DPhil in Sustainable Urban Development, launched in 2014.

Sanitation and drainage are vital

‘The physical built environment is critical to urban living conditions, where access to safe drinking water, sanitation and drainage are vital for the health of concentrated human populations’ says Dr Howard. ‘One third of the world’s population does not have access to improved sanitation, and 775,000 of global deaths were due to unsafe urban sanitation in 2017.’

At the same time, population growth and the increase in urban living means that ‘many countries remain highly vulnerable not only to the challenges of urbanisation, but to the extreme risks of climate change impact.’

Students of the MSc in Sustainable Urban Development come to the programme from all over the world, and are able to take what they’ve learnt back into their own practices.

Over the duration of the course, notes Dr Howard, many find that new career opportunities open up, with students often changing jobs or receiving promotions while they’re studying. The SUD programme team have worked closely with the University's Careers Service to promote a series of internships focusing on sustainability, some of which have built upon existing relations with organisations and companies that contribute to the practitioner-based teaching provided by the MSc course.

The challenge: making urban areas sustainable

The MSc, which runs part-time over two years, attracts professionals involved in urban design, such as architects and town planners. The first three years were run in formal partnership with the Prince’s Foundation, and the charity continues to have a more informal involvement. As more and more people worldwide move from rural areas into towns and cities, the course looks at how to deal with the challenges involved in making those urban areas sustainable.

Students attend eight residential teaching weeks (six held in Oxford, two at the Prince’s Foundation offices in London), each with a core theme such as climate change, transport and sustainable finance. ‘Each of the teaching weeks is like running a field class or a conference,’ says Dr Howard. ‘Although the themes remain the same, we've brought in different speakers, and reshaped as the course went along.’ The course has always had a 50-50 mix of research and practice.

As the Australian bush fires have shown, climate change has made sustainability a topic of urgent importance – but sustainability isn’t only about reducing carbon emissions. The key challenges, says Dr Howard, are ‘to make the urban fabric of the built environment more conducive to creating ecologically, biophysically, socially and economically more liveable, healthier and fairer cities’.

Life-changing opportunities

The advantage of having such a geographically diverse group of students is they can share both challenges and solutions.

‘One of the key aims of the course is to build up a network of alumni, and for this network to actively keep in touch socially and to use their shared skills, and knowledge from the course to work together professionally wherever possible,’ says Dr Howard.

Former students testify to the difference it’s made both to their careers and outlook.

Philip Briel, an architect in Cape Town, says the course has changed his whole approach to architecture, and having previously designed bespoke houses for wealthy South Africans, he went on to create a sustainable development in Philippi Village, an impoverished Cape Town township.

Responses to a survey conducted last summer are similarly positive, with one student describing the course as a ‘life-changing opportunity’. Another testimonial reads: ‘I have become more outspoken and more opinionated. I am less afraid to pursue projects, make decisions and fight for what I feel is right. New knowledge has enabled me to back up my statements with theory in order to better counter-argue my points in a work environment.’

Or as one former graduate succinctly puts it: ‘A fantastic course that has boosted my career as well as my academic skills and confidence.’

Long may it continue.

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Published 6 February 2020