2015-2016 Theme: Urban Engagement and the Urban Environment

"Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."

-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities 

With the swelling of the world's population and the advent of megacities, understanding how to develop and support cities that are sustainable on many levels is becoming increasingly urgent. Cities are dynamic and complex ecological systems with unique needs and distinct histories. These intricacies and challenges provide numerous opportunities for environmental innovation and problem solving.

For the 2015-16 Think Tank, we will explore the multifaceted nature of urban environments through an interdisciplinary collaboration—from our backgrounds in art history, psychology, economics, environmental studies, and community-based art making. We will discuss what about cities allows people to thrive, considering a collection of factors including political, social, economic and environmental issues. Through joint and independent research we will focus on different dimensions including space, people and services, examining urban environments locally, nationally, and globally.

Sustainability can often be an elastic, diffuse idea, refusing clear definition and presented without a historical framework. Through a critical look at sustainability, both in a historic and contemporary context, we seek to broaden our own understanding of sustainability, looking at the variety of factors that make a place healthy and ultimately allow its residents to thrive.

Historically, cities have succeeded and failed for predictable and unpredictable reasons. We will examine what constitutes success on both local and global levels, studying urban planning, design and policy. We are also interested in exploring a future trajectory for cities. Ultimately, cities can be platforms for our boldest and most innovative solutions. How can urban environments become places where our most forward thinking emerges?  

2015-2016 Scholars' Research:

  • Melanie Khamis, Assistant Professor of Economics and Latin American Studies
  • Allison Orr, Menakka and Essel Bailey '66 Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the College of the Environment
  • Joseph Siry, Kenan Professor of the Humanities and Professor of Art History
  • Shellae Versey, Assistant Professor of Psychology

Melanie Khamis
As I am economist, I work on paper-based research projects, which often are co-authored, while at the COE. Some of the papers will be also ongoing revisions from previous research, my proposed project and also working on some future projects in the area of labor markets and development. As I am empirical economist I employ household and individual datasets from Census or National Statistics data collections and combine them with historical and other collected information that relate to the external shocks. The approach is quantitative but with a very applied focus..

As part of this year’s Think Tank theme “The Urban Environment and Urban Engagement”, I am looking at urban labor markets in Latin America. In my project at the COE I propose to investigate external shocks, outside the influence of the local environment and its subsequent effects on urban and local labor market outcomes. I look at shocks to the local environment, in particular cities or states within a country. Examples of these shocks are wars, international migration affecting one particular group of the population and natural disasters.

In a specific research project as a Faculty Fellow of the College of the Environment I investigate with my co-authors (Emily Conover, Associate Professor of Economics, Hamilton College and Sarah Pearlman, Associate Professor of Economics, Vassar College) the effect of Mexican male migration to the United States on the local labor market outcomes of women remaining in Mexico.  

As specific outputs from my time as a Faculty Fellow of the College of the Environment, I envisage the work on the main research project to result in a working paper that can be submitted to a journal. Further, I would like to use the time to work on further journal submissions and revisions of other projects. I also would like to develop some new research papers in the area I have proposed above.

Allison Orr
From Venetian gondoliers to sanitation workers, roller skaters to professional baseball players, power linemen to women over 65, Allison Orr creates award-winning choreography with all kinds of performers. Defying easy description, Allison’s work challenges audiences to expand notions of dance and performer while posing the question: who and what can be presented on stage? Allison finds the raw material for her work among the stories and everyday experiences of ordinary people, spending months researching and immersing herself in the community she is engaging. Uncovering that which is essential to the life of a community but often goes unnoticed is central in Allison’s work, as she seeks to give voice to people who may be marginalized or frequently overlooked.

As Artistic Director and founder of Austin-based Forklift Danceworks, Allison was named Best Choreographer of 2003, 2008 and 2013 by the Austin Critics Table, “Best Movement Illuminator” by the Austin Chronicle, one of one of eight "Extraordinary Texans" by Texas Highways Magazine. Her large-scale work, The Trash Project is the subject of a feature-length documentary film entitled Trash Dance. Her work has been funded by the City of Austin, the Texas Commission on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the MAP Fund, numerous foundations, and the City of Venice, Italy. Before founding Forklift Danceworks, Allison taught dance and studied with MacArthur Award winner Liz Lerman and international choreographer Deborah Hay. Allison is a native Texan and holds an MFA in Choreography and Performance from Mills College and a BA in Anthropology from Wake Forest University. Allison is honored to currently be the 2015-16 Menakka and Essel Bailey ’66 Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the College of the Environment at Wesleyan University.

Joseph Siry
Joseph Siry teaches history of modern architecture and urbanism at Wesleyan, where he is Professor of Art History and William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the Humanities.  He  completed his bachelor of arts, magna cum laude, at Princeton, majoring in history, his Master of Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, and his doctorate in history, theory, and criticism of architecture at M.I.T.  His books are Carson Pirie Scott: Louis Sullivan and the Chicago Department Store (Chicago, 1988); Unity Temple: Frank Lloyd Wright and Architecture for Liberal Religion (Cambridge, 1996); The Chicago Auditorium Building: Adler and Sullivan’s Architecture and the City(Chicago, 2002), which won the 2003 Society of Architectural Historians’ Alice Davis Hitchcock Award for best book by a North American scholar, and Beth Sholom: Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Religious Architecture (Chicago, 2012), which was a finalist for a 2013 National Jewish Book Award.  He has published book chapters, seven articles in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians and three in the Art Bulletin, the first of which won College Art Association’s 1991 Arthur Kingsley Porter Prize for the outstanding article by a younger scholar.  He is currently researching how modern architects have integrated mechanical systems for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning into their designs for larger buildings since the early twentieth century.  He was given Wesleyan’s Binswanger Award for Teaching Excellence in 1994.  His work has been funded by the N.E.H., the Getty Research Institute, the Mellon Foundation, and the Graham Foundation.  In 2015 the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy is giving him the Wright Spirit Award in the professional category for his thirty years of scholarship on Wright’s work. 

Shellae Versey
As a developmental psychologist and critical health researcher, Shellae’s interests focus on questions at the intersection of social determinants of health, the environment and an aging society.  Her research examines links between health behaviors and social engagement, as well as implications of place and policy for older adults.  Shellae is currently working on a geographic mapping project for changing spaces, and exploring the dynamics of community and social engagement in cities.  This semester she teaches a seminar course on Healthy Places: Practice, Policy and Population Health.  Shellae is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Wesleyan.