With an eye toward the human impact on the environment, Suffolk is launching the Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability in fall 2016. The University’s longstanding environmental science and environmental studies majors will now be more intertwined, offering students an innovative, multidisciplinary approach to examining sustainability and how humans can better coexist with the natural ecosystem in an urban context.

“Suffolk has been doing a lot of things around sustainability for years, but it’s never been put under an umbrella department or unit,” says Maria Toyoda, dean of the University’s College of Arts and Sciences. This is a natural fit for a school like Suffolk; our faculty expertise really converges around these things.”

A longstanding commitment

Highlighting a commitment to urban sustainability was one of the first things Suffolk President Margaret McKenna stressed when she became the University’s leader last summer.

Sustainability at Suffolk will focus both on what incremental improvements can be made over time and the way people live.

The Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability, or CUES, is an idea that faculty members across the University’s schools embrace as timely and forward thinking, according to Chemistry & Biochemistry Professor Patricia Hogan, who is the center’s inaugural director.

Science and government

“Environmental science was housed in chemistry and biochemistry, and environmental studies was housed in government. So CUES represents the merger of those two programs,” she says. “We’re building a cohort among students who are interested in the policy aspects and those who are interested in the science aspects, because one has to inform the other. And the curriculum is designed so there are touch points where environmental science and environmental studies students come together.”

Faculty have developed a new concentration—urban environmentalism, and the center will work in urban design components in collaboration with Suffolk’s New England School of Art & Design. The interdisciplinary approach also extends to the Sawyer Business School, which will work with the center to develop initiatives on green business and corporate stewardship. In time, there will be input from the Psychology and Sociology departments, according to Hogan.

The human aspect

“Human beings are integral to the ecosystem,” says Toyoda, who looks at urban sustainability and asks: “How does human society in urban centers self-organize? How do humans create structures? How do they create institutions to live in greater harmony with both the natural and built environments?”

These elemental questions of sustainability lead to consideration of a range of issues, including providing equitable access to essentials like clean water and clean energy.

Our urban environments are human-designed and contain problems that need to be solved, and we need to ask how we can address these problems in a way that is doing the least net damage, said Toyoda. “From a broad perspective, sustainability asks how we can do this in a way that is going to serve the human population and our environment well for the long term.”

Seeing the city as a model

With its location in the heart of downtown Boston, Suffolk is in a perfect position to examine the effects of climate change, Toyoda says.

“Boston is one of the most vulnerable cities in terms of global warming. In 20-some years, a huge portion of the city could be underwater. We already see during a rainstorm where we might have some problems,” she says. “You can’t come at these issues from only one perspective. It’s important to work with awareness of science, politics, and society."

Preparing responsible leaders

This has been described as “the century of the environment,” Hogan says, and Suffolk’s students need to be prepared because “they’re going to see things no one has seen before in terms of shifts in demographics and environment.”

“We need to have students who are engaged in looking at environmental issues through multiple lenses and who are really dedicated to thinking about how we protect both our human population and the biosphere in a way that allows us all to prosper,” she says. “We want to foster a mindset about what it means to a responsible person on this planet.”

Toyoda echoes Hogan’s point about the readiness of the University and its students to tackle these issues.

“The Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability is a mechanism by which we get faculty, staff, and students from around the University to collaborate around these urban sustainability issues in a way that was difficult when there wasn’t a single place for them to come,” she says. “What we’re trying to do is open up more of these interdisciplinary sandboxes for people to play in."