Improving the quality of life in cities

The Gordon Fellowship program, currently in its second year, provides urban studies students with an opportunity to find summer internships that connect theory with practice.

compiled head shots of five gordon fellows, from top left clockwise Carson Eckhard, Nick Zhu, Sarah Jones, Melina Lawrence, and Anna Duan,
This year’s Gordon Fellows (from top left clockwise) Carson Eckhard, Nick Zhu, Sarah Jones, Melina Lawrence, and Anna Duan, completed summer internships across a broad range of organizations but were all focused on improving the quality of life in cities.

The coronavirus pandemic has left a significant impact on everyday life in cities, from reduced usage of public transit to an influx of people into public outdoor spaces. As cities recover from and adapt to COVID-19, this year’s five Gordon Fellows had the opportunity to study and understand cities and how they evolve. 

Now in its second year, the Fellows program allows urban studies students to pursue opportunities and internships that allow them to connect theory with practice. “The idea of the fellowship is to give students an opportunity to work with an organization that contributes in a positive way to the quality of life in cities,” says Elaine Simon, co-director of the Urban Studies Program

Gordon Fellows receive a summer stipend, which allows them to them to find work with organizations that might not typically have an established internship program. This year, even as COVID-19 abruptly changed what many internships looked like, the cohort of Gordon Fellows were still able to work on timely and rewarding projects. 

Making transportation accessible

After moving throughout her childhood, from the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., to the Silicon Valley of China, urban studies major Anna Duan has long been interested in how cities are shaped by complex factors such as public policy, economics, and history. This summer, the junior from Shenzhen, China, was able to learn firsthand about another complex factor that shapes cities, public transportation, as part of her internship with the Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicago-based planning and policy organization.

Duan was involved with several of MPC’s ongoing projects, including efforts to distribute bicycles to low-income areas of Chicago and assessing Americans with Disabilities Act compliance across Chicago-area municipalities. During her internship, she conducted research on street walkability and ADA regulations, had regular meetings with other members of the transportation team, was involved with online panels on transportation equity, learned about policy and planning through online webinars, and helped her co-workers put together grant proposals. 

After working on a transportation-related project during a research methods course, Duan wanted to gain more quantitative skills while also studying the qualitative aspects of transportation, so the opportunity at MPC was a great chance to do both. “A lot of the writing about transportation is about data and efficiency, while the work I’ve been doing at MPC has been very community focused,” she says. “Efficiency is measured by mobility, so how easily people can get from point A to point B. However, in recent years, people have focused more on accessibility, which is whether people can get from wherever they are starting to opportunities that they actually need. And I’ve seen that focus on accessibility at MPC.”

Building a more just society

Carson Eckhard, who is minoring in urban studies alongside her dual major in English and history and a second minor in Africana studies, says that the urban studies program’s interdisciplinarity was a big draw for her. “I love how the curriculum aligns with the experiences that I have outside the classroom and the way that the major and the minor encourage that through fieldwork classes,” says the senior from Tampa, Florida. 

In August of 2019, Eckhard began working in the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, which handled the Terrance Lewis case in May 2019. After meeting with Lewis to discuss his interest in creating an organization that would help accelerate wrongful-conviction claims, and with the CIU not running its traditional internship program, Eckhard was able to use her Gordon Fellowship to focus on developing and supporting the newly established Liberation Foundation. Describing her role as similar to a chief of staff, Eckhard has been busy recruiting students and professionals to serve on committees, managing social media posts, having daily phone calls with Lewis, and finalizing the team of lawyers who will be working on the Foundation’s first case, which they hope to accept in the coming weeks. 

Eckhard credits her field work class with Julia McWilliams this spring as essential for how she approaches her internship. “She did a great job of connecting the threads between the work that we were doing in class and how that contributes to a stronger Philadelphia. I found myself thinking a lot about that framework as we build our team here, thinking about people with different talents and experiences, and that has probably been the most transformative urban studies-related experience I’ve had for this work,” says Eckhard. 

Communicating with impact

As a urban studies senior who is submatriculating into Penn’s master’s in nonprofit leadership program, Sarah Jones, from Guilderland, New York, was attracted to the curriculum because of the opportunities to combine history and theory with practice, all while using the city of Philadelphia as a classroom. This summer, Jones worked with SKD Knickerbocker, a political consulting and public affairs firm. After needing to cancel a planned internship with a youth agriculture and community service program because of COVID-19 concerns, Jones continued working with SKDK, where she started last spring as part of the Penn in Washington program

Jones is on the public affairs team and supports communication efforts by local governments, nonprofit organizations, and corporations, with much of her work focused on responses to both coronavirus and racial justice, especially in how organizations can address these topics. She enjoys the ability to work on new things every day, from media monitoring and writing press releases to shifting gears to address an organization’s communication needs. “Because we’re doing communications, things can change in a matter of minutes, and suddenly we have a new issue that we have to think about, so I really enjoy that,” she says. 

While providing communications support for a criminal justice reform advocacy organization, Jones has been able to see how topics she learns about in her classes are reflected in the work that people and groups are pursuing. “Instead of just seeing the historical perspective that I get in school, seeing the modern-day advocacy that’s going on right now and getting to be involved in that policy making has been really cool,” she says. 

Redesigning urban spaces

Melina Lawrence, a senior from Lakewood, Ohio, who’s majoring in architecture and urban studies, enjoys the practical perspectives that her urban studies courses provide. “Architects are asking questions such as who is this space for and what are the primary uses, before we go in and do intervention,” she says, something she’s now been able to expand on as part of her internship with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS)

PHS’s urban design team manages Philadelphia parks and playgrounds and is also involved with the Rebuild Philadelphia program. Lawrence’s role involves managing a library of architectural renderings, developing a price list to help estimate project costs, and researching PHS’ previous community engagement activities. “As the pandemic continues, we’re thinking about if engagement was meaningful before the pandemic, figuring out what populations haven’t been reached, and thinking about new ways to engage communities during this time that things are moving digital,” says Lawrence. 

While she has enjoyed learning about what a traditional role in an architecture firm would look like, the internship has also made her interested in community engagement and historic preservation. “A lot of urban studies is thinking about who is the population, what do they have access to, and I am thinking about my role and what assumptions am I bringing to the table and trying to break those down,” she says. 

Food sustainability 

Inspired by his Brooklyn upbringing, senior Nick Zhu is double majoring in environmental studies and urban studies and is interested in the intersection of sustainability and urban design. “Growing up in a city makes you really appreciate the environment,” says Zhu. “It makes you think about trying to preserve the natural environment as well as the sustainability of environments in which a lot of people live.”

At Terreform, a nonprofit urban design firm, Zhu is studying food sustainability in New York City. Building on a previous report by Terreform called “NYC steady state,” their current project called “Homegrown” asks if the city can produce enough food within its own borders to feed its roughly 10 million residents. His summer has involved doing research, writing text, and laying out graphic elements for the upcoming publication while meeting online with project supervisors and team members on a regular basis. 

Zhu’s summer project connects to a class he took on the biology of food two years ago, which Zhu says has influenced his understanding of the impact that food production has on the environment as well as his personal habits outside the classroom. “The thing about environmental studies and urban studies is that you can live the major as well as study the major,” he says. 

The future of cities

Despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, none of this year’s Gordon Fellows thinks that the coronavirus will lead to a mass emigration from urban areas. “I don’t think that COVID will be the end of cities. Things will go back to normal, with the exception that we’ve brought attention to issues that have been exposed by COVID, whether that’s racial injustices or access to health care or food. I hope that those things will have more action around them,” says Jones, who is interested in pursuing a career in the nonprofit sector advocating for social change with a focus on food access. 

“I can’t really imagine a world without cities,” says Eckhard. “But regardless of the state of any urban area, we still have this need for justice, and that is a challenge that persists and is many ways magnified by situations like the pandemic.” Eckhard says that pandemics exacerbate existing injustices, citing the rapid spread of COVID-19 in prisons, and emphasizes that more attention on marginalized populations is needed in order to address issues on a foundational level, work that she hopes to continue pursuing by working with organizations like the Liberation Foundation in the future.  

“Throughout the pandemic, I’ve seen that a lot of the issues that we talk about in my classes and that I see in my research, issues about inequity, racial injustice, and unequal access to food and health care are coming to the surface now more than before,” says Duan. “Cities are not going anywhere, and while we’re seeing how everything is getting shaken up, I think there’s a lot of potential for change.”

With perspectives in architecture, design, and urban planning, Lawrence emphasizes the continued importance of working with communities, something that she’s been able to be a part of, even remotely, thanks to her summer internship. “Considering the pandemic and the systemic racism that is coming to light in full force, communities who experience the built environment should be the driving force of reshaping it.”

Zhu says that while it’s been disheartening to see the impact of the pandemic on his hometown in the past few months, he is optimistic that society can learn from the experience and can better address other preventable challenges, such as climate change, in the future. “We’ve seen the effects that this virus has on the entire world, and I think something similar is going to happen with the priorities of environmental protection. Protecting the environment is going to become one of the front-page issues in society, and hopefully the lessons learned from COVID will apply to the lessons that have to be learned to protect our environment.”

Facing both coronavirus and renewed attention to racism and inequality, Simon says that these students are equipped to improve on cities. “COVID-19 revealed a lot of problems that exist in cities. Now, our students can ride that newfound awareness to help reconstitute things in a way that is more just and inclusive,” says Simon.

Elaine Simon is co-director of the Urban Studies Program in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania

The Gordon Fellowship program is supported by funding from alumnus Jacques Gordon and his family. Becoming a Gordon Fellow provides opportunities for a select group of students, who are either majoring or minoring in Urban Studies, to explore careers that would lead to improving the quality of life in cities, whether in the public, nonprofit, or private sectors, and connects them with alumni mentors.