What is an Urban Studies Degree?

The subject matter of urban studies is the social, economic, environmental, and political complexity of cities. Students of the field examine human urban communities, how they are created, and how they evolve, expand, and change. With half of the world population living in cities and mega-urban regions, the goal of urban studies is a sustainable global future. This large mandate means that the urban studies curriculum is a fusion of courses in anthropology, sociology, architecture, environmental design, geography, planning, politics, and economics.

In short, urban studies is about the problems and possibilities of cities and urban life.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Urban Studies – Four Year Duration
In addition to classroom lectures, many urban studies bachelor’s programs include field school classes taken in real world settings. Field experiences may be available abroad. Some programs also assist students with cooperative work placements that alternate with academic studies.

Here are examples of courses that make up an undergraduate urban studies curriculum:

  • Introduction to Cities – diverse perspectives on the processes that shape cities and urban life
  • The Gendered City – urban gender issues, the gendering of urban design and planning, daily urban activities, urban labor markets, urban politics, gentrification, suburbanization, identity construction
  • The City in Film – how representation of cities in film influences understandings of urban processes; discussion of urban form, suburbanization, economic restructuring, racial conflict, community formation, and urban politics
  • The Transit City – examination of the relationships among public transit, urban form, and land use planning and policy in the context of challenges such as climate change, energy shortages, widespread urbanization, and traffic congestion
  • Contemporary Social Problems – problems of nationalism, regionalism, economic and social development, gender, religion, and social change in various parts of the world
  • Architecture in Context – how a region’s architecture affects particular activities, land use, and social groups within it
  • Sustainability by Design – a look at local and international examples of sustainable community designs
  • City Making: A Global Perspective – current trends, policies and practices in city development across the globe
  • Land Economics – economic analysis of land use problems, rent theory, land valuation, land conservation, effects of institutions and public policies on land use
  • Urban Environments – the impact of urban development on the natural environment and vice versa
  • Urban Worlds – theories and systems of urban location, spatial structure of the city, commercial and industrial location, social areas, neighborhood and land use change, urban trends, and public policy
  • Geographies of Migration and Settlement – changing global demographics, immigration policies, international migration patterns, and settlement policies and outcomes
  • Social and Behavioral Geography – social change in the world city, labor markets, poverty and inequality, social polarization, housing markets, gentrification and housing affordability, immigration and segregation, diversity and multiculturalism, the welcoming city
  • Smart Cities: Concepts, Methods, and Design – transformation of cities by technology and socio-economic innovation

Master’s Degree in Urban Studies – Two Year Duration
At the master’s level students take some required courses but can design their program in consultation with a faculty member, to focus on their particular area of interest. The master’s program’s culminating requirement is typically a thesis based on original research. Some schools may offer a non-thesis option. Urban Studies master’s grads often go on to apply their knowledge in senior government and business roles.

Doctoral Degree in Urban Studies – Five to Seven Year Duration
The master’s program involves a lot of taught courses. It emphasizes the transition from pure subject learning to independent research. On the other hand, the doctoral degree is like a very long dissertation project. Ph.D. students have a great deal of independence. They have the benefit of supervision from a faculty advisor and may complete some taught classes, but their focus is on their independent research, on contributing original – new – knowledge to the field of urban studies. The Doctoral Degree in Urban Studies is targeted at students who aspire to a career as an independent researcher or university professor.

The courses taken by individual master’s degree and Ph.D. candidates will vary, depending on the focus of their thesis or dissertation. The aim of all courses, however, is to promote excellence in research.

Examples of Core Graduate Level Courses

  • Applied Quantitative Reasoning – introduction to research methodology and quantitative analysis applied to the fields of public administration, planning, and policy; how to analyze social questions using statistical analyses; familiarization with statistical software
  • Public Finance and Economics – fundamental economic concepts and tools used by economists in thinking, talking, and writing about issues of government spending, taxing, and regulation
  • Urban Spatial Structures – the foundations that shape urban spatial structure: population, migration, economy, land use, housing, and transportation; the interactions among people, place, and process, which produce outcomes such as employment clusters, concentrated poverty, residential densities, congestion, and sprawl
  • Evolution of Human Settlements – examination of key periods in history such as the industrial revolution that dramatically changed how we think about the places we live; technological changes such as the invention of the railroad and personal vehicles that impacted society

Examples of Areas of Research / Specialization

  • Economic Development
  • Public Finance
  • Urban and Public Policy
  • Urban Real Estate Development
  • Community and Neighborhood Development
  • Comparative Urban Studies

Degrees Similar to Urban Studies

Students of anthropology study the evolutionary history of people, how they interact, how they adapt to various environments, how they communicate and socialize with one another, and how their bodies and cultures have changed over time. The field attempts to answer big questions on many of the fundamentals of human culture, from gender to political systems to violence, religion, race, and economics.

A degree in architecture will appeal to individuals who have an interest in and appreciation for both the sciences and the arts. This is because architecture is itself the art and science of designing and engineering structures and buildings. It is a field with a foundation in creativity, technology, and social and cultural trends.

Economics asks wide questions about world economies, how governments should respond to financial crises, how stock prices and exchange rates are set, and how to help people living in poverty. The degree field is focused on how to use the concepts and theories of economics to study and solve problems in business.

Ethnic Studies
This is the historical, social, and cultural study of minorities in the United States. Through coursework in history, political science, economics, sociology, literature, and art history, students examine race, racism, and forms of institutionalized violence.

History is the study of change over time. Degree programs in the field examine political history, diplomatic/international relations history, cultural/ideological history, social/living standards history, economic history, intellectual/philosophical history, and military/armed conflict history.

Public Policy
Students in a public policy degree program study the world of public affairs and leadership. They take courses from various disciplines to attempt to answer complex questions like: What do we need to do to find solutions to social problems? Classes span political science, law, criminal justice, economics, public administration, human services, and sociology. Coursework includes analysis of governments and other public institutions and how they tackle issues and policy problems.

Urban Planning
Degree programs in urban planning teach the processes involved in designing communities, towns, and cities. Students learn how to make decisions about the need for and placement of infrastructure like roads, highways, tunnels, bridges, airports, railroads, dams, utilities, parks, and other urban projects. Coursework includes environmental planning, which considers environmental, social, political, and economic factors.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Communication, Public Speaking, and Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking, Problem-Solving, and Creativity
  • Cultural Sensitivity
  • Data Analysis and Information Technology
  • Debating
  • Decision-Making
  • Delegation and Leadership
  • Organization
  • Political Awareness
  • Public Awareness
  • Report Writing
  • Research / Information Sourcing
  • Sensitivity to Public Interests

What Can You Do with an Urban Studies Degree?

Urban studies graduates work in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. They typically pursue careers in:

  • Local, State, and Federal Government
  • Economic Development
  • Emergency Management Consulting
  • Healthcare Management
  • Program Evaluation and Policy Analysis
  • Urban Real Estate Development
  • Housing, Community, and Neighborhood Revitalization
  • Environmental Advocacy and Management
  • Public Safety Management
  • Human Services and Resource Management
  • Urban Planning
  • Politics
  • Lobbying
  • Heritage Conservation
  • Research


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