MPA in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) faculty member Rohit “Rit” Aggarwala works on cities, transportation, and the environment, from the perspectives of formal public official, policy expert, and historian. In addition to his position at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Rit is the Special Advisor to the Chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, co-chair of the Fourth Regional Plan of the Regional Plan Association of New York, and leads environmental programs for Bloomberg Philanthropies. Prior to his role in C40 Cities, Rit was the Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability for the City of New York from 2006 to 2010. This semester, Rit is teaching Politics and Policy of Urban Sustainability, an ESP course that focuses on what the “city” is, politics and the policy of sustainability in the municipal context.
1. Why did you choose to teach at Columbia in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) Program?
Since I did both my undergrad and my graduate work at Columbia, this is very much my academic home, and it is good to be back. But aside from the personal connection, there’s nowhere better to work on issues of urban sustainability than a university that offers the sustainability expertise of the Earth Institute and a location in the world’s greatest city.
2. What is new in the field of urban sustainability?
Urban sustainability is entering a new phase, one of mainstreaming. Before the failed Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, the attention of sustainability research, advocacy, and policy was mainly at the nation-state; since then, the world has recognized cities as the location of greatest hope. At the same time, urban sustainability policies are no longer new; it’s time for more critical analysis of how the shiny new ideas of a decade ago have performed. For the same reason, we’re seeing the beginning of a convergence around a suite of standard policies and programs that more and more cities will adopt – bike sharing, bus rapid transit, recycling and composting, and so on. This means that a key area of focus in the near term will be standardization and refinement rather than bold innovation. In terms of climate change, resilience is gaining at least an equal priority to emissions reductions, and the concept of the community carbon inventory is going to be superseded by a consumption-based approach that includes lifecycle carbon footprints. It’s an exciting field at an exciting time.
3. What course do you teach and why do you think that it is important to the field of sustainability?
My current course is the Politics and Policy of Urban Sustainability. My objective with the course is to offer students a broad perspective – including a lot of history – on what the city is, and the kinds of tools that sustainability policy inevitably uses. With this class, I don’t try to give a checklist or a set of current practices, but rather the kind of perspective that I hope will equip students to be smart, effective, and wise policymakers and advocates. I often think too many sustainability experts know the details of what specific things need to be done but don’t have the broader awareness to see how to get them done.
4. What is your favorite part of your job as a professor?
Students – especially the diverse group at a place like SIPA – are always challenging your assumptions. It’s great, because it forces me carefully to evaluate why I have a certain belief or interpretation. In the world of policy too often we wind up just getting all of our assumptions reinforced in the haste to move past analysis into action.
5. What do you think that your students need to know about sustainability that they are not learning already in the classroom?
The biggest challenge for anyone involved in sustainability is remembering that only a small group of people actually think about sustainability as one of their key objectives. Most people are trying to live their lives, most businesses are trying to turn a profit, and most politicians are trying to get elected. The challenge – which I’m not sure can be taught in a classroom – is how to be effective even when you’re a secondary priority. It’s especially important for anyone who wants to work in a big city; however important it is to save the planet, we have to understand that most families are having enough trouble paying the rent and raising their kids.
6. What advice would you give to your ESP students who do not already have experience working as environmental decision makers?
You need to be able to speak two languages. For instance, if you’re doing sustainability in a consumer goods company, you need to understand marketing just as much as you do sustainability; if you’re going to be an urban sustainability policymaker, you need to understand city government. There’s always a minor field to this major.
7. What kind of research are you doing now related to urban sustainability?
One of my key passions is figuring out how to make transit work better – because large cities simply can’t be sustainable without high-functioning transit systems. Yet the institutional structures that run transit, especially in the United States, don’t seem up to the task. I’m exploring alternatives like nonprofit organizations that might be better at running certain types of transit than the large public agencies we typically rely on for everything.
Students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) program enroll in a year-long, 54-credit program offered at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, in partnership with the Earth Institute. Throughout this one-year program, students are immersed in courses that combine Columbia University’s hands-on approach to teaching public policy and administration with pioneering thinking about the environment. During the summer semester, students learn the fundamentals of environmental science, while in the fall and spring semesters, they focus on the policy and economics necessary to becoming successful environmental analysts and managers. Visit our website to learn more about the program.
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