Faculty Profile: Susan Blaustein

by |January 12, 2016

MS in Sustainability Management professor Susan Blaustein

With more than half of the world now living in cities, and well over half of that number living in urban poverty, Professor Blaustein believes that humanizing the city—making it livable for women and families—is a key factor in ensuring its sustainability. She believes that the greatest benefits of the MSSM program are the opportunities that empower graduates of the program by creating a heightened consciousness and sense of urgency regarding sustainability issues, and solving chronic and systemic challenges to help preserve our planet and our cities as viable homes for us all.

1. Why did you choose to teach in the MSSM program?
By educating those who will lead public and private institutions in raising awareness of sustainability challenges and designing solutions, the MSSM program is the ideal arena in which to consider the issues covered in this course, which attempts to approach “the city” at human scale. Given that many MSSM grads will be setting, implementing and enforcing public and corporate urban, sustainability and social accountability policy, it is critical that they understand the importance of addressing the needs of urban women and families into their planning; without this component, no urban or corporate planning can be truly sustainable or just.

2. What course do you teach and why do you think that it is important to the field of sustainability?
My course is entitled, “Women in Cities: Integrating Needs, Rights, Access and Opportunity into Sustainable Urban Design, Planning and Management.” With more than half of the world now living in cities, and well over half of that number living in urban poverty, humanizing the city—making it livable for women and families—is a key factor in ensuring its sustainability. Viewing the city as our series of guest lecturers do—through the lenses of rights, access and safety, as well as of innovative engineering, landscape and urban design, and tools for measuring corporate social responsibility—compels us to understand the city as a “home” to all. This realization obliges those determining public policy (local, regional and national government) and those with large footprints (large-scale developers, financial services, industry) to serve the needs not only of the noisiest and most powerful, but also of ordinary people. This is apparent in neighborhoods alive with bodegas, pocket parks and development-related displacement; perhaps less so, as one gazes down Sixth Avenue.

3. Are there new trends (or variables) in sustainable urban design, planning and management?
Whether one looks at New York City or at a sprawling, developing world metropolis such as Accra, Ghana’s capital, the challenges to sustainability and access are pretty much the same: increasing gentrification concomitant with deepening poverty; absence of livable-wage jobs; impossible congestion; and increasing sea rise, flooding and in-migration due to the impacts of climate change. That said, exciting developments in renewables, mapping, handling sanitation, the consideration of public space and social accountability make this a breakthrough moment, with such potential game-changers as our newfound abilities to track, price and reduce energy usage, report infrastructure outages, measure government response time, and use local and renewable construction materials.

4. What is key to integrating “needs, rights, access and opportunity?”
First, government and the private sector alike need to be aware of and listen to the marginalized residents whose voices all too often go unheard and unheeded: the poor, elderly, disabled, minorities and new immigrants, the overwhelming majority of whom are women and children. These constituents know most intimately the challenges facing their communities but often lack the tools or access to solve these challenges, or even to make them known. This is where local government and city-based firms can make all the difference, starting by listening intently.

Then, local government in particular, and companies as well, need to think deeply about what they have heard, and to consider how they can best meet these needs—for instance, by ensuring safe and healthful housing; making physical accommodations and carving out public spaces that will make neighborhoods, buildings and entryways more inclusive; training and employing residents from these communities—I could go on and on!

5. What do you think that your students need to know about sustainability that they are not already learning in the classroom?
In our classrooms, MSSM students learn the critical principles and tools of cutting-edge sustainability practices; in the streets of the city, these principles and tools are likely to be challenged at every turn, when the need is so clear and urgent: how to help that babysitter you see struggling with a stroller and toddler navigate the MTA? How to create safe, climate-controlled shelter for the growing numbers of homeless, or to keep public housing well-lit and mold-free, without busting the budget? How to help neighborhoods feel like communities, where people look out for and are accountable to each other?

With these kinds of changes, city residents and workers will feel more engaged, attentive and connected. Knowing that those with the power to make a difference are attempting to do so will encourage city inhabitants and workers to help each other, phone emergency lines in a hazard, care about litter and recycling, and attend and speak up at community board meetings—in the streets of the city, students can learn the importance of building community as an essential key to establishing and maintaining vibrant and sustainable urban centers.

6. What do you believe is the greatest benefit that the MS in Sustainability Management program has to offer its students?
To my mind, the greatest benefits of the program are an interlocking trio of opportunities that should empower graduates of the program going forward. The program instills a heightened consciousness and sense of urgency regarding sustainability issues, in those poised to lead our institutions; it grants students the ability and courage to think outside the box, in devising solutions to chronic and systemic challenges; and it should engender a genuine hopefulness, at this moment of real peril, that these solutions can be implemented and can help us preserve our planet and our cities as viable homes for us all.

7. What advice would you give to your sustainability management students who are not already working in the field of sustainability?
Whatever course you follow, and whatever work you take up, allow your deepened awareness of these issues, and the knowledge that many of these seemingly intractable problems can be solved, to inform your thinking and creativity; your awareness of the world beyond your specific work; and your confidence, that you, your colleagues, and all of us are capable of acting together, to heal and sustain our increasingly fragile world.

8. What kind of work or research are you involved in now, related to the role of women in cities?
In leading the Earth Institute’s Millennium Cities Initiative for more than a decade in municipalities across sub-Saharan Africa, we found that much of the most effective and sustainable work was led by women on the ground, who know best what they need but who often lack the technical and financial resources to fill those needs. To follow up on this finding, I have formed a new non-profit, WomenStrong International (WSI, at www.womenstrong.org), to continue the good work already underway with women and girls in two of the Millennium Cities (in Ghana and Kenya) and to expand this notion of women-led urban development also to southern India, northern Haiti and Washington, DC.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.


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