I’ve been fascinated by our interactions with cities since my first trip to visit family living abroad in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. The city’s chaos—a stark juxtaposition to my orderly suburban upbringing—proved intriguing, especially the dense network of alleys and endless stream of motor scooters crowding the streets. The city’s apparent functionality, along with vibrant street culture, drew me in to better understand how the built environment can shape human-scale interactions. This was followed by an extensive period living between Saigon and Bangkok during my gap year, where my work in tourism led me to explore cities with more detail, through the lens of cultural heritage preservation. Much of my focus was on street food, a ubiquitous and quintessential component of these Southeast Asian megacities. Street food culture is influenced by the natural and built environment, immigration and religion, and the economic systems of the cities it inhabits—and I was able to leverage my passion for food to document and better understand what the future holds for these emerging cities.

The Visualizing Cities Lab and its fellowship program have set the stage for expanding the way Duke engages with the study of cities. For me, it was the diversity of backgrounds from fellows and faculty that seeded the notion of urban studies at Duke becoming more than a weekly zoom call—and was a primary motivating factor for founding the Duke Initiative for Urban Studies. The pandemic’s silver lining of increasing digital collaboration and accessibility across continents and cultures further expanded the possibilities of the initiative and how we foresaw it engaging with Duke’s global network, particularly at the Duke Kunshan campus.

Drawing on the interdisciplinary nature of urban studies, including the art history component that VCL brought to my attention, we set to work on a plan for a cross-campus initiative that would fundamentally reshape Duke’s relationship to Durham, Kunshan, and the hundreds of cities around the world that it sends students and faculty for study and research. VCL’s problem-based workshops, including my team’s mock city planning meeting, run the spectrum of urban design, economics, history, policy, and more—and underscore the necessity of an expansive approach to urban studies. I’m excited by the level of demonstrated interest seen in the urban studies and our Initiative at Duke—included by the faculty we’ve met. In an institution as faculty-driven as Duke is, buy-in from professors is essential as we build the Urban Studies program into something that Duke embraces from a financial and strategic standpoint.

As the Initiative advances, I foresee integrating the VCL into our research division, where undergraduates can be exposed to cities through a fellowship that is flexible and interdisciplinary. Other modes of research will likely focus on thematic questions about Duke, including:

  • How has the presence of Duke impacted housing and community in Durham?
  • What is special about Durham as a city? (Past, present, future)
  • Urban trends that Durham faces, including gentrification and sprawl
  • What do you wish you knew about Durham or Duke-Durham when you moved here?
  • What do you want to know before you graduate and leave Durham?
  • What aspect of urban studies would be particularly pertinent to Duke and Durham?