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November 2, 2006


New Faculty: Ellen Stroud Links Cities, Environmental Studies Programs

photo of Lippmann

Most writers who treat environmental issues, says environmental historian Ellen Stroud, tend to focus on either cities or wilderness, but not both. “And many environmentalists who focus on natural areas,” she says, “sort of wish cities away. But we need to be thinking about how cities can function well in relation to nature.”

Stroud's position — Assistant Professor of Growth and Structure of Cities and Environmental Studies on the Alderfer Fund — is a new one at the college. Stroud earned a B.A. in political science at the University of Michigan. She took an M.A. in U.S. history at the University of Oregon in Eugene, where she was introduced to environmental history; urban historians supervised her Ph.D. training at Columbia University. She comes to Bryn Mawr from Oberlin College, where she had been teaching since 2001. The Bryn Mawr position, she says, offered a rare opportunity to combine her interests in urban and environmental history.

“It's not very often that a position in urban studies is a joint appointment in environmental studies as well,” she says. “It was perfect. And I'm delighted to return to Philadelphia, where I grew up.” Stroud's sister Beth graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1991, so she knew the College not only through reputation, but through alumna enthusiasm as well.

Stroud's research explores relationships between cities and the far larger environments of which they are a part — relationships that sometimes take surprising forms. For instance, her current book manuscript looks at the reforestation of the Northeastern United States that began in the 19th century. The region was concurrently undergoing intense urbanization. That the two processes occurred simultaneously was no accident, Stroud says; in fact, she argues that urbanization was a major causal factor in the return of the forest.

In the 19th century, Stroud explains, the development of cross-country railroads meant that farm products could be shipped east from the fertile Midwest, and less-productive farmland in the Northeast was no longer competitive. Much was allowed to lie fallow and eventually revert to trees.

But that's only half the story, Stroud says. “Just as that land was becoming available on the market, a conception of forests as very complex public resources was beginning to develop. People were beginning to understand — and sometimes misunderstand — concepts that we now term ecology. There was, for example, a widespread popular belief that an impending 'timber famine' would deprive the region of fuel and building materials; some people even believed that trees caused rainfall and that deforestation would result in drought.”

These and other concerns about the uses and necessity of trees encouraged public policies that both conserved and rebuilt forests. As former farmers moved to cities, city residents pressured their municipal governments, their state legislatures and eventually the federal government to purchase land, to change tax policies and to shift land-management priorities. Through their efforts, what had been open fields became national forests, national parks, state reserves, tree nurseries, watershed protection lands, or just as often, private land with new incentives for owners to nurture and preserve standing timber. Believing that more forest was needed to supply resources to increasingly dense urban populations, the nation invested in trees.

People in the Landscape, Literally

“People, and the structures and social processes they create, are an integral part of the landscape,” Stroud says. Her latest research project, funded by grants from both the American Council for Learned Societies and the National Science Foundation, explores that proposition in an especially material way: it is “an environmental history of the dead body.

“The modern American corpse is toxic: mercury in teeth, metal in joints, silicone in breasts and batteries in chests have all made body disposal newly complex,” Stroud says. But funerary practices have long had a profound effect on landscapes.

According to Stroud, the treatment of dead bodies, like delivering babies at the other end of the life cycle, became more and more professionalized over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Where bodies were once prepared for burial in the home, the development of embalming and refrigeration increasingly transferred the task to professional morticians at their place of work.

“In the early 20th century, cities across the United States were beginning to developing zoning rules,” Stroud says. “An enterprise like a tannery, because of the noxious chemicals it used, was generally held to be a nuisance by definition and restricted to nonresidential areas. A butcher shop, on the other hand, if run well, was not a nuisance, and could and should be located near homes.

“The question courts faced with regard to dead bodies was: ‘Is a funeral home more like a tannery or more like a butcher shop?' The answer determined where funeral homes could operate.”

Stroud says that the longstanding practice of setting aside places for burial, too, has had a highly visible effect on urban landscapes.

“It's very striking, when you fly into New York, that many of the biggest green spaces are cemeteries,” Stroud says. “Cemeteries are really the precursors of the modern landscaped park. They were once popular spots for picnics.”

This semester, Stroud is teaching three courses. With Associate Professor Carola Hein and Assistant Professor Juan Arbona, she is teaching the senior seminar in Growth and Structure of Cities; she is sharing teaching duties in the senior seminar for environmental studies with Assistant Professor of Geology Christopher Oze.

The third course is the social-sciences and humanities introduction to the environmental studies concentration, a new required course for all concentrators that complements Geology 103, the natural-sciences introductory course taught each spring.

In contrast to the senior seminars she is teaching, the students in this course skew toward a younger demographic – about two-thirds are first- and second-year students. “There's a great mix of class years, and it's been interesting to see the older students mentoring the less-experienced ones,” Stroud says. “I've been impressed by how enthusiastically all of the students participate in class discussions.”

Bryn Mawr, Stroud says, has all of the things she loved about Oberlin — the great students, the rigorous liberal-arts education, the enthusiastic and active campus community. And it also has the two things she most missed: her home town, and the chance to truly integrate her interests in the city and the environment.

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