Timon McPhearson, professor of urban ecology at The New School in New York City, addressed Elon University students and faculty as well as members of the community on Nov. 4 as part of the Voices of Discovery Science Speaker Series. 

His lecture, entitled “Urban Futures: Transforming Cities for Resilience and Sustainability,” focused primarily on how cities drive and reflect the impacts of climate change, as well as how changing urban planning can use cities to forge solutions to the issue. 

After a brief introduction by junior Alicia Bell, McPhearson began his lecture, which was divided into six main points, including navigating what he called the “complexities” of urban systems, how climate change relates to these urban systems, and data and visual communication related to urban systems and climate change.

In an exclusive interview with Elon News Network, McPhearson expanded on the ways in which individuals can act against climate change and climate injustice.

“The things I tell my students are the same things I would tell anyone, it's that there are hundreds to thousands of ways to get involved, and the starting point is probably right in your own community,” McPhearson said. “You can volunteer, you can get involved, you can donate your time.”

McPhearson’s lecture centered largely around the relationship between cities and climate change.

“Cities are the problem and also cities are the solution,” he said during his lecture. “This is why I’m working and developing here at Systems Lab, why I’m working in cities as an urban ecologist … thinking about how we think about the urban ecologies as a system.”

While suburban areas such as Elon were not a large feature in McPhearson’s lecture, he told ENN these areas also offer unique opportunities for climate solutions. 

“One of the reasons cities are seen as one of the keys to sustainability is essentially because you get efficiencies with economies of scale,” McPhearson said. “As you basically pack more people in more densely, you reduce per capita energy use… Suburban and rural communities are a little more challenged in that way. On the other hand, they have a lot of space to work with. I think they have the potential to really start to shift and drive some of the technology.”

One such technology, according to McPhearson, could be electric cars, which he said would make more sense in a suburban setting than in an urban one.

“We still have a very car-driven culture in the United States. Shifting that to electric is something that is not going to happen in a city center … the truth is we need to get our cities away from cars,” McPhearson said, adding that forcing a shift in transportation on that scale would have to occur in suburban and rural areas.

Elon’s former Science Librarian Dianne Ford said she was inspired by the speech, and hopes students can take action based on McPhearson’s work. 

“It was just stunningly excellent, I just learned so much,” she said. “I really loved the question at the end about what kind of skills people need to be building to do this work, I’m so glad we had a room full of students hearing that, that was excellent.”

Junior Catie Howitt attended the event for an assignment in  associate professor of biology Dave Gammon’s biology for non-majors class, though she said she was excited for the opportunity to attend.

“I thought it was really cool actually, I’ve been looking forward to this,” she said. “I think it’s really interesting to talk about climate change in a way that’s not politicized, because I think it’s dangerous to politicize a topic that’s this important. It’s really just so cool to see it in a way that talks about social justice and talks about extreme climate events.” 

McPhearson’s lecture featured a visual presentation complete with graphs and 3-D models illustrating the concrete and potential impacts of climate change. This impressed some audience members such as environmental studies lecturer Michael Strickland.

“You don’t even have to fully understand the science or how you came to that data,” Strickland said. “When you see the visualization of it the impact is really driven home.”

McPhearson’s use of small-scale data, according to associate professor of environmental studies Robert Charest, who escorted McPhearson around campus throughout the day, “allows community stakeholders to far better understand the challenges and the opportunities when you’re not just looking at a global number.”

After speaking with community members individually at the end of his lecture, McPhearson said he was impressed with the high turnout for the event, as well as his “rewarding” conversations with students throughout the day.

“I’ve been really impressed with the student interest and their work in this area too, so it’s been great to engage,” McPhearson said.