Dean of green
Jennifer Wolch ’75, ’76 brings a sustainable mindset to UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design
BY FRED SANDSMARK ’83
It’s a chilly December morning in Berkeley, and Jennifer Wolch ’75 ’76 is dressed appropriately: jeans and furry suede boots, topped by a bulky, multi-hued, hand-knit sweater. It’s not an outfit that would garner a second notice on the CAL campus, but for one thing.
Wolch is the new dean of University of California, Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design — one of the most important and influential integrated architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning schools in the nation — and the sweater seems a bit casual considering her lofty title. Then she begins talking about sustainability — her passion, her area of academic expertise, and the reason she was hired to lead the CED — and the colorful, complicated sweater makes a certain sense.
“Sustainability is about action,” Wolch says. “It’s one thing to understand a system and how it works; it’s another thing to think about how you use that knowledge, with other kinds of knowledge, to devise solutions to problems. It requires a different way of thinking, a willingness to experiment, and cross-disciplinary work.” Like Wolch’s sweater, sustainability has many elements that must be knit together to succeed.
And the CED is, perhaps, the perfect place for her to study, teach, and advance sustainability. “The college was established in 1959 by (renowned California architect) William Wurster as the first interdisciplinary college of environmental design in the country,” Wolch explains. “It was the first college to — under one roof — combine architecture, landscape architecture, and city and regional planning, because of their clear need to interact and work together.”
Wolch’s own academic and professional work is equally multi-faceted. She has taught urban planning for 30 years, contributed to six books and dozens of articles on topics including geography and public policy, won Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fellowships, and led a comprehensive project to understand the relationships between Southern California’s natural and human environments. Her interests also include human services for the poor and homeless, human-animal relations, cultural diversity, and suburban sprawl — all of which, she says, can be understood as part of a trajectory that began as an undergraduate in Hayward.
East Bay Roots
Wolch grew up in Castro Valley, attended public schools, and graduated from Canyon High School. “I went to Chabot Community College in between my graduation from high school and starting Cal State,” she explains. “I had a class in anthropology that was interesting and intriguing and exciting, and I said, ‘I want to be an anthropologist!’ As is the case for so many kids, I got a great teacher and found what I wanted to do.” She enrolled at then–California State University, Hayward as an anthropology major, focusing on physical anthropology.
At first she thought the University would be a stepping-stone to another institution, but her eagerness got in the way. “I was so impatient to do work in anthropology that I pretty much took my major courses first,” Wolch recalls with a smile. “I was almost done with my major by the time I would have transferred, so I finished.” Her undergraduate experience was “terrific,” she says: “The department had an excellent faculty, and it wasn’t so big that we didn’t get lots of personal attention. I worked directly with faculty on research projects.” She stayed at CSUEB for a master’s degree in geography, and began integrating anthropological concepts of social justice into the science of geography.
She completed a Ph.D. in urban planning at Princeton University in 1978. The following year she took a faculty position at the University of Southern California where she taught geography and urban planning for 30 years, founded USC’s Center for Sustainable Cities, and contributed to several books. She also dove into the public policy arena. [See “Greening Southern California,” p. 23]
Although she was enmeshed in the academic and policy fabric of Southern California, Wolch was quick to return to the East Bay when the position at UC Berkeley was offered. The Bay Area is a welcoming place for academics, she says, and that benefits all colleges and universities in the region. “People study here and don’t want to leave,” she says. “That makes the faculty of Cal State East Bay really top notch.”
Now that she’s back, Wolch is eager to re-explore the area and observe its growth and change. There have been successes, such as BART and other transit-oriented developments, as well as failures, such as sprawl in the Tri-Valley and heavy traffic patterns, that she wants to learn more about. But for now she spends most of her waking hours on the UC campus. Her job includes dealing with personnel issues, budgets, and fundraising, but she also provides academic leadership to the CED. “I really want to work on large-scale issues,” she says. “I’m responsible for helping the departments re-think how they’re organized, what kinds of programs they’re offering, and what new things should be incorporated into the curriculum.” And that means bringing sustainability — her passion — into the mix.
Because to Wolch, sustainability means more than designing energy efficient homes and communities. Sustainability is also about making environments more hospitable, fair, healthy, and viable for residents at all economic levels. It also means acknowledging and planning for nature, wildlife, and open space. “Most people live in cities, and that share is going to go up,” she says. “We need to figure this out: how to create settlements that don’t consume as much of our natural capital as they have in the past.”
Role of Public Universities
Wolch thinks academia has several important roles to play in developing and promulgating sustainability. First, the academy trains the next generation of architects, planners, and thinkers. Second, academics are equipped and positioned to do the basic research that supports and advances sustainable concepts. And third, academics can work in the intersection between policy and practice.
“Academics who work in areas like environmental design really need to be public intellectuals, engaged in policy or work related to it,” she says. “And I think being at Berkeley or Cal State — as part of the public university system — it really is incumbent upon us to have at least part of our agenda be directed toward how the future should unfold and the policies we need to make that future a positive one.”