Most college seniors spend a good deal of time pondering their own future. For Ryan Miamis ’12, it was just as important to consider the future of the ground beneath his feet.
Working with Professor of English and Media Studies Gesa Kirsch, Miamis spent the 2011-2012 academic year studying how urban dwellers might develop a “land ethic.” That is, a guiding philosophy for making decisions about land: using it, preserving it, changing it and more.
The project “really matched what I’m interested in: studying the environment and conservation,” says Miamis, whose majors are Economics–Finance and the Liberal Studies concentration Earth, Environment and Global Sustainability.
Kirsch hit on the topic in 2011, while exploring the work of early environmentalist Aldo Leopold. He was among the first to write about land ethic, in the 1940s, when more of the U.S. population lived in rural areas. Kirsch wanted to see how the late conservationist’s ideas held up in the 21st century, within the context of a city.
To keep her research rooted in reality, the professor focused on two ongoing local projects: the rehabilitation of the Longfellow Bridge, which connects Cambridge and Boston, and Esplanade 2020, a plan for revitalizing and maintaining the Charles River park system.
“I didn’t want to just abstractly talk about land ethic,” explains Kirsch. “I looked at these projects to see how the ethic gets played out in a public discourse, in a public setting.”
The Longfellow Bridge initiative involves a task force of 30-plus organizations, whose interests extend past the bridge’s structural reparation and into the related environmental and land-use issues. The Esplanade project gathered urban design and planning specialists to craft recommendations for the park, in wide consultation with community members.
In fall 2011, Miamis joined Kirsch for an in-depth look at the two initiatives. Their work combined historical research and interviews with people in the public sector, including urban planners, landscape designers and Transportation Department officials. They attended several community meetings — some concerning the Longfellow Bridge and Esplanade projects, others on general environmental issues.
Those gatherings brought out locals who lobbied for everything from more bike lanes and less traffic to better-connected green spaces and urban farms.
“There are some great ideas out there,” says Miamis. “Ultimately, we found that people are starting to think about not just what we need now, but what we’ll need in the future.”
Ahead of the Curve
In March, he and Kirsch headed for Madison, Wis., to present their findings at the conference of the American Society for Environmental History. They discussed the ethical framework that Bostonians displayed by voicing opinions and pushing for a more sustainable city. The analysis invoked Leopold’s arguments about people needing a connection to the land. In this way, say Miamis and Kirsch, Boston residents do appear to embrace a kind of urban land ethic.
Attending an academic conference and co-presenting research are not typical experiences for an undergraduate.
“I was definitely the youngest one there,” recalls Miamis. “It was a little intimidating, but people were super friendly.”
He entered new territory again after the conference, co-authoring a book chapter with Kirsch on the Esplanade project. The chapter is intended for Environmental Rhetoric: Ecologies of Place, edited by Peter Goggin of Arizona State University.
“Working with Ryan has been more like having a colleague than a student,” observes Kirsch. “He’s a real collaborator who has his own ideas. He explained a lot of things to me that he’d learned in science courses, so it felt like a mutual learning experience.”
For Miamis, the experience was a window on professional opportunities, including one he has chosen to pursue: corporate sustainability.
“The project opened my eyes to a lot of different career paths,” say Miamis, who this fall began a graduate program at Tufts University to study urban and environmental policy and planning. He also received a research assistantship to explore the topics of climate change and climate justice. “Hopefully, I can mesh my environmental values with the corporate world.”