For 36 years, John Adams has been asking his students to think big
Ask John Adams' former students about what he's like in the classroom, and you won't hear about his scribbling lecture notes on chalkboards.
Instead, you'll hear about his traversing the streets and by ways of places like Kirovsk, Russia, pointing to maps and census data and introducing students to representatives of city governments.
For 36 years, Adams, known affectionately to students and colleagues as JSA, has made the world--from Minneapolis neighborhoods to Eastern European cities--his University of Minnesota classroom. Yet however wide his travels and his worldview, at the core of his research and teaching is the American city--or even more specifically, "the metro economy, how it is linked with regional, national, and international economies, and how it combines with the social and physical, and political forces to produce outcomes for people and places."
Working side-by-side with their teacher and mentor, many generations of Adams' students have learned "how and why large urban metros have evolved in North America and how they operate as complex systems," says Adams. They also have discovered some of the flaws in urban planning--which, says Adams, "has achieved only limited success in addressing issues of efficiency, inequity, and injustice in our cities." The challenge is to find ways to make cities better for everyone--and doing just that has been Adams' stock in trade.
Drawing out the big picture
"In the seminar room, on the streets of Chicago, and on the buses of Kirovsk, Russia, John showed me how to study, how to really see the rich tapestry of the city," says Elvin Wyly, a former graduate student who is now associate professor of geography at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
"He established a legendary tradition of integrating theoretical and scholastic rigor with on-the-streets field experiences that captures the essence of human geography."
Cultivating students' capacity to see the big picture is Adams' first priority in the classroom. The trick, he says, is to get them out of the classroom in to the heart of the city, taking its measure, talking to its people. It's not enough, he says, to read or listen to lectures about cities. To appreciate the rich texture and myriad challenges of cities, students need to dwell in them, and they need to ask lots of people lots of questions. As they collect impressions, testimony, and data, and put the pieces together, they see what works and what doesn't. And they come to understand the mutual dependence of elements within a larger system.
"As geographers, we provide coherent models of how people settled and used the world and, in the process, changed it," says Adams. "And then we think about how they confronted the world they changed. We try to fit all parts together--demographics, schools, transportation systems, natural environment, land use, and public policy--so the process can be understood as it is played out in different places."
Barbara VanDrasek, a research associate in the Department of Geography who has worked with Adams since the 1980s, says this integrative approach helps students see patterns and connect the dots across a regional landscape.
"John is a systems thinker," she explains. "He works hard to help students see the significant but not always obvious relationships among elements on the landscape that may appear unconnected at first glance--like transportation and land use, inner-city poverty and suburbanization, capital shifts and housing development."
In the end, some of the lessons gleaned from Minneapolis and St. Paul and the larger metro area can be applied to Portland or Chicago--or to Kirovsk, for that matter. And the revisioning, reinvention, and renewal of cities can begin.
Communities need wide-angle thinking in their policy makers, Adams says. Bad decisions, he explains, can often be traced back to a failure of vision, or to too narrow or short-term a focus. The average Minnesota community doesn't have a comprehensive balance sheet that weighs the area's tapped and untapped potential against its liabilities or weaknesses, or that weighs short-term costs and gains against long-term outcomes.
" We concern ourselves only with short-term profits and losses, and the maximization of spending," Adams said in an April 2006 keynote speech to the MinnesotaEnvironmental Initiative, which is dedicated to developing solutions to Minnesota's environmental problems. "It makes perfect sense, then, to scrimp on the budget for the Department of Natural Resources and watch Minnesota's waters become increasingly impaired, or sell off old-growth forests and other environmental assets to balance the budget."
The situation is made all the worse, says Adams, by a focus on personal consumption grounded in self-interest--leading to "minimal investments and inadequate oversight of systemwide public goods--school systems, transportation systems, natural environments, public health, and more."
Especially as the Minnesota countryside "urbanizes"--as the character of rural and small-town Minnesota is transformed and "new settlement forms" and new ways of life evolve--careful long-range planning is critical, says Adams.
Dedicated public intellectual
In his lengthy tenure at the University, Adams has amassed an impressive record of oft-cited scholarship. That record includes, for starters, more than 100 articles, books, and reports on the American urban landscape.
Perhaps his best known publication is Minneapolis-St. Paul: People, Place, and Public Life (University of Minnesota Press, 1993), coauthored with VanDrasek. The book examines the physical, economic, and social environment that sets the Twin Cities apart from other U.S. cities of its size, and also looks at the growth and future of the metropolitan area.
Adams' impact beyond the academy is no less impressive. Adams has dedicated years of service to organizations such as the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), which funded his research on Twin Cities regional dynamics and the transit implications of outward migration. His findings helped shape the agency 's Regional Growth Study, which looked at the impact of metro expansion on transportation as well as on other infrastructure needs.
"John showed MnDOT that a geographer could provide useful information and new ways of thinking about complicated transportation issues," says Laura Smith, assistant professor of geography at Macalester College, who remembers admiring Adams' commitment to bridging the gap between the academy and society.
"At meetings of the principal investigators, it was always refreshing when John would remind us of the big picture," Smith says. "How do Twin Cities housing markets, transportation funding, and municipal finances fit together? And how do these things affect congestion levels and the provision of transportation infrastructure? And vice versa? These were the types of questions-timely, relevant, and important-that John wanted to analyze.
"And, of course, he was able to articulate these questions and our research results to a wide range of audiences, from academics to policy makers to the general public."
Throughout his career, Adams has demonstrated a penchant for leadership, both on campus and off. At the University, he chaired the Department of Geography three times and served as first director of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. On a national level, he served as secretary, vice president, and president of the Association of American Geographers.
In recognition of his contributions both inside and beyond the academy, Adams has received several prestigious honors. Among them is the 2004 University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies Richard P. Braun Distinguished Service Award, given annually to a "champion of transportation innovation" for "outstanding leadership and contribution to research." In 2000 he became the University's first Fesler-Lampert Chair in Urban and Regional Affairs, in recognition of his prodigious scholarly contributions to his field.
In retirement, Adams plans to continue work on research projects--including those for the University's Center for Transportation Studies. But his greatest legacy, say students and colleagues alike, will be the contributions to the discipline and to communities throughout the world of the many students he has taught and mentored.
"John has nurtured students in research, scholarship, and professional development in ways that impart lasting lessons of practice for a new generation," says Wyly. "He has encouraged us to renew our commitment to the responsibilities of the engaged public intellectual."