A Brief History

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Institutional Origins

The first meeting of the Council of University Institutes for Urban Affairs (CUIUA) – what is now the Urban Affairs Association (UAA) – was held in Detroit, Michigan (USA) in the spring of 1969. A few months later, a second meeting was held in Boston, Massachusetts (USA). The purpose of these meetings, which were largely among directors of urban research institutes, was to formulate strategies to promote the survival and growth of urban research centers, and urban affairs degree programs. In the context of 1969, university-based urban institutes were a significant development for institutions of higher education. Their existence marked academia’s efforts to engage the wide-sweeping challenges confronting cities across the United States. It also signaled the creation of a new multi-disciplinary area of study – that of urban affairs. 

The objectives of CUIUA were fourfold: 

  1. Promote policies and procedures that facilitate urban affairs education, training, service, basic research, as well as applied research. 
  2. Create a forum for those engaged in developing and administering urban affairs programs to foster the exchange of experiences, information, and problem-solving efforts related to program establishment and survival. 
  3. Act as a clearinghouse by collecting and disseminating urban affairs information and research findings. This included research on both urbanism and processes of urbanization. 
  4. Establish and nurture the field of urban affairs, both as a profession and academic discipline. 

As its efforts gained traction and its membership began to evolve, the CUIUA board deliberated over whether it should continue its focus on supporting administrators or shift to offer individual scholars an outlet for presenting their work. Ultimately, the founders decided to focus on creating a forum for individual scholars to engage in academic debate. This marked the Association’s transition from an organization of institutes to one of individuals. UAA evolved from this shift with a fundamental priority to generate knowledge in service to urban communities. 

From Disciplinary Margins to an Urban Interdisciplinary Core

UAA offers an intellectual home to scholars whose research and teaching focus on the full range of urban issues. According to interviews with past and current UAA members, including those who have served in leadership roles, many scholars came to UAA from the margins of their home disciplines. As urbanists, they often struggled to find likeminded colleagues and audiences for their research. The occasional special journal issues and conference content related to urban affairs found in other disciplines were insufficient for the needs they recognized. Some urban-focused scholars were explicitly told that their work lacked legitimacy in their field. In finding UAA, many consistently attest to the relief, validation, and encouragement they discovered. For many of these scholars, they had finally found their true intellectual home. 

Proactive Membership

While many disciplines and professions were clearly relevant to the study of the city, including public administration, political science, history, geography, economics, education, social work, and sociology, CUIUA’s board was adamant that no single discipline become dominant. CUIUA saw the input and perspective of all affiliated disciplines and professions as valuable and much needed, as each had intersecting interests and expertise that was crucial to understanding cities. CUIUA’s Governing Board knew that organizational autonomy would allow for the preservation of its interdisciplinary nature, which was integral to its driving goals. From its earliest days, the Governing Board actively sought to create a diverse membership. Indeed, two of the original 9 Board members were faculty from Howard University and Morgan State University, both HBCUs. That basic philosophy of diversity of people and disciplines has driven a multi-decade effort. Through its conference, journals, and service roles, UAA has sought to broaden the participation of previously under-represented groups, especially women, people of color, students, and international scholars. This high-level inclusion has had a profound effect on the resulting membership and conference attendance. One initiative designed to attract more students at the earliest stages of their academic career is Upsilon Sigma-the Urban Studies Honor Society, founded in 2018. The Honor Society now has 15+ chapters at universities across the U.S. and is expected to grow and attract more students to UAA and urban affairs in general.

Many UAA members have noted that the Association does an exceptional job at engaging members when they are students and junior faculty. The Association’s open and collaborative environment is exponentially valuable in this regard, as a supportive environment is one that encourages the work of young scholars, which ultimately benefits the field of urban affairs. UAA members have shared countless anecdotes of their first attendance at a UAA conference as a student, or of bringing their students to the conference for the first time.

The Annual Conference

One of the most valuable services that the Association offers to its membership and the urban affairs discipline is its annual conference. In its early years, drawing 50 to 100 attendees was considered successful. UAA conferences were often held in smaller cities such as Akron, Omaha, and Flint. UAA has since seen conference attendance exceed 1,000, with scholars traveling from across the globe to attend the Association’s annual meeting in cities across the U.S. and Canada. The conference has now far outgrown the accommodations available in smaller cities.

Current and past members have repeatedly shared that the conference offers a venue for a type of academic discussion and debate that is hard to find elsewhere. Attendees speak of how each conference provides opportunities to network and many members leave re-energized about their work. Conference attendees often discover models to follow in UAA that guide them in studying the city, doing interdisciplinary work, and conducting research within a social justice-based framework, models that often do not exist in their primary disciplines. 

At traditional, long-established academic conferences, a scholar’s work is tested and scrutinized. Within the UAA conference context, however, scholars provide contrasting contributions to their colleagues’ work. Rather than serve as a pressure test, presenting one’s work at UAA tends to draw alternative perspectives to consider and explore, with the shared objective of better understanding urban phenomena. Within this environment, participants’ views are broadened because they are exposed to the interpretations and expertise of their colleagues who are trained in disciplines other than their own. This in turn has created a culture where all feel welcomed and valued. In fact, most, if not all, UAA conference attendees often describe the UAA conference as: a welcoming and open interdisciplinary space.

Discussions led by active Board members Robin Hambleton, Arturo Flores, and Jill Gross, stimulated interests in collaborative initiatives with European researchers. In the early 2000s, a special Board committee was formed to encourage “international linkages.” UAA financially supported a set of small meetings that ultimately led to the founding of the European Urban Research Association (EURA). This momentum contributed to a series of City Futures conferences held jointly with EURA. Later in 2013, UAA launched its first regionally focused conference tracks (i.e., Urban Issues in Asia and the Pacific Rim, and in Central and South America). These tracks, supported over years by proactive members Cathy Liu and Cecilia Giusti, dramatically increased conference attendance from China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, and other parts of the world.

Irrespective of disciplinary or national backgrounds, UAA conference attendees immediately have a starting point for substantive networking and collaboration, given their intellectual object of interest – urban. This creates a framework wherein scholars from different disciplines can work together to make relevant contributions, while maintaining the character of each scholar’s discipline. Whether during sessions, between sessions, or at receptions, the unique UAA conference culture broadens attendees’ perspective and exposes them to disciplinary viewpoints that they may not otherwise encounter. 

The Journals

The Governing Board’s consideration of the value and need for academic journal affiliation began in 1970, its first year. By 1981, the Board had committed to publishing a journal by merging two existing publications – The Urban Interest and Urban Affairs Papers. That year, the association came to an agreement with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to publish the Journal of Urban Affairs (JUA). Consistent with the interdisciplinary nature of UAA, the Board and university host agreed that the editorial board of JUA would represent a diversity of disciplines, interests, and geographies to the greatest extent possible. As early as 1984, the UAA Board and JUA Editor were taking a critical look at the composition and rotation process of the JUA Editorial Board. Initially, this entailed ensuring that UAA Board members were rotating on and off. Later this would focus on geographical representation, with an interest in increasing international members. 

Much of JUA’s early growth and solid reputation has been attributed to a 17-year period of stable editorship led by Scott Cummings that culminated in a #1 ranking among urban journals globally. Subsequent editors-Victoria Basolo, Laura Reese, and Igor Vojnovic, built upon this foundation, strategically expanding the journal’s international reach and inclusion of work from an increasingly diverse community of scholars. A new editorial period has begun with Bernadette Hanlon who has expanded the scholar development infrastructure of JUA and increased guidance to potential authors. 

JUA has played a critical role in UAA’s life and history. It has provided a third leg to the table that is the discipline of urban affairs, alongside UAA as an association and the annual UAA conference. Each of these key components supports and is supported by the others, which can be seen in stories and testimonials about how one came to be a part of UAA, how UAA and JUA have had an impact on their careers, and why they continued to be involved and get others involved as well. The Association’s success in establishing an exceptional journal brought a significant sense of accomplishment, took UAA to a new level of legitimacy, and benefitted the field of urban affairs and urban scholars tremendously. 

Having succeeded in initiating and establishing JUA, the Association has developed the capacity to launch a second journal. The journal was initially proposed in 2018 by Executive Director Margaret Wilder, who saw a lack of journals explicitly focused on race and ethnicity. To support the development of a proposal for publication, UAA sponsored a special conference track at the 2019 Los Angeles conference, chaired by Michael Leo Owens, created interest and a ready pool of papers targeted at the new publication outlet. Launched in 2021, and Co-Edited by Yasminah Beebeejaun and Ali Modarres, the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and the City (JRE) creates a direct link to UAA’s history of supporting scholars engaged in justice-oriented scholarship and activism. Importantly, JRE makes its own contribution to the field of urban affairs by increasing the scale and breadth of scholarship on racial and ethnic justice. As with all its endeavors, UAA continues to evaluate where it is, consider where it could or should be, and actively pursues new opportunities for growth and evolution.

Justice-Engaged Scholarship

UAA has always made a place for urban scholars, as well as those motivated by a desire to improve the quality of life in cities. While applied research and community engagement are widely accepted in higher education today, in the late 1960s when UAA was founded, existing disciplines and university administrations regarded this type of research as “non-intellectual,” “radical,” even “dangerous” to the carefully maintained separation of academics from the political and social issues of their communities. Efforts to preserve this level of justice-engaged scholarship have been seen in UAA’s strategic planning processes. 

In 2009, while reviewing the Association’s strategic objectives, the Governing Board discussed maintaining a focus on justice and equity. It was important in the view of the Board that UAA be explicit in articulating its long-held values and maintaining a connection to its origins. From that discussion grew the consideration to incorporate an annual lecture that could draw in more community activists, a group of interest that underrepresented in the UAA membership.

In 2011, to celebrate the legacy of Marilyn Gittell, a community-engaged scholar and long-time UAA member who had died, UAA established the Activist Scholar Award and conference plenary. This offered a new opportunity to convene those interested in discussing and furthering engaged research. This initial effort led to the establishment of an Activist Scholar Award named in honor of Gittell. Later, UAA sponsored a series of workshops developed by one of the award’s early recipients, Kitty Kelly Epstein, designed to encourage new activist research. In 2014, while developing goals for future JUA editors, there was an interest in not merely reaching mainstream benchmarks but ensuring that social justice and other intellectual content was the priority of the journal. This would ensure that the journal had space for research focused on achieving social justice through scholarship.

Challenges and Opportunities

Throughout much of its history the Association struggled to maintain it existence. But the commitment of its Board, executive director, and members carried it forward. Perhaps the greatest single challenge was in 2004, when it was discovered that the Managing Director had embezzled large sums from the Association. It would take until the fall of 2008 before UAA was fully out of the fiscal crisis that resulted from the theft. In the process of recovery, however, the Association grew stronger in remarkable ways. Recognizing that the lack of formal procedures and safeguards made the fraud and theft possible, the Governing Board (led by a series of chairs including Marion Orr, Janet Smith, and Ed Goetz), and interim Executive Director Margaret Wilder developed and institutionalized processes that would ensure thorough documentation and accounting of all Association funds. While 2005 to 2008 was undoubtedly the most difficult in UAA’s history, it is undeniable that the Association is stronger today because of 1) how the crisis was quickly and efficiently handled and 2) the steps taken to ensure such an event never occurs again. 

The recovery and maturation period continued with an infusion of strategic planning led by Board Chair William Rohe from 2009-2011. What followed was a major transition in 2011 as the Association chose to relocate the Executive Office from its almost four-decades home at the University of Delaware, to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (one of UAA’s original institutional members). The move marked the beginning of operations as an independent nonprofit hosted by an institution, as opposed to being embedded within a university infrastructure. A period of operational maturation followed as the staff grew and expanded its range of professional management activities, particularly regarding conference planning and logistics.

The Association’s 50th year, 2020, presented a dramatic challenge: a global pandemic which led to the cancellation of the annual conference both that year and the following (2021). True to form, UAA has responded by seizing this as an opportunity to adapt and grow to meet the significant changes in needs that resulted. In place of the cancelled conferences, UAA launched a new set of professional development activities through periodic online webinars. These initiatives have become institutionalized as part of a new professional development program designed to provide a full menu of developmental and support opportunities, particularly for graduate students and early career researchers.

The Future of UAA

The success of UAA has been attributed to several elements, highlighted in the interviews conducted for this history project. Many cite the format and structure of the conference. For example, incorporating meals and networking receptions into the annual meeting encourages attendees to stay at the conference venue rather than disburse throughout the host city in smaller groups or solo. The size of the conference, though much larger than in UAA’s first two decades, is still much smaller than other conferences and maintains a sense of intimacy. As a result, conference attendees, particularly those that attend for multiple years, quickly find familiar faces, and look forward to seeing their UAA colleagues each year. 

Many attribute the accessibility of UAA due to its interdisciplinary nature, both in the range of perspectives it draws and the contrast it offers to conferences affiliated with single disciplines. UAA is often a secondary conference and field for its members and attendees, which allows for more open collaboration that supplements accomplishments in primary disciplines. UAA offers an accessible venue for scholars in a variety of academic fields interested in studying urban phenomena, including those based in urban affairs. Every year, UAA’s membership and conference attendees produce, present, and discuss high quality, innovative, and justice-based research that is interdisciplinary, international, and cutting edge. 

No one can say for certain where the Urban Affairs Association will go from here. While there are hopes that nascent initiatives of the Association will flourish, everyone agrees that the core structure and character of UAA that makes it distinct, can and should remain intact. To date, despite tremendous growth in the size of the membership and conference, UAA has retained its welcoming character. What is certain is that UAA is not simply an Association, a pair of journals, and a conference, but rather a unique space that serves as an incubator, platform, facilitator, and community for the field of urban affairs.

  1.  UAA and CUIUA are used interchangeably in this document, depending on the timeframe being referenced.