This is a guest post by former blogger, Stuart Donovan.
TL; DR: If you want to learn more about cities, then here are two courses that run regularly in Amsterdam. Applications for the 2020 intake close in the next 2-3 months.
Introduction: Many of the posts on Greater Auckland share some common economic themes. Mode choice, investment effectiveness, congestion pricing, and climate change are all topics that have received considerable attention from researchers, me included. In this post, I outline two options for further study in the field I loosely refer to as “the economics of cities”. The location for these courses is Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where I’m currently studying towards a PhD. I want to emphasise that there are many other decent institutions where you can study similar economic topics, I just happen to have links to the VU. I appreciate this post won’t interest all GA readers, especially those who attach a high opportunity cost to their time—to borrow a useful economic concept.
That said, every year I field multiple queries from a range of people who are keen to know more about further study; these people are the intended audience for this post.
Masters in Spatial, Transport, and Environmental Economics. STREEM is a one-year masters programme that describes itself thusly:
A unique master’s programme … that offers an integrated view on urban/regional issues, transport, and the environment from an economic perspective … It is designed for students with an interest in spatial, transport or environmental economics … The programme addresses highly relevant and closely interrelated policy issues in today’s modern society in the field of regional development (such as the advantages of agglomerations), urban problems (such as crime), transport policies (such as congestion management) and environmental degradation (such as climate change). As such, it is concerned with virtually every aspect of society, in which space, distance and networks are key issues.
As a masters, STREEM is designed for people who have (1) undergraduate training in economics (or a related field) and/or (2) some professional urban / transport experience. In my case, for example, the combination of engineering qualifications and work experience was enough to gain entry. Note that all courses are in English, so language is not a barrier.
As I completed the STREEM degree 2011, however, I’ve asked a more recent student, namely Anna Plummer, to describe their experience for you:
In 2018, I quit my consulting job in Melbourne and moved to Amsterdam to study. It’s been ‘spannend’, which is my favourite Dutch word meaning exciting and nerve wracking at the same time. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for so many reasons.
Why did I do it? I am a transport planner with an undergraduate degree in economics and 7 years’ experience working across planning, engineering and analytics. I wanted to further my economic knowledge with the end goal of helping to improve decision making in relation to sustainable transport infrastructure investment. For me, it was important to find a course, like STREEM, which aligned closely with my interests because returning to study is a big investment and one I didn’t take lightly. The nature of the course was a big incentive for me, with small class-sizes (~20-40 students) and excellent professors. This provides a personalised environment with in-depth discussions and support, as well as opportunities for a wide range of specialised elective courses. In hindsight, the things I learnt, the people I met, and the amount I have grown is more than I anticipated.
Why did I choose Amsterdam? With a population of just under one million, Amsterdam combines small city vibe with big city opportunities. Not just from the city itself, but there are also so many amazing companies with great employment prospects (although the language can be a large barrier!). The field of mobility is advancing at a rapid rate, a lot of this thanks to data and technological advances. Being immersed in Amsterdam, a technological hub, provides great benefits to being at the forefront of this change. With good rail and air connections, Amsterdam is also a super convenient location for travel. And cycling. So much cycling.
What did I learn? Perhaps most importantly, as I studied the STREEM degree, my academic and professional interests evolved. While I originally intended to major in transport economics, I ended up also majoring in spatial economics. By being exposed to a range of related topics, I was better able to understand my own interests and ended up focusing my thesis on the influence of polycentricity on economic planning indicators, combining both spatial and transport economics.
Course content was diverse and ranged from theory to application. While the in-depth treatment of theory was challenging, I was thankful to have solid foundations on which to build my own understanding. The application of the theory was what I particularly enjoyed, seeing how the topics we learnt were so applicable in real world situations.
Some of my favourite assignments included estimating the benefits of free public transport and using house prices to quantify the value added from a new metro line in Amsterdam. We were also given the opportunity to write an article for the course’s The Urban Economist where I looked at the relationship between mortgage stress and accessibility in Australia.
It’s hard to untangle the key things I learnt from the course with those I learnt from living in Amsterdam, and the best thing is that you get them both with STREEM.
Note: Applications to the STREEM degree for non-EEU students close 1 April.
Summer School course – The Economics of Cities. For those people who might want to visit Amsterdam to learn more about cities, but can’t take one-year to do so, then you might be more interested in the two-week course that I run every July (that is, in the middle of the European summer).
In this earlier GA blog post, I discussed the course content, which will be broadly similar to this year. Rather than regurgitating material from last year’s post and/or the course page, I again figured it’d be more useful to ask a former student to provide their perspective. To that end, here’s some comments from Nick Lovett who currently works as a transport planner in Christchurch and who participated in last years’ course. Nick writes:
The course at VU was a really enjoyable way to get a taste of academic life after working for several years. It was great to dive into a subject relevant to, but not exactly the same as my day to day work. Neither Economics nor Geography were something that I studied formally, but the underlying principles of spatial economics are fundamental to my work in transport planning and policy. The course gave insights into the economic theory and models used to describe transport and land use interactions I had come to observe over the years but hadn’t fully understood. The two week course structure and workload was enough to grasp the topic, but still gave plenty of time to explore the city (Stuart is very familiar with Amsterdam and a great tour guide). The course has really informed my work by offering a spatial / economic perspective on a number of projects and even a conference paper.
I understand Nick is currently in the process of re-locating his family to Canada, so here’s a shot of Vancouver to bid him farewell.
Note: Applications to summer school closes 1 May.
Final remarks. Furthering our understanding of the benefits and costs of cities—and adopting policies to address these issues—has the potential to contribute greatly to our quality of life. Whereas New Zealand offers an exceptional natural environment, I can’t shake the feeling our cities and towns are letting the team down. Collectively, I’d like to hope we can pull together to address urban issues, including but not limited to housing, neighbourhoods, vibrancy, accessibility, and resilience. And part of the solution, I think, is improving the knowledge base on which we can collectively draw.
Postscript: While Amsterdam and the VU are lovely settings in which to learn about cities, I can appreciate some readers prefer to stay closer to home. These people can rest assured I’m also currently collating material on study options in New Zealand and Australia. If you know of some, then please email details to firstname.lastname@example.org for a future post.