Civil engineer Alexander Rudnicki (Columbia University ’10) has returned to Columbia after working at AeroFarms, an urban farming pioneer. He’s now earning a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA ESP) at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Rudnicki speaks to MPA ESP intern Shagorika Ghosh about the urban farming industry, the enriching experiences of the ESP program, and his plans for the future.
How did your background working with innovative and transformative urban farms lead you to pursuing the MPA-ESP program?
I was the first engineer working at AeroFarms, where being the plant manager for over three years allowed me to experience the entire spectrum of working in the industry. For example, there was a day in particular that I remember, when I spent all day working in the plant training people, supervising operations, as well as having to present our work to the Duke of Westminster, who is one of our largest funders. Working at AeroFarms allowed me to experience the reality of working in the sector–how slowly things can move in real life, how implementation of projects needs teamwork and lots of capital.
AeroFarms was a vehicle for agricultural companies to engage in urban farming. People are excited and enthusiastic about urban farming, but it is a nascent industry with respect to policy and technology, so it’s kind of like the Wild West right now. There isn’t much incentive for farming companies to move into urban areas at this point. I wanted to explore the confluence of urban farming technology and traditional farming techniques, and studying environmental policy seemed to be the way forward.
What specifically motivated you to choose the MPA-ESP program at Columbia University?
I want to shape what the future industry looks like, and how the industry can be developed. The MPA-ESP program really equips me to do that. There is a focus on the environment, but it also takes into account social perspectives. The length of the program and its rigor is definitely another factor. It is a shorter, more intensive program, and the course structure and hands-on experience is great for mid-career professionals because it doesn’t feel like a full step back into school, but more like a half step back. At the same time, it’s great to be at SIPA, which allows you to be flexible, branch out and take different electives. Being at Columbia has also broadened my horizons, and it’s possible to keep abreast of everything that is happening in the industry. A lot of avenues then open up–working in policy or with companies in different areas of the urban farming industry.
What are your favorite classes and why?
One of my favorite classes has been Leadership and Urban Transformation, taught by Professor Michael Nutter, the former mayor of Philadelphia. He brings his long time public service perspective, and incredible insights into the actual implementation of policies, and the challenges of politics involved in policy implementation. I am also enjoying Sustainable Finance with Professor Bruce Kahn, which covers components of corporate finance, sustainability accounting, and sustainability metrics.
How has living and studying in NYC contributed to your experience in this program?
New York City is taking efforts to be at the forefront of sustainability, and this is being supported through high level executive action as well. OneNYC (formerly the Bloomberg Administration’s PlanNYC) is the sustainability plan for the City of New York. I am very interested in their Zero Waste initiative, and I intend to volunteer for the city in the future.
What has been your experience with your Environmental Science and Policy cohort been like?
In the MPA-ESP cohort, we work collaboratively for workshop presentations and other group projects. After multiple projects, we all have worked and interacted with at least half of the entire class. Our cohort is a very close-knit one, and I make it a point to interact with my fellow classmates. It has been very interesting to know their backgrounds, their interests and what they want to pursue. In my role as the ESP Treasurer, I also work to understand what the needs of the cohort are, what events and speakers they would be interested in.
What are your plans once you graduate? What are some skills and tools you have developed over the last year that you can use?
I would love to work with city planning offices to integrate urban farming into city planning and layouts. It’s encouraging to see cities like Detroit that have outlined an urban farming policy. It’s a great start and I want to be involved in such urban initiatives after I graduate.
I came to SIPA to learn how to create policy that would shape the future of urban farming. Through my classes, I am developing skills to be able to do that. I am learning to adopt a systems thinking approach towards earth systems through classes such as Climatology and Hydrology, that allows for a broader perspective when looking at the sustainability industry as a whole. Through my Sustainable Finance class, I am learning not just how to evaluate sustainability quantitatively, but also learn and analyze trends in the industry that are attractive to investors. All of these will equip me to further develop the urban farming industry and integrate traditional techniques and new technologies.