Community Spotlight: Q&A with Catherine McNeur

Who are you? 

Catherine McNeur, assistant professor of environmental history and public history and award-winning author of Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City (Harvard Press, 2014).  

What are you working on right now?

One of the things I’m most excited about is a public history course I’ve been developing on Portland’s Heritage Trees. The first run of the course was this past spring and it was a complete success. Portland has roughly 300 Heritage Trees, designated for their size, their age, or their historical significance. Working with Portland Parks and Recreation’s foresters, my students went out and did research on a variety of specific trees and then put together amazing projects that ranged from podcasts and walking tours to historical content for an app. Portlanders and tourists encounter these trees every day, but they’re often just a part of the background. Hopefully with more people aware of their history, we’ll all come to appreciate their value even more.  You can see the students’ fantastic work at the History Department's Heritage Trees website.  I’m looking forward to teaching it again soon!

What’s the one thing you want the sustainability community to know about what you’re doing?

I just published a book, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City, that looks at the historical efforts and political battles over making nineteenth-century New York a sustainable city. One thing the book reveals is that ideas of sustainability have changed dramatically over time. As is true today, there were a lot of social implications involved in dramatic efforts to transform the city and while certain people benefitted, there are many people who lost. Environmental injustices have a long history, and they’re often invisibly tied into our best efforts to make cities sustainable.

What’s a personal goal you have that you’d like others to share?

If you ask students in my Environment & History class, I often talk about our need to be humble about the knowledge we have about the environment. You will see examples throughout history where people confidently took action to change the environment in dramatic ways, certain that they were making great choices and that they knew the ramifications of their actions. With hindsight, it’s easy to laugh at historical figures, their hubris, and how little they truly understood. However, I think the better reaction is instead to turn it around and humbly accept that we too can’t know everything and our current scientific knowledge isn’t infallible. This is something that I work to embrace personally and I think it will only help anyone working to find solutions to our current environmental issues.

What’s your favorite thing about being a part of Portland State?

The true beauty of Portland State is how the institution looks outward and really works in the community and city. Urban universities often use their cities as a laboratory for classes and projects, but PSU takes it a step further and truly partners with organizations and community groups to earnestly make a difference. I’m thrilled to be a part of a university that takes its role in the city so seriously, and gives as much, if not more, than it takes.