by William A. Gleason

About William A. Gleason

William A. Gleason is Professor and Chair of English at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Program in American Studies, the Center for African American Studies, the Program in Urban Studies, and the Princeton Environmental Institute. He is the author of The Leisure Ethic: Work and Play in American Literature, 1840-1940 (1999) and Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race, and American Literature (2011), a runner-up for the 2012 John Hope Franklin Publication Prize in American Studies.

Built Environment

A term of comparatively recent origin, though a phenomenon of great antiquity, “the built environment” generally refers to those elements of the physical environment that are constructed by and for human activity. The built environment might thus include not only structures and sites such as buildings, roads, bridges, parks, and playgrounds but also (and more broadly) land-use patterns, transportation systems, architecture, and design (Saelens and Handy 2008; Bartuska 2007). Closely identified with cities but not exclusively urban, and often regarded in the modern era as separate from or even opposed to the “natural” environment—epitomized by Lewis Mumford’s formulation, “As the pavement spreads, nature is pushed farther away” (Mumford 1938)—the built environment did not figure prominently in early currents of environmentalism either in the United States or globally. In the last decades of the twentieth century, however, theorists and practitioners alike began to question this absence. “Why is it that we tend to think of the built environment of cities as somehow or other not being the environment?” asked geographer David Harvey in the late 1990s. “There is, it seems to me, nothing particularly anti-ecological about cities. Why should we think of them that way?” (Harvey 1997).

About this Site

Keywords for Environmental Studies analyzes the central terms and debates currently structuring the most exciting research in and across environmental studies, including the environmental humanities, environmental social sciences, sustainability sciences, and the sciences of nature.


A book of this scope, exploring topics this complex and urgent, requires the time and effort of a great number of good-willed people if it is to be done well. All the contributors who accepted our invitations to write, and many other experts in their disciplinary fields who, for various reasons, could not accept our invitations, were generously willing to talk at length with us about the project. Each played a significant role in shaping the book by helping us construct an initial list of over 180 possible terms and then identify names of people qualified to write the essays. Later, they helped us decide how to narrow our list to sixty. We thank each of them for their time, expertise, and influence on our thinking, although all decisions on the final list of keywords were ours alone.


This volume creates a new “state of the field” inventory and analysis of the central terms and debates currently structuring the most exciting research in and across environmental studies, including the environmental humanities, environmental social science, sustainability sciences, and the sciences of nature. Inspired in part by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler’s Keywords for American Cultural Studies, and linked to that volume through Vermonja Alston’s essay, “Environment,” which she revisits and expands here for Keywords for Environmental Studies, we, and each of our contributors, aim to show how, in its broadest sense, the term “environment” enables “a questioning of the relations of power, agency, and responsibility to human and nonhuman environments” (Alston 2007, 103).

Note on Classroom Use

Like the other volumes in the series, Keywords for Environmental Studies is designed for use in a broad range of teaching environments, both disciplinary and interdisciplinary. It can also be adapted for use at a variety of levels, from introductory undergraduate courses to graduate seminars. While every essay in the volume has been prepared by a field expert, they are all also written in clear prose crafted to be understood by non-experts.

Sample Discussion Questions

In our Note on Classroom Use, we outline a variety of ways you might use Keywords for Environmental Studies in the classroom, particularly in developing syllabi and formulating student activities and assignments. In what follows, we provide a broad range of sample discussion questions that you can use to stimulate student conversation and hopefully encourage action.