IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics (Fall)

Fall 2009 Letters Home

Archived letters:

Detroit, USA
If you close your eyes and picture a city what would you see?

Movement and diversity - of people, cars, trucks, trains, and buses
Dichotomy of affluence and privilege against abject poverty
Flashing lights of billboards and traffic signals
Skyscrapers? Businesses? Restaurant rows
More people

What would you hear?

Voices on top of voices
A myriad of languages and dialects
The quick steps of busy people
Engines revving? Honking horns
More voices

Cities around the world are filled with all of these sights and sounds and so much more. After all, it is the movement, mobility, construction, and masses which define cities…or is it? Webster defines a city as “an inhabited place of greater size, population, or importance than a town or village.”

Where does such a definition leave the city of Detroit - a city which has been deemed dying, abandoned, shrinking, lost, segregated, and hopeless? Detroit certainly matches Webster’s definition in regards to size as the land area spans 6,657 square miles. Jerry Herron, a key note speaker for IHP Cities in the 21st Century Program, said of this complex city “Detroit's the city everybody likes to look at as a place that's dangerous, abandoned and economically no longer viable. It's the most famous failed city in the United States.”

Detroit is a city which exploded its population by 170% in just a 20 year span (1910-1930). By the mid 1950’s auto production surged through the city’s pulse. Business was booming and Ford’s $5 a day guaranteed salary had secured thousands of jobs. Soon after this peak in the late 50’s foreign and domestic competition grew and auto companies began merging with one another or closing completely. By 1958 nearly a forth of the entire city's work force was unemployed. The wrecking ball strike to the auto industry caused Detroit’s population to decrease at an astronomical rate and over one million people abandoned the city. Meanwhile the suburbs surrounding Detroit continued to increase at a steady pace.

Needless to say, a city which once had the highest rate of home ownership in the United Stated and now leads the nation in its highest foreclosure rates makes for an ideal city to kick off IHP’s Fall 2009 Cities in the 21st Century Program!

Students have entered Detroit not arrogantly presuming solutions and quick fixes but rather humbly and inquisitively absorbing the myriad of the city’s issues from various vantage points. Transportation, taxing, poverty, foreclosure, welfare, racism, abandonment, crime, and willowing pride and hope for Detroit are in part issues which students have been introduced to. Observing city life students have been astonished by the amount of unused space, empty streets, and segregation between suburbia and the downtown area.

In the midst of great complexity there are people who remain steadfast and committed to the wellbeing of Detroit. Students interacted with key people from Ford Motor Company, local housing, transportation, and urban planning organizations. The city was explored by bus, bike, feet, and even public transport (which most locals claim is nonexistent). The city is the focus of a variety of local organizations in efforts to restore economic, educational, and political justice and hope. Alas there is hope, despite vehement opposition and cynicism, in redeeming this dynamic city – a city that in actuality possesses more brazenly the reality which exists in much of America.

“Americans don't like poverty. Americans don't like things old. Americans don't like urban violence.
We have all the problems everyone else has that people like to pretend exist only in Detroit.”
--Jerry Herron

So we go forward from Detroit taking new understanding of what makes a city a city, how issues stem deeper than what may appear on the surface, and the complexity of solutions and stakeholders wanting change for the good of individual, institution, city and/or society. We move forward gaining greater insight into our home cities. We move forward from this shrinking city of under a million to Delhi, India. We move forward as a group of learners, explorers, students, and teachers. We move forward.

Delhi/Chandigarh, India
How many people can fit in an auto-rick?

This question became quite a laughing matter for our group as we piled people on top of people, bargained, maneuvered, and navigated India by way of the popular yellow and green auto-rickshaw. Beyond a good laugh, however, the auto-rick became a fitting metaphor for the city of Delhi. Who operates an auto-rick and who uses it? Where can one catch an auto-rick and where are they scarcely to be seen? What does it mean to bargain and what does it mean to get ripped off? Delhi through the lens of an auto-rickshaw illustrated the choreographed chaos and the rhythm, the interconnection and the individual, and the unseen stories that we experienced throughout India.

One inspiring thought that propelled our group through India was that ‘chaos can be structured’ - in fact, often what appears to us as chaos is merely a different form of order. At first glance, Delhi seemed completely and utterly disorganized, dirty, and disjointed. We were convinced that none of the roads had been built for six lanes and yet auto-rickshaws, bicycle-rickshaws, motorcycles, buses, and private cars consistently manipulated their way through traffic creating entirely new lanes. Pedestrians crossing these six-lane masses of insanity had better move quickly, have keen peripheral vision, and advanced street wit. We soon learned that locals rarely batted an eye at having to make their way on foot through traffic. There was a rhythm, a balance, a place, a time to make one’s break across the road and once we were able to read the beat, we were able to cross the street.

"Delhi, what’s to say? I got off the plane exhausted and completely disoriented…It was nice to get out and walk around today. The colors are beautiful and the market is full of life…the modes of transportation are numerous and looking down on the street it just looks like confusion with no structure. On the plane ride to India I had the chance to watch a traditional Bollywood film. The opening scene took place in Delhi – brilliantly depicting the everyday hustle and bustle of the city. The main character quickly stated, “Everything here is happening at the same time, yet there is some kind of balance”. I would have to agree after having my first ride in an auto-rick. I kept joking that it was like a rollercoaster with no safety precautions… lanes are completely disregarded by drivers and I didn’t understand the relentless and ever constant honking between drivers. It just made no sense to me why anyone would want to honk a horn that much. Over the past few days, and several auto rides, I’ve come to learn why the drivers honk: that’s how they audibly communicate with each other to ensure that they don’t crash. The honks are their versions of blinkers!"
--IHP Cities Fall '09 Student

Making our way through traffic was obviously quite a mission but making our way through the city during monsoon weather was an entirely new story. Monsoon season was supposed to be over by the time we arrived in Delhi, but apparently it held off long enough for us to experience it. Though we hated the rain for drenching us as we braved our first auto-rick journeys from our homestays, we learned a great deal about its effect on the city. For starters, it was nearly impossible to catch an auto-rick when it rained. The city itself seemed to come to a standstill. It was explained to us that street sweepers were paid daily to sweep garbage out of sight and consequently, into the gutters. Needless to say, when it rained all the gutters, which had been clogged with garbage, became futile. Rickshaws and other autos were forced to navigate back roads and alternate routes – making everyone late to their destinations. As sopping wet students, we were willing to pay any amount for an auto-rick’s haven out of the rain. However, most people in Delhi weren’t so fortunate to have such an escape.

The entire east periphery of Delhi (housing the slums) was created on a lower plateau than the city’s center. The slums became the city’s drainage and wasteland. What it must do to the human psyche to not only be part of society’s lower castes, but to also physically live lower than upper-class society. It was a constant struggle to witness, and grapple with the poverty and caste segregation of India. At every traffic jam and traffic light our green and yellow auto-rick would draw a crowd of children. Encountering children begging on the street was one of the most difficult challenges we faced in India. We were told to ignore the children and to never give them money. We were warned that any money given to children would most likely be taken away by the adult who controlled, managed, monitored, and manipulated the child.

How could we ignore children?

Many of us started disliking who we were becoming – cold, callous, and unwilling to humanize or face the inescapable poverty which encroached around us. Then on one hot and humid afternoon we visited an organization which was operated by and for street children. Over 50,000 children in India take to the street to earn an income. Chetna is an organization with about 5,000 members - solely run by street kids who advocate for their rights, safety, and education. Suddenly, the vague faces of street children had names, stories, wisdom, joy, and life. We sang with, danced with, listened to, loved on, and were loved by some of the most intelligent and strong children we’d ever met. The children left us with a bit of advice when encountering beggars – don’t give money, but don’t ignore; acknowledge them as human, after all, each of ‘them’ has an individual story.

Meeting the street children of Chetna was a real turning point for many of us. We now had more peace of mind and confidence to embrace and interact with the overwhelming amount of marginalized and displaced people all around us. We started learning how to bargain, interview, and interact with street vendors and auto-rick drivers more respectfully. As we began to "suspend judgment," individuals’ faces and stories emerged right before our eyes.

"Yesterday was our Market Day… if anything, this visit taught me that looks can be deceiving. The somewhat shabby looking store was actually several decades old and full of history. The owner himself had opened the shop and had created his line all on his own. He sat us down and showed us pictures of when he first began selling the rickshaws. We learned of the chain of events for how a rickshaw ultimately comes into being. He gives materials to a ‘wheel and spokes’ man who builds the wheels…then puts in a request for the wooden box to be built. When these parts arrive, he gets the men in his factory to assemble the bike together. When all of this is through, the man is able to sell the requested rickshaw."
--IHP Cities Fall ’09 Student

From the very creation of a rickshaw we experienced the web of interconnection among individuals. The creation and planning for the city of Chandigarh was similarly designed to intersect individuals, as well as their body, mind, and souls.

"In Chandigarh we observed and analyzed how one of the most planned cities in the world was fulfilling its original vision. Le Corbusier created a very specific plan for Chandigarh before it was built and then built the area to become the capital region for the state...we learned about Le Corbusier’s vision and design and investigated how this was carried out into the reality of the city. How had things followed the plan? What was different? How has current development adjusted to these plans? What works?"
--IHP Cities Fall ’09 Student

What we found was that despite Le Corbusier’s efforts to design a holistic and unified city, Chandigarh predominantly catered to the wealthy, to those owning and operating autos, and displaced the poor to the periphery of the city and out of main sight. As many of us began thinking ahead to our own careers as urban planners, anthropologists, professors, social workers, advocates, and activists we realized how imperative it will be to know fully the history, the culture, and to work alongside locals in order for efforts to be sustainable and equitable to all. As we experienced India’s inequalities of caste, class, race, beauty, and gender we then had to face and question our own ideologies of equality, safety, and privilege.

"The most difficult experience I faced in India was finding bugs in my hotel bed in Agra. It was the first time I’d ever had anything crawling in my bed. I am so picky about my bed back home that I really flipped out and didn’t know how to react. This was a hotel and I was a paying customer - I had the right to complain about the service…right? The front desk was really nice and apologetic but then the next room I went into also had bugs! The guy who helped me move from room A to B wanted me to stay in room B. My response was ‘No. Would you sleep in this?’ (pointing to one of the bugs on the bed). He replied ‘yes’. Whether he actually understood me or not wasn’t the point…it was his answer that I’ve reflected on. I have come to realize that the idea of having a bed is a blessing…shelter itself is a luxury that not everyone has. The ‘right to complain and demand service’ was rooted in privilege."
IHP Cities Fall ’09 Student

Undoubtedly we will spend a lifetime reflecting on and shaping our ideologies of equality and privilege. India forced us to redefine poverty and opened our eyes more to the inequalities that exist throughout the world. In the words of Kalyani Menon-Sen (our esteemed and brilliant country coordinator), “the reason ‘they’ are poor is that we are not.” Now we must try to understand how we fit, contribute and respond to the displaced, marginalized, and overall injustice which exists in the world. From all we have heard about South Africa we expect that we will continue to analyze and deconstruct our own and others’ ideologies of power, equality, race, gender, justice, privilege, and freedom.

Cape Town, South Africa
Archbishop Desmond Tutu coined South Africa as ‘The Rainbow Nation’ – for its diversity of race, traditions, and language (there are officially eleven). Historically and around the world the ‘rainbow’ has symbolized diversity, it has also signified pride, unity, faithfulness, and hope – symbols which ring true of South Africa. Just as one’s breath is caught by the wonder and splendor of a rainbow so is one’s breath quickened at the mesmerizing beauty of Cape Town’s landscape and people.

"Theoretically, I have learned about the issues here in Cape Town. But now experiencing them, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced – the beauty and intensity of issues – they are unmatched from anywhere I have ever been."
--IHP Cities Fall ’09 Student

Melissa Steyn, an Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Intercultural and Diversity Studies at the University of Cape Town, gave us stark perspective of “white privilege and identity” in a country that has and continues to transform its perspective on race. Steyn defined racism (particularly in South Africa) as “pulling power away from blackness.” The deconstruction of white privilege continues to be a global challenge. We witnessed in India the majority of billboards and commercials highlighting light-skinned men and women yet in South Africa we have seen media’s attempt to be racially equitable and unbiased. Still amidst these attempts, the wounds in South Africa are fresh, the injustice runs deep, and solutions are anything but simple. Steyn admitted that pre-apartheid “the most important thing was that you were white which meant you were entitled…this was deeply and profoundly integrated into the system at hand and we all participated in making apartheid tick…it was good to feel superior; there was a psychological advantage.” Such ”psychological advantage” seemed apparent in Delhi with the slums developed physically lower than the city center. Many of us experienced and felt this “advantage” in Cape Town because unlike Detroit, Delhi, and Chandigarh, we have blended in more inconspicuously.

"I try to consider myself as someone who fights racism and coming here I have found myself going into the mode of racism and I started hating myself for going into that mode. I have started to internalize racism. I have started being more aware on the street and noticing and asking myself ”Who am I looking out for?” It’s so complicated. We have to bring it to our own consciousness that we’re thinking actively and consciously about who the “other” is, who we need to watch out for, and be aware of. Are they white? Black? Colored? How are they dressed?"
--IHP Cities Fall ’09 Student

In the Culture and Society class we had a powerful dialogue questioning “Who is the ‘other’ in our life?” The answers given were dependent on innumerable factors for each of us. However, admitting the existence of an “other” was difficult for all. Who wants to admit they have prejudice or are considered “privileged” in a conversation about power, class, and society? But truth be told, we - the students, faculty, and staff of IHP - are all privileged. It is relative. “Whiteness,” as Steyn had disclosed, equated power and privilege in South Africa and the “other” was anyone not white. Too quickly many Americans have tossed race off the table as a prevailing issue and have harshly judged countries such as South Africa for their more blatant racism. More recently South Africans have learned not to be overtly racist, but as we have seen here in Cape Town, power dynamics and social stratification continues to be aligned to some degree with race – as it is in much of the world.

"I imagined that coming here racism would be so different than U.S. but now coming here I see how similar and how though it formally doesn’t exist - it still is very present…
It’s just the framework that people use to segregate has changed…
It now matters more how much money you have. The property value and taxes are kicking people out of their own homes.
It’s as if the government is saying “We won’t kick you out because you’re colored but we’ll kick you out because you don’t have enough money. We won’t use race to express segregation but we will use class.”
--IHP Cities Fall ’09 Student

Categorizing, compartmentalizing, and prioritizing urban planning and sustainable development become ever more complex for a city with deeply intricate historical baggage. We delved a bit deeper into this complex web of humanity, development, and environmental impact of humanity in the Urban Planning & Sustainable Environments course. Tania Katzchner, a city and regional planner, spoke to us about a few parallel issues of Cape Town: poverty, ecosystem services, and climate change. We visited the Edith Stephens Wetlands Park, a nature reserve on the outskirts of Cape Town and home to various plants and animals, including urban agriculture gardens, and medicinal gardens. The wetland park partners with various organizations which have withstood substantial pushback from the neighboring townships in their efforts to save this land and the species which dwell there. Preserving biodiversity seems to pale in comparison to the tyrannical urgency of providing housing, food, and basic necessities. However, Katzchner has been passionate about mobilizing locals into action and enveloping them into the development process. Katzchner hopes people in the township will gain a sense of ownership and urgency to preserve the rare natural resources in their own backyard. A number of locals have been hired to work at Edith Stephens Wetlands and have taken particular interest in preserving the medicinal gardens and teaching others about these plants. Over 30 local schools have partnered with Edith Stephens to enroll their primary students in Science Camp and a few students have gone on to intern at the site. Though the need and challenge remains immense, Katzchner and other advocates have taken great strides to weave the complex web of mankind and nature together.

After visiting Edith Stephens Wetlands we took a tour of the Cape Flats Waste Water Treatment Works. From dirty and contaminated toilet water to compact pellets used for fertilization, we were ushered through the multi-layered process that filters over 40% of Cape Town’s sewage into reusable resources. In conjunction with Edith Stephens’ Science Camp, the Waste Water Treatment Works provides educational tours for local students in the neighboring townships. Perhaps having this knowledge and exposure to the water treatment plant will create aspiring city planners from the township to further develop and adapt this model for surrounding cities.

It has been enthralling to observe and compare how waste is salvaged throughout each of the cities we have been. We decided “Salvage” would be an intriguing topic for a case study in Cape Town. One group tracked the lifespan of Coca-Cola bottles from production to consumption to waste! It was astounding to learn the vastly different journeys glass, plastic, and the various sizes of Coca-Cola bottles undergo. While the amount of waste Coca-Cola produces is astronomical, we found a number of local artists in Cape Town who created metamorphic art from Coke products. Needless to say, we may never look at Coke the same way again.

Then again, after our journey in Cape Town we may never look at many things in the same way…

"Something I have been trying to live by and practice here in Cape Town is to embrace interactions. I have learned so much out in the field and on the street. There are huge life lessons and things about myself and the world that I’m learning – and frankly those things matter more then grades."
--IHP Cities Fall ’09 Student

"It’s ironic because for all the complaining we do about traditional academics taking away from our experience and free time to explore the cities, I’ve realized that I’m unconsciously using what we’re learning in class in my daily life…now walking around the city I know better how to look at things and I find myself talking to people differently."
--IHP Cities Fall ’09 Student

"I have learned and am learning that listening is just as important as talking. Back home there are always those students who talk a lot in class - and honestly I’m usually one of them. But IHP is the kind of program that brings those strong, inquisitive, intelligent, and talkative students together on one trip. So I’ve come to be the student who is always listening. And it has added so much to my education and conversations with students, faculty, and host families. Listening has become so important."
--IHP Cities Fall ’09 Student

"It will be forever fixed in my memory how our host families from very different sides of town, who rarely, if ever, come in contact with one another, sat together at our farewell dinner.
Coming together for a meal is such a symbolic and powerful tradition and because of this so many things could have gone wrong. The music, the food, the conversation – any one of these things could have caused offense or tension between our black, predominantly Christian, host families from the township of Langa and our colored, predominantly Muslim, host families from the BoKaap. I was able to express to both of my families how much I’ve loved and appreciated my time with them. If IHP continues this, maybe something will change. Maybe the underlying currents of prejudice that are still so strong and evident will fade. Maybe they’ll find new common ground. I may be idealistic, but they have impacted my life, and maybe I have in some small way impacted theirs too."
IHP Cities Fall ’09 Student

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Credits: 16

Duration: Fall, 16 weeks

Program Sites:
New York, NY, USA; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; Hanoi, Vietnam.

Prerequisites: Previous college-level coursework and/or other preparation in urban studies, anthropology, political science, or other related fields is strongly recommended but not required. Learn More...

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