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

Fall 2010 Letters Home

Archived letters:

Detroit, U.S.A Letter Home
By IHP Trustees Fellow Greg Pasquali with input from IHP Cities students Marie Maniscalco, Robert Winslow, Charlotte Cottier, and Kushal Purie

“Monday the 23rd of August – the day that we were all waiting for through most of the summer – seems pretty far behind us now. After the initial rush of introductions and nervous smiles came the rush of trying to understand a city in just two weeks – a task that all 32 of us took on with fervor.”
– Wesleyan University student Charlotte Cottier from Chicago, Illinois.

Charlotte captures well the enthusiasm with which the Fall 2010 IHP Cities in the 21st Century group seized the task of trying to read a city from the day they arrived. Detroit was the starting line for our learning community of four faculty and 32 college students, from universities across the United States and hometowns across the US and around the world. Detroit provided an opportunity to get acquainted with each other, with the methods of experiential learning, and with the key disciplinary lenses needed to read a city before we took off on what already feels like a race around the world, with so much to do and so much to learn in each country.

“My own highlights have included the more informal parts of IHP – staying up late talking to new friends, getting to know our faculty, and taking walks alone. I also loved having the chance to be interviewed on NPR about my experience as an IHP student in Detroit.”
– Charlotte Cottier

We came with many preconceived notions of Detroit based on well known history and popular media. Our local coordinators Donnie Jones and Virginia Stanard of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture and Detroit Collaborative Design Center crafted an incredible learning program for our two week kick-off that included outstanding speakers and expert panels on topics ranging from demographics, race and class to entrepreneurship and the role of city agencies and major foundations. We also explored several neighborhoods of Detroit to gain a sense of the varying experiences and stories within the City. The diversity of opinions gave us a much broader understanding of the scope of the City’s problems as well as the many sources of optimism about Detroit, most importantly the exciting cultural and entrepreneurial spirit that we all fell in love with. Kushal summarizes our experience well:

“The Detroit I perceived, primarily based on popular media, was of desolation, destruction and devastation. Most Detroiters I talked to were very critical of the media’s representation of Detroit, and rightly so. The Detroit that I now see after spending two weeks here is of hope and revitalization.”
– Trinity College student Kushal Purie from Kathmandu, Nepal

Detroit has endured decades of negative media coverage, from race riots in the ‘60s to arson and abandonment at the turn of the last century to the near-collapse of iconic industry in recent years. Statistics of significant population decline and a broadly misunderstood statement by the mayor that the City planned to “downsize” – the preferred term is “rightsize” – accompany tales of blocks with only two houses on them. TIME Magazine’s extensive coverage in 2009 is a sore spot for many Detroiters, as by many accounts it hyperbolizes the negatives and ignores the positives for the sake of a sensational story. Perhaps America is fascinated with the decline of Detroit because its problems are those of many cities across the country and some of our own hometowns on a grand scale.

Though we found much of this story paints an unfair picture of the City, we were careful to acknowledge the hard realities of the City even as we redefined our understanding of it.

“I was absolutely blown away by how strong and open the currents of racism still run in Detroit”
– Sarah Lawrence College student Rob Winslow from Signal Mountain, Tennessee

But the IHP learning community came to Detroit to see beyond the stark images and abundant challenges and think beyond the easy conclusions.

“Detroit is a big city, easily painted with a broad brush, but you can’t capture it with a broad brush, because Detroit is a city of neighborhoods.”
– Entrepreneurship panel speaker Kelli Kavanaugh, a young business owner.

In fact, we discovered an intricately woven tapestry of stories and experiences that varied from block to block and often one side of the street to the other. Our group seized opportunities to hear many stories of Detroit. We explored Detroit’s history with Steven Vogel – a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. We explored a variety of neighborhoods with neighborhood activists. We explored difficult topics of demographic change, race, class and with leading local scholars. And we explored the roles of many hopeful individuals and institutions working hard every day to fix it by representatives of those forces.

Throughout the two weeks we questioned our preconceptions, and also the viewpoints of our presenters, engaging in robust debate during organized discussions and long after.

As the group traveled throughout the City and explored its history and plans for its future, our experience defied the well-known stories of decay and violence. First and foremost, almost every interaction was a lesson in generosity.

“During our two weeks in Detroit, we’ve had a multitude of hosts in the City. While staying downtown at a hotel and working from an arts center during the day, our “home” here has been the Central Business District. All of our guest speakers, panelists and especially neighborhood day hosts have shown us the best of Detroit. Without all of our guides, especially our Coordinators Virginia and Donnie, we would be tourists, not the informed and involved guests that we have been during these two weeks.”
– UC Berkeley student Marie Maniscalco from Davis, California

“The continuous crises in Detroit over the last decade have given Detroiters a fascinating outlook – very welcoming and engaging – though impacted by fear.”
– Rob Winslow.

Through the lenses of our diverse hosts – from non-profit housing and commercial developers to activists working on behalf of education and the environment – we learned to see the beauty of Detroit today. We saw the hope that underlies the ambitions of the many neighborhood residents, small business owners, and major institutions that are working hard each and every day to celebrate the great elements of the past, thriving present, and optimistic future.

“What hits me is the beauty and grandeur of the center city and the scale of the surrounding sprawl, all of it feeling full of emptiness. It’s important to be conscious of this ‘tragedy’ without subscribing to despair, though, because there are amazing possibilities and vast potential in Detroit today. The population that remains is empowered by remarkably equal opportunity to take ownership of the City and share in remaking Detroit for the future.”
– Rob Winslow

What struck many of us most was the innovation here.

“Everything I’d ever studied in New York, Chicago, Boston, even Newark, Los Angeles and Atlanta just went out the window when I came to Detroit.”
– Former urban planner turned local business-owner and -organizer Claire Nelson.

From urban farming to recycling pick-up by bicycle and other examples of local individuals and neighborhood groups filling in the holes where the City could no longer provide services, we saw acts and evidence of creativity in addressing the challenges the City faces. Particularly moving was Catherine Ferguson Academy, a high school for pregnant and young mothers that provides nursing and day care facilities, uses a urban farm as a laboratory for learning, and has one of the highest rates of college attendance and completion in the district and the nation – an especially inspiring example in a public school system plagued by high school drop-out rates exceeding fifty percent.

As we head to Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam, we take with us many lessons and many more questions. Our growing foundation in understanding the forces that shape a city leaves us the places we will go. We will now dig deeper to understand how race and spatial segregation have shaped the neighborhoods we visit and the relationship between center and periphery. We will question media-based reputations and ask how innovations in other cities challenge them. We will ask what backgrounds and biases each of our lecturers and hosts hold that might color their understanding, and inquire about the history of those opinions. Our diverse but well-bonded learning community will inform and challenge each other and respectfully question our environments to extract ever more from our experiences, lectures, resources and each other.

Sao Paulo/Curitiba Letter Home
By Greg Pasquali and Tasnia Huque, with input from Caroline Blosser, Abby Edwardsvanmuijen, Aaron Lewis, Andrew Ma, Kaori Ogawa, Allie Santacreu, and Michaela Skiles

The IHP Cities in the 21st Century group arrived in Sao Paulo, Brazil—our first international destination—in early September to spend five weeks studying people, planning and politics of this rapidly changing country and city. As Brazil grows in prominence on the world stage because of a thriving global economy, increasing cultural relevance, and the destination of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, there is a lot to learn about the effect of this growth on the people and its preeminent city. In fact, we were there at a time of great debate and reflection. Our exploration coincided with the presidential election after eight successful years of growth and social advancement under President Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva. But the more we learned, the more our preconceptions dissolved in the light of broader questions we developed. 

“Lots of cars, people, chaos. Lots of food, pigeons and flies. Lots of trash. Lots of diversity and inequality. The Brazilian experience has been a bombardment of consumerism, activity and ideas that has answered some questions, but ultimately has raised many more.”
--Brown University student Kaori Ogawa from Palo Alto, California

Early Impressions: Scale, Language and Challenged Assumptions 
“On neighborhood day there was a delay on the blue metro line and the Se station filled with thousands of people waiting to board the train during rush hour.  Dana, Iris, and I were smashed against complete strangers and had to fight to get on the train.  For me, this really highlighted the fact that Sao Paulo is a city of more than 19 million people with infrastructure that supports a lot fewer.”
--University of Michigan student Allie Santacreu from Livonia, Michigan

Reading Sao Paulo is a challenge not just because of a language barrier, but because it is, at first, simply overwhelming. In physical terms, it is a huge sprawling place, with towers of apartments and offices reaching toward the sky in every direction, and dense neighborhoods sprawling across the landscape to house its 19 million inhabitants. Sao Paulo defied our previous experiences not only in scale, but also because it did not fit comfortably into many of the academic classifications we were used to relying on to understand space and relationships in our home countries. Segregation, and even the use of language to describe people, often has less to do with color and ancestry than with class. Similarly, our tendency to describe someone based on their heritage, as we might call someone of Japanese descent in the United States a Japanese-American, does not apply; here people are insistent that no matter what they look like, they are Brazilian. This way that people culturally identify was puzzling in our first visits to migrant communities, like the neighborhoods of people from the northeast or Bolivia, but soon became more understandable as we learned that the economic and class divide is the driving force of disparity, rather than race like it is in the United States.

“I still wonder what narrative Sao Paulo represents; to me it seemed to be just another big city with millions of people, millions of cars and millions of high rises. At the same time, an up-and-coming global powerhouse likely to elect its first female president, Brazil undoubtedly has a progressive potential. But the immensity of the favelas, informal economy, unequal land and income distribution, difficult mobility, spatial segregation – these all bring another perspective to this narrative.”
Bates College student Tasnia Huque from Dhaka, Bangladesh

Additionally, as we followed occasional news about the political season from United States news, we were inundated with the political propaganda of a foreign election system and the challenge to understand how literacy, education and compulsory voting impacted the dynamics of an election cycle. The potent image of President Lula with 80% approval rating was balanced against the widespread rumors of a “terrorist” bank-robbing, gun-wielding, never-before-elected revolutionary successor, Dilma Rousseff, versus a proven but uncharismatic local leader, José Serra, who had been Sao Paulo’s mayor, governor and congressman. Constant debate about whether President Lula’s “Bolsa Familia” subsidy, for families sending their kids to school, was a great way to support consumer growth in a developing economy or was a cheap purchase of the votes of the uneducated wove their way into every conversation. Searching for substance in a sea of foreign language, seemingly irrelevant rumor and unfamiliar imagery challenged us to understand how people make decisions about their future with a completely different body of information than we were used to.

"The Brazilian election was a major part of our experience over the past month, and we saw signs everywhere we went around the country. This picture particularly demonstrates the role Lula continues to play in Brazilian politics and elections as well as something I thought was a curious phenomenon: the abundance of signs advertising two candidates with the same name.”
Wesleyan University student Robin Tholin from Chicago, Illinois

Alternatives and Comparison to Sao Paulo: MST and Curitiba
To gain a comparative understanding of how Sao Paulo fit into Brazil’s past, present and future, we left the City to visit two alternatives: an MST settlement and the City of Curitiba.

MST – Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or the landless workers movement – is a movement founded by landless workers to facilitate agrarian reform in Brazil and redistribute land equally amongst its citizens, not for ownership but rather for usage.  The MST’s occupations of large tracts of public and private lands, both peaceful and violent, were morally and in some regards legally supportable, yet we, like many Brazilians, found ourselves struggling with the idea of taking land. Before arriving, we heard many intense reactions from friends, lecturers and our homestay families when we told them we were visiting the MST. We learned a lot staying at the main MST school in Itapeva for two days, conversing and interacting with MST activists. There, we heard a different perspective from that of our middle class urban homestay families in Sao Paulo. From the MST perspective, the government ignores the constitutional mandate of agrarian reform, and the landless workers are denied resources and opportunities. The people of the MST insisted that all they wanted was a chance to have a decent life on the land, and that they only occupied lands which were classified “underutilized” by the government’s agrarian reform program. With extreme income and land inequality in Brazil, all of us recognized and acknowledged the need for agrarian reform and opportunity for these poor rural families. Whether MST and its on-going tactics of land occupation is a reasonable solution remains, for many of us, a challenging debate, and we are left with many lingering questions. 

We also had the opportunity to visit Curitiba, a city that those of us who study planning and urban studies had heard about many times in our coursework and reading. Curitiba is famous for a number of innovative best practices in city planning, ranging from affordable rapid transit to environmentally sustainable waste management. Our first lecture, by urban planner Ariadgne dos Santos Reyes, introduced Jaime Lerner, the charismatic mayor from the 1970s considered largely the master-mind of this transformation, as well as the statistic that over 95% of city residents are happy with their government and city – a figure that is shocking almost anywhere you come from. From her perspective, much of the innovation and implementation of the City’s vision elaborated in its master plan is due to the strong leadership of Lerner, but also the creativity of the many innovative leaders who followed him to design simple, elegant solutions to pressing problems. We know from our experience in Detroit and Sao Paulo that simply having a master plan doesn’t mean things get done, and certainly doesn’t mean they get done right. The rest of our week in Curitiba was spent trying to understand how military dictatorship and the utter lack of public process – anathema to most political sensibilities and urban planning today – had been such key factors in the success of this City. We found ourselves asking whether it takes a benevolent dictator to make a place work, and trying to sort through the imperfections and dangers of such a model. 

Why I am moving to Curitiba
by University of California student Abby Edwardsvanmuijen from Walnut Creek, California

  1. We go to school in a tree house in the middle of the jungle - a university classroom in a reused quarry!
  2. We have a little lake to do yoga in front of in the mornings.
  3. I got to live with Pedro and Barbara! An amazing homestay family.
  4. There is a color-coded bus rapid transit system and SO much less car traffic
  5. All of the tall buildings are centered around the transit system so when you are lost, you find a spine of tall buildings and find your way home.
  6. There are more parks and green space than in any other major city.
  7. You can ride your bike in the bus lanes without getting hit by cars!

"It was interesting to see firsthand what's really innovative and effective about the Bus Rapid Transit system. There were so many opportunities for little improvements for the bus system as a whole that could really make it the best in the world. There needs to be more dialogue between cities all over about their different transportation systems, because they could all learn from each other in so many ways. Nobody's doing everything just right.
Middlebury College student Michaela Skiles from Portland, Oregon

Digging Deeper: Case Studies of Critical Planning Challenges in Sao Paulo
“Sao Paulo is like an old shoe: dirty and worn with lots of sole (a.k.a soul)!  It is a city of contradictions.”
Barnard College student Caroline Blosser from Columbus, Ohio

In the final week, we broke into four groups, each of which explored a critical planning challenge in Sao Paulo with a local expert: transport, water, housing and waste. Each topic was investigated through a planning lens that had been newly honed by the critical comparative analysis we had done in MST and Curitiba, which refreshed our view of the City. As an example, Tasnia Huque summarizes in the following paragraphs the transport study.

Sao Paulo grew haphazardly without a master plan and as a consequence has a transit system both inadequate for its population and difficult to navigate efficiently. The transportation case study group worked with a local architect and professor, Lourenço Gimenes, who is a leading contributor to the project the City is developing in a location called Penha on the east side of Sao Paulo. Despite strategic placement between Sao Paulo’s city center and the second largest municipality in Brazil, Guarulhos, Penha is difficult to access and has minimal economic activity. The municipality of Sao Paulo is currently undertaking a plan to build a new intermodal station, for bus, commuter rail and metro, and we explored the potential impact of such an infrastructural investment, both socially and economically, on the area. Penha today is extremely segregated spatially, with highways, rail lines, a river channel, as physical barriers, and structurally poor social housing, favelas and inadequate open space acting as social barriers. Our research and analysis concentrated on how to improve mobility, on both a micro (within the community of people residing in that area) and a macro (connecting Penha to the metropolitan center) level. We explored how the new transit access could not only attract huge economic activity and create jobs for the residents in Penha, but could also potentially succeed in engaging the community members, creating a sustainable environment and making Penha more accessible, allowing it to be a destination and not just a pass-through.

A Wealth of Knowledge and Infinite Questions
The 32 students contributed to a tapestry of key insights and remaining questions that we will literally and figuratively carry with us to our next destinations.

As we leave Brazil, we take with us concrete lessons and questions about the place that are nuanced by the inter-disciplinary understanding of Brazil that we learned in trying to make sense of the messiness of Sao Paulo. Relative to the places we call home, Brazil’s spatial organization seems messy, its classifications of people seem messy, its transport system seems messy, and its politics seem messy. But surprisingly, the mess is functional, though frustrating to us, and its failings continue to incite opportunities, ideas and new questions. We leave intrigued by Brazil and its future, curious about the outcome of its elections, and wondering what major investments, ranging from government improvement projects, foreign capital, and upcoming major events like the World Cup will mean for the places and people of Brazil. More broadly, we will take to future countries an ability to embrace differences and seeming messiness and learn more openly from places, people and systems that are different from our own.

NOTE: A slideshow of student photographs and thoughtful captions from all 32 IHP Fall 2010 Cities in the 21st Century students can be viewed at: http://goo.gl/mSpq

Cape Town, South Africa Letter Home
By Greg Pasquali and Tasnia Huque, with input from Megan Friedman, Michelle Harlow, Ben Hejkal, Sayantan Mukhopadhyay, Amanda Ota, Olivia Pei, Andrea Roman Alfaro and Sanna Vohra
"It’s incredible how much there is to unpack in Cape Town. South Africa’s wealth of history and culture has left us amazed as well as more inquisitive than before. There is so much to take in and, as always, not enough time."
– Harvard University student Olivia Pei of New York, New York

Cape Town is one of the most physically beautiful cities in the world. But beyond this veil of beauty, Cape Town is unavoidably eye-opening in terms of inequality, racism, natural beauty meshed with inhumanity, progress and pitfalls. Our learning community arrived in this seductively beautiful place 16 years after the end of Apartheid, a political system of racial segregation; and a few months after the FIFA World Cup, a mega-event that many deemed South Africa unprepared for. In light of these events and many others, we found ourselves questioning the role of people, politics and planning in the history of this seemingly familiar but deeply challenging place, and their role in addressing the many critical but competing priorities needed to move forward.

"Like all the cities we have visited thus far, Cape Town is full of surprises and complexities. The more time we spent in the Mother City, the more we became perplexed by and enamored with it. From Long Street to Langa, Bo’Kaap to Boulder Beach, Kirstenbosh to Cape Point, Cape Town offered us a variety of meaningful places and experiences. I will remember Cape Town for its startling natural beauty and stark inequalities – two aspects with which I still continue to grapple."
– Wellesley College student Meghan Friedman of Garwood, New Jersey

Natural Richness
Our first introduction to Cape Town was from the scenic top of Lion’s Head, a small mountain we hiked up together.

"Climbing up Lion’s Head, we saw all of Cape Town. From the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean and in between the mountains, the City lay before us. We were eager to explore and discover all it had to offer."
– Olivia Pei

After the seemingly endless concrete of Sao Paulo, Cape Town’s sterling blue ocean, dramatic mountain and verdant cityscape were a literal and figurative breath of fresh air.

"Cape Town’s myriad social issues are often overshadowed by its jaw-dropping natural beauty. Living in the shade of the glorious Table Mountain, mere feet away from the ocean, the IHP student group came to appreciate the interplay between city and nature to its fullest."
– Williams College student Sayantan Mukhopadhyay of Safat, Kuwait

Though the mountain is made of stone and the plant kingdom is among the most biodiverse in the world, we quickly learned of the fragility of this environment and its connections to many other issues facing Cape Town today. The rare fynbos family of plant species, unique to the Western Cape, is threatened by pressures of housing development, cultural demand of both poachers who seek it for its scarcity and others who seek it for religious rituals, and simple lack of education.

"The scenic beauty of Cape Town is juxtaposed by the lasting legacy of Apartheid. It was interesting to learn about the tension between conserving Cape Town’s natural environment and addressing its dire social and economic needs."
– Brown University student Sanna Vohra of Manila, Philippines

In particular, the Cape Flats exemplify this challenge – the former townships, lands with extremely poor living conditions where blacks were forced to live during the Apartheid era, are where poor migrants settle now. Daily challenges of poverty, unemployment, housing and survival are particularly pronounced in the townships, rendering preservation of rare and fragile plant species a low priority. Thoughtful planners on the City staff are working on innovative solutions including using highway medians and verges as wildlife habitat and migration corridors and using wastewater treatment sites to encourage bird-rich wetland sanctuaries. While they work to educate the public about the value of eco-diversity and humans’ impact on it, they also acknowledge the challenging trade-offs in a city with so many competing priorities.

History and Rights 
In this beautiful environment, there is clear evidence of humanity at its ugliest. From the spatial segregation of people by color to the politics and prejudices that still exist, the impact of South Africa’s Apartheid era is still easily seen and felt today.

"Living in homestay families in the Bo Kaap and Langa gave us valuable and diverse living experiences within Cape Town that really crystallized the economic disparities between the various communities of Cape Town."
– Sarah Lawrence College student Amanda Ota from Belmont, Massachusetts

Apartheid’s legacy of separation become most apparent to us by living in two formerly—and to a great extent, still—separated communities: Bo Kaap, a predominantly colored community in the Cape Town City Bowl, and Langa, a black township twenty minutes from the city center. The two weeks we spent with each family was enough time to experience firsthand how location and opportunities were divided in Cape Town based on skin color.

South Africa replaced Apartheid with a very progressive constitution in 1994 that guarantees housing, equal education and basic services to all people. Political unrest in Cape Town is a regular occurrence as many of the underserved populations have found that amid all of the demands, the way to be heard and addressed is by shouting louder. As a result, neighborhood politics – like Hangberg, a former colored village, being pitted against Imuzamy Yethu, a former black township, for priority for public housing – erupt into physical battles with police, outrage and accusations from all sides, and a steadily increasing pressure as time passes. Many argue that 16 years is not enough time to undo hundreds of years of injustice. And as Cape Town powers ahead as a major economic engine of the African continent and continues to attract migrants from other areas of southern Africa, demand for services only increases.

Moving Forward
The landscape of Cape Town is breathtaking, but the history of the City is so conflicted and dark, that at times, when marveling at the beauty of the mountains and ocean, you realize that what is really amazing is how we as humans fail to appreciate each other. A woman I met on a train told me, “The mountains and oceans are so pretty; people here don’t feel the need to come together, they can just wonder at the natural beauty.” But this divide, as we learned, is what we need to overcome without excuses and accusations. – Bates College student Tasnia Huque of Dhaka, Bangladesh

The idea of difference between white, black and colored populations was not only enshrined in law, but ingrained in people through education, spatial segregation, and many other insidious means, leaving it unquestioned for generations. As law and logic have transformed, institutions and places have been restructured to start to push the harmful effects of Apartheid into the past.

Examples are myriad. The process of integrating schools and making education equal for all colors is relatively new. Resources for schools, especially trained teachers, are limited, but more and more resources are being applied to enhance education. Until recently, the government denied the existence and severity of HIV and AIDS, but there are now many accessible clinics providing anti-retroviral drugs needed to keep HIV at bay, and increasingly effective health education. Though medicine is relatively affordable to most with jobs, it falls to the government to provide resources to keep the disease under control in the unemployed.

"Cape Town doesn’t just teach you the beauty and ugliness of nature, history and mankind. Cape Town teaches you the value of your input, your individuality and your role in a never-ending community."
– Skidmore College student Andrea Roman-Alfaro of Lima, Peru

Similarly, the spaces that people inhabit are being transformed. The one-bedroom hostels that had been home to four families are being turned into multi-room apartments for single families. Other families are moving into new government housing. The former black townships are receiving public investment in roads, electricity, water, and even neighborhood park space. But from neighborhood to neighborhood, racial mixing is rare – a process that undoubtedly will take a long time. The first priority of many is just to see basic needs addressed.

In light of the limited resources and challenge to provide for so many basic and critical needs, many were surprised that the government would invest so much in a soccer World Cup. Despite many failures, such as immense cost overruns and broken promises by government, most people we encountered now consider the event a success as a means of transcending the deepest divides in the country. The Green Point stadium in Cape Town was far over budget; under-delivered on expectations of public space, access and events; and was recently abandoned by its promotion company, a heavy burden now borne by the City. Though many feel the World Cup was far too expensive, few regret the benefit it brought. Capetonians tell of overcoming the constant safety and security fears, as people stayed in the City Bowl late into the night, for once allowing themselves to be in public past dark, surrounded by people of all colors. People of every color said that finally they felt like an African people, united with their city and countrymen. And while many still wait with fingers crossed to see if tourists will bring the financial benefit that was hoped for in the investment, the event certainly has brought a new sense of South Africa’s importance in the global context.

Vacation: Learners and Tourists
"I’ll never forget falling asleep in a cabin with no electricity, listening to the lions roar outside my windows while dreaming about the herd of elephants I watched play in the mud that day."
– University of Michigan student Michelle Harlow of Livonia, Michigan

Following eleven packed weeks with learning about cities, we took a week to rest, process and enjoy the amazing beauty and restful settings of an ocean-side wonderland. Many students rented houses on the beaches around Cape Town, others traveled to the famous winelands set in the nearby mountains, some traveled within South Africa and other parts of Africa, while others explored the famous Garden Route on the southern coast or went on safari. The week was needed to process all that we had learned so far, get some rest, and build excitement for our next and final city, Hanoi, Vietnam.

As students in these cities, we are granted the resources to see each place in more depth than most tourists are.  IHP has taught us to be critical of our own role, and we traveled with a new perspective. Even on vacation, we found ourselves thinking critically about how the choices we make in travel destinations and supporting businesses represent a political force of their very own. In the words of IHP, we do not stop “reading the city” around us, even on vacation, a skill that seems to have become innate to the group.

We returned rested, equipped with fresh insights for critique and comparison, and ready to dive into the challenge of reading a new city that is culturally, spatially, politically and historically very different from any we have been to yet.

"South Africa was a wonderful academic and life experience. I hope to return some day!"
– Macalester College student Ben Hejkal of Ann Arbor, Michigan

Hanoi, Vietnam Letter Home
By IHP Trustees Fellow Greg Pasquali, with input from Carly Abarbanel, Samantha Demby, Tasnia Huque, Lauren Hudson, Aaron Jacobs, Anne La, Kai Nielsen, Andra Palchick, and Jasmine Qin
Hanoi, Vietnam was perhaps the city for which we had the most expectations and the greatest unknowns. When the IHP Cities in the 21st Century Fall 2010 student and faculty group arrived in Hanoi, we expected to be confronted with the history of the war with the United States, quiet streets filled with bicycles, and the strong presence of traditional cultural life and communist identity. Instead, we found that raging capitalism eclipsed all else.

These past five weeks in Vietnam have been a snapshot of time in this country’s incredibly long history. This year, the city of Hanoi celebrates its 1000 year anniversary, and all the while, I feel as if I have been a witness to the city’s very tangible energy in looking toward the future. The coexistence of old and new, tradition and reinvention, and how they inform each other is a defining part of the city’s identity. It is a city that is constantly moving, carrying with it a reverence for its history as it dynamically invests in new development and change. – Macalester College student Andra Palchick, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Most of us think of Vietnam in terms of its history from the second half of the 20th century – as a colony of France, the site of a long war with the United States, a communist nation following the lead of iconic charismatic leader Ho Chi Minh. What we easily forget are its long history before French occupation, and its quickly-evolving modern market era. Evidence of this long earlier history was present in the many ancient temples scattered throughout Hanoi, the streets named for the ancient trades that long occupied them, the narrow winding streets with tall building at a bustling pedestrian-scale and also the traditional villages that surround the center.

As the City has grown, many of these villages have been absorbed both into its area of influence, becoming interwoven into its economy and built up to the city scale and intensity, and more recently into its boundary. In visiting some of these villages to see their historic industries of vermicelli noodles, silk products, or household items from duck and chicken feathers, we saw both the traditional layout of the villages, which typically surround a temple and communal house, as well as the modernization of traditional industry and the quick growth and intensification of these neighborhoods.

As a student whose knowledge of Vietnam had been gleaned solely through the lens of American history classes, I was both surprised and fascinated by the reception we have received over the past five weeks.  I expected the legacy of the “American War” to cloud every interaction I had in Vietnam, yet the bloody history was almost never broached.  Not only were we greeted warmly by all whom we encountered but the War was also a nonfactor in our guest lectures and class discussions.  The War’s omission from the program was not simply a matter of politeness.  Rather, it turned out that after one thousand years of Chinese occupation and alternating western colonial experiments the American War was simply one of many gruesome independence struggles.  It seems so obvious now that a War permanently inscribed in the psyche of American political thought would not necessarily carry the same significance halfway around the world.  On IHP, no information is often the most valuable information and in Vietnam I learned the most from what I did not hear. – Brown University student Aaron Jacobs, from Scarsdale, New York

Vietnam’s more recent history has been decades of wars followed by famine. We had expected the scars of this history to be clear in the City landscape and peoples’ memories. However, we found little evidence in either place. With the exception of a preserved US bomber plane outside one museum and the Ho Loa prison museum at the site where many Americans were held, there was little evidence of the relatively recent physical destruction to be seen. Similarly, few people talked about the war. Our country coordinator, Tran Hoai Anh, grew up in Hanoi in the time of the war with the US and remembers being forced to evacuate the city for months and even a year at one point as a young child. Despite this, she, like many of her generation, doesn’t talk about the war because it is painful, but more so because it is distant history relative to the fast-paced change that has transpired since. Additionally, the population of Hanoi is relatively young, and as the City rapidly develops and changes, all eyes are on the future rather than the past.

One thing that really struck me is how Vietnamese people are not so apt to talk about the past and their history. They have moved on, and while we struggle to learn more and more about their extraordinary history, they just wonder at our fascination. – Bates College student Tasnia Huque from Dhaka, Bangladesh 

Transition to Market Economy
"As a non-econ major, I’m fascinated by the delicate balances at play in a city’s economy through what I’ve seen was a result of Vietnam’s economic reform. In lectures, we heard about the enormous role of international players in Hanoi’s economy. On the street we see a world dominated by informal markets.  Every day in every aspect of Hanoi’s mechanisms we see proof of the uncontrollable stages of economic reform as Hanoi struggles to transition between a planned and market economy."
– Wellesley College student Carly Abarbanel from Springfield, Massachusetts

Vietnam’s communist history seems hard to believe when looking at the streets of Hanoi. In 1986, the government began Doi Moi, the process of opening the previously state-controlled economy to market forces. Vietnam quickly exploded with an incredible amount and variety of small business. Today, every building seems to have a small business in its ground-level street frontage, and roaming the streets are mobile businesses such as individual fruit sellers carrying their produce in baskets, bicycles converted to mobile homewares stores and lunch counters, and motorbikes carrying deliveries of every kind. Hanoi’s streets today throng with people and commerce, and wealth, health and quality of life seem to have greatly increased. 

Before arriving in Hanoi’s Ancient Quarter for our first few days in Vietnam, I had never experienced a neighborhood so densely packed with commercial activity.  The bottom floor of nearly every home is also a storefront, and even the narrowest side-streets and back-streets explode with the sights and sounds of selling. – Williams College student Samantha Demby from Brooklyn, New York

As the capitalist market grows rapidly, it creates opportunity, wealth and change. The struggle now is how to ensure Hanoi maintains some of the equity of the communist era that people still desire. Capitalism seems to be picking winners and losers, threatening to create the inequities that were so visible in Detroit, Sao Paulo and Cape Town.

"We heard a lot about the up-and-coming Vietnamese economy, and while it is true that it has recently been doing tremendously well, I worry about the consequences of Vietnam’s methods to accomplish development. Urban growth, unsustainable development, ever-increasing motorization of transport, industrialization of rural areas, private sector enhancement, and modernization through more-than-necessary foreign companies, are all trends in Vietnam today, and we wonder what this will mean for Vietnam’s identity."
– Tasnia Huque

Hanoi Today
It’s so important to realize that Vietnam is at an intersection; an intersection of change both social and economic. Street vendors, with shoulders burdened by the weight of agricultural goods hanging from bamboo sticks, roaming streets busied by luxury cars and motorbikes is the image that represents this change in my eyes. This robust, yet dynamic mixture between tradition, the past and the present begs the question: How much longer can tradition persist in this equation of economic growth in a globalized context? Only time will tell. – Lafayette College student Kai Nielsen, from St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

While Hanoi’s urban inhabitants are far better off today than in the years of famine 25 years ago, the sustainability of “capitalism full speed ahead” is put into question by rising prices, the unstable condition of modern migrants from the countryside, enfeebled government, the steady suffocation of air and movement by ever more cars, and slow environmental erosion .One student’s homestay father, a successful architect, told of how life was better, but he now had to own a car for work because of the pressures of globalized consumer culture. Many people are making unsustainable – and in many ways undesirable – choices that are incompatible with the layout and lifestyle of this 1,000 year old city. As Vietnam continues to chase China in aspirations to great growth and progress, it is impossible to tell what the future will hold for its already polluted and traffic-jammed cities.

"Vietnam is an overwhelming country to synthesize. The energy of a city in the process of development is evident everywhere. From the crowded streets to pushy vendors, even filtering into family patterns; Vietnam’s transition from a reclusive country to a forthcoming global economic presence is a process worth witnessing first hand."
– Sarah Lawrence student Lauren Hudson from Newport Beach, California

While we were in Hanoi, the students researched and presented their final set of case-studies – in-depth research on a focused topic to prepare for an hour-long presentation. Small student groups researched four areas of life in Hanoi today: youth culture, public space, non-motorized transport and markets.

Youth Culture
The group that studied youth culture interviewed young people about what they do for fun, how they relate to their family and tradition, and how they feel about the future. Through anecdotes about the prevalence of curfews and importance of getting a motorbike, they learned about tensions between tradition and modernity. Despite struggling to find good jobs, young people in Hanoi are full of optimism about Vietnam’s future, sometimes at the expense of traditional culture and identity and even family relationships.  The youth of Hanoi today embrace the modernizing and westernizing trends that they have seen improving quality of life, and are optimistic about their own futures as they see a world of increasing opportunity for them.    

Public Space
The students who studied public space looked at how sidewalks and public squares and plazas were used. They found many unique conceptions of communal use of space, and many methods of claiming public space for personal or commercial purposes. From shopkeepers spreading their wares on the sidewalk to aerobics groups taking over entire plazas, students watched how space was claimed, and, fascinatingly, how the claims and uses of the same space changed throughout the day. One moment a space is claimed by an older men’s board game; the next, by young people studying or lounging; only to be replaced again by a radio that transformed it to an informal dance or workout.

Non-Motorized Transport
The group studying non-motorized transportation sought to understand how someone chooses to move about Hanoi. Beginning with a video (viewable at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_Vhnye_1NU), the group introduced their research question that they developed to help them break down some of these key determining factors. Ultimately, they found that even in trying to understand non-motorized transit, all inquiries ultimately brought them back to the rapid rate at which Hanoi is turning to motorized transport. Despite limitations of the young and old, every demographic the students studied seemed to be tending toward increased motorization, which left the group questioning both its sustainability and the importance of non-motorized transport to the future of Hanoi.

After grabbing the class’s attention with a fashion show of the stylish finds they had made at various types of clothing markets, the students who researched markets taught their classmates and faculty about the surprising range of markets found in Hanoi. The diversity of markets was surprising to everyone, and the group researching it found that clothes could be bought not only from stores, but also from

roaming vendors or a variety of web portals like Facebook. In fact, even storefronts offered surprising variety, as they found themselves turned away at the door of wholesale clothing stores  that only sold clothes by the unsorted bundle that the shopkeeper said was “too big!” for them. The group’s fascinating analysis came not from just categorizing this surprising breadth of shop types, but from learning about the flow of products, first from China or major European and American brands, through the interconnected web of markets, and finally to the consumer, and, more specifically, what types of consumers were found at each type of market in terms of socio-economic status, age, gender and other demographics.

Retreat, Reflection, and Wrap-Up
After wrapping up our research and learning in Hanoi, we left for the quiet and verdant Vietnamese countryside to reflect on the learning from across four continents. One of the common threads throughout this reflection was the importance of the individual people, in particular our homestay families, who were many of our best guides to and interpreters of local culture – the ones who gave us the best sense of what it means to inhabit each city.

"My homestay family was so genuinely nice that not once did I feel like a guest at their home. I will forever be indebted to them for teaching me some amazing chopstick skills. I love them and am greatly appreciative of all their kindness."
– Tasnia Huque

Many, many people along the way contributed to our learning through their generosity. From lecturers to local guides to strangers we interviewed on the streets, we learned about the banal and the great forces of change from the personal anecdotes of countless hundreds of individuals.

"Having no language ability proved to be a non-issue in the face of the incredible hospitality of the Vietnamese people. My days here were marked by countless gestures of kindness from complete strangers – from the children who could always tell I was foreign and would yell “Hello!” as I walked by, to the elderly people who would wordlessly lead me through seas of motorbikes and cars, to the manager of a teashop who took three hours of her time to teach me and my friends how to play a board game.  These simple, fleeting encounters are the experiences from which I will construct my memories."
– Harvard College student Anne La from Boston, Massachusetts

Onward to more Cities in the 21st Century
"In many ways, Vietnam, of the countries we have visited, feels most like home to me.  As I walk through Hanoi’s bustling streets, the city’s people, shops, and Chinese influence are familiar. But the lectures, conversations and people I meet highlight the differences as much as similarities I hadn’t understood about my own home. As we learn about new problems, in a familiar setting, I realize how these problems exist in my home too. Traveling with this group of people of varied backgrounds and perspectives helps me to see my own background, political system, and home in a new analytical light."
– Colby College student Yiyuan (Jasmine) Qin from Chenzhou, Hunan Province, China

And so, as we return to our homes and college towns and look forward to our futures as residents of cities, we will take with us a much more informed and analytical understanding of how cities work. We will keep reading a city – learning about patterns and trends from the tiniest details – in every city we visit in our lifetimes.

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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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Fall 2012 Evaluations

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