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

Fall 2011 Letters Home

Archived letters:

Hanoi Vietnam Letter Home
By IHP Trustees Fellow Daniel Woodard with input from Teddy Kent and Charlotte Heyrman.

After a long flight and stopover in Kuala Lumpur, we arrived in Hanoi, a city which we expected would be the most unfamiliar on our IHP journey. Reaching the Ancient Quarter in the center of the city, with its twisting, narrow, spaghetti-like streets there was activity and motion everywhere we turned. Stores and workshops spilled out onto the sidewalks. Motorbikes and pedestrians negotiated the streets through an unspoken understanding of its rhythm and flow. Taking in this vibrant scene, our group began to question whether this was wholly unfamiliar to us or if it was in some way reminiscent of the bustling street activity that we saw in the favelas of São Paulo. Learning more about Hanoi, our experiences from Brazil and South Africa came to mind increasingly frequently as we recognized some familiar patterns and acknowledged some new ones.

More than 3000 years of culture and history lie behind modern Hanoi. During one of our first lectures, Mr. Hṹu Ngoc used the Vietnamese banyan tree to symbolize four outside forces, China, the West, communism and capitalism, to explain the many influences that play into modern Vietnamese culture. (need to tell us something about what he said, presume it connects to the next sentence)  As we learned about the city, we visited soviet housing complexes, French villas and new neo-classical style urban housing . The variety of architectural style against the backdrop of Vietnam’s history of resistance to foreign powers, reminded us of the blended history that lies behind the built environment in Cape Town. We wondered how these various structural elements would hold a place in a modern Vietnamese cultural landscape.

The Communist one party political structure added a variation to our understanding of urban politics. In the Vietnamese Communist model, the state controls resources, specifically owning the title to all of the country’s land. Through the Hộ Khẩu, a passbook system that identifies residents based on their area or region of origin, the state is also able to control migration by restricting access to social services. Here we saw a shadow of a reflection of South Africa’s Apartheid.
During her lecture on Vietnam’s political system and governance, Dr. Tran Thi Thanh Thuy explained how a catastrophic financial crisis, which began in 1975 and led to multiple famines and an inflation rate of 77.7 percent in 1986, highlighted the failures of an economy managed by central government planners. Teddy Kent articulated the double-edged quality of government control saying, “As we saw in Brazil, top-down planning is your best friend and worst enemy at the same time. In Curitiba, sustained autocratic rule allowed the government to see plans through to the end. However, success also depends on the type of plans that they implement.”

As a solution to economic crises, the government eased Hộ Khẩu restrictions and adopted economic reform known as Đổi mới., intended to create a mixed ownership economy To witness the  economic shift to industry privatization and demand-driven production, we visited the Hai Ha Candy Company. Since its 2004 partial privatization, Hai Ha is now 51% state-owned and 49% publicly owned. The complexities of this relationship became clear when a worker in the factory, seemingly contradicting herself, told us that maintaining state ownership provided a sense of stability and job security yet partial privatization had pushed the company to improve its efficiency by adopting new technologies and reducing the size of its workforce. We were also intrigued to learn that the government partially owns other candy companies, including most of Hai Ha’s domestic competitors.

Other examples illustrated the complex effects of Đổi mới’s opening of the economy to foreign trade.  We investigated the impact, for example, on two of Vietnam’s traditional industries. At a silk factory, we learned that government intervention through tax breaks has helped to maintain Hanoi’s silk production despite low profitability and new competition from China. In contrast, a traditional bronze-casting workshop has seen a revival since the country opened its economy to international markets. The variation in outcomes highlighted the benefits and challenges of economic policy that attempts to blend public benefit and private markets.

In addition to strictly economic effects, we witnessed the social impacts of Đổi mới and how it was changing the makeup of the city. Dr. Dang Nguyen Anh, in his lecture on migration and poverty, stated that since the implementation of Đổi mới, absolute poverty has declined but relative poverty and social stratification have increased. New economic opportunities have also spurred the migration of over 7 million people, or 8 percent of the population, from rural to urban settings. Combining the increased concentration of wealth and the remnants of the Hộ Khẩu passbook system, rural to urban migration has created a large urban population of low-skilled, young, and female migrants.

In a neighborhood along the banks of the Red River, we met a collective of women who work together and support each other through cooperative living and an informal community banking system. Since they work in the informal sector, these women lack social protections and remain vulnerable to exploitation. We also learned that the remittances sent back to their hometowns account for a larger percentage of household income than their family’s agricultural production. The result is a precarious situation in which these women balance their own safety and stability with that of their family and rural hometown.

Another delicate balance is the steadily growing mix of cars, motorbikes and pedestrians on Hanoi’s busy streets. In a visit to ALMEC, a transportation planning consultant, Shizho Iwata described how non-motorized vehicles are giving way to motorbikes and cars. Although the agency has drafted plans for a metro system and additional bus lines, the planning for increased capacity for personal motor vehicles surprised many of us. Charlotte Heyrman made a comparison stating, “This reminds me of Detroit. The city is becoming so spread out and dependent on cars and motorized transport. Does this show that we don’t really learn from each other?”

As our semester came to a close, Charlotte’s question of how we learned from our experiences and each other was raised again and again. During our retreat to Mai Chau, a small rural village located outside of Hanoi, students presented their findings on a comparative analysis project which drew upon observations they had gathered from each of the cities we visited. Upon returning to Hanoi we then had one final group synthesis where we discussed larger themes that appeared throughout the trip as well as unresolved questions and thoughts that remain with us. While generally our experiences led to more questions than answers, all in all we concluded our journey together with a new and exciting way of looking at the cities of the world.

Cape Town, South Africa Letter Home
By IHP Trustees Fellow Daniel Woodard with input from Rachel Collens, Charlie Cubeta, Charlotte Heyrman, Julia Hobbs, Christine Hsu, Teddy Kent, and Sarah Krumholz.

The poems in this Letter are experts from a haiku competition that the students held as their Reflection on Learning session at the end of the South Africa program.

Descending into the city bowl formed between Table Mountain and the bay that shares its name, we entered Cape Town, South Africa on a cool Saturday evening. The view riding in from the airport was picturesque as the city lights shone brightly against the dark blue contrast of the water. Focusing our thoughts on our new location, we began to wonder how the scenery and landscape of Cape Town could provide a means for understanding the city’s population, its history and its potential.

We were struck by a constant duality. On the one hand, it is impossible to miss the constant reminders of South Africa’s 46 years of Apartheid, which officially ended in 1994. On the other hand, efforts to push that political system of racial segregation even further into the past are unending and inspiring.

As we walked through the central business district, we began to read the city’s story of development through its physical aspects. Several historical monuments, statues, and buildings such as the Mount Nelson Hotel (left), a luxury hotel first opened in 1899 to accommodate the Union and Castle ocean liner passengers, exposed South Africa’s colonial history and establishment as a modern state. The District Six Museum, a commemoration of the 60,000 residents who were forcefully removed from an ethnically mixed neighborhood in the city center, embodied a more recent past dictated by the policies of Apartheid and racial segregation.

There were also examples of reuse such as the former city hall, now converted into a mosque, and Huxley Square, former student housing units that are now retrofitted for boutiques and coffee shops. “It is fascinating to see Cape Town reconcile its present day culture with its historic past,” Julia Hobbs says. “Cape Town maintains the architecture of colonialism and the scars from apartheid but residents are trying to weave a new narrative of Cape Town as a globalized city.”  As we saw examples of change throughout the city, we wondered what forces lay behind these changes and how well they represented the ideals of reconciliation, integration and South Africa’s image as a “Rainbow Nation.” 

Neighborhoods remain
Do rainbows ever change?
Double rainbow life
Poem by Rachel Collens

Moving into our homestays, we stayed in the two neighborhoods of Bo Kaap and Langa. Bo Kaap is a traditionally Muslim neighborhood developed in the 1840s for former slaves brought from South and Southeast Asia. We learned from Dr. Mohamed Adhikari, professor of history at the University of Cape Town (UCT), that apartheid zoning plans designated Bo Kaap for “coloured” residents, a race classification that represented a heterogeneous mix of individuals not included in the black and white dichotomy represented in a majority of the country.

Since the advent of South Africa's democracy, Bo Kapp has been a neighborhood in flux. Its prime location, tucked away on the rim of the central business district with picturesque views of Table Mountain and the city center, has made it a target for developers and businesses. As property values rise, families with roots in the area have begun to move out and into new neighborhoods lacking the cohesive community present in Bo Kaap. “Living in Bo Kaap redefined the meaning of community for me,” said Teddy Kent. “On my first night there we took a walk with our homestay father and he introduced us to almost half of the neighborhood. His interactions with everyone showed the shared memories and trust that exists between him and his neighbors.” Seeing this deep sense of community, many in our group began to question whether something should or could be done to check market forces and allow these families to remain in their homes.

You say the world is
flat, you say, but the mountain
is tall. Other side.
Poem by Charlotte Heryman

For our second homestay in Cape Town we stayed with families in Langa, one of the first black townships constructed during the apartheid era. Displaced black families were resettled in this barren stretch of land, located in the Cape Flats on the other side of Table Mountain from the CBD and inland from the coast. The residents were moved here without sufficient housing and infrastructure. The area was intended primarily as a bedroom for the city’s black labor force while neither business nor commerce were planned or ever fully developed in the area. “Living in Langa taught me about the frustrations that exist when access to basic resources is limited,” explains Sarah Krumholz. “Comforts that I usually take for granted, such as a fully stocked grocery store and access to a variety of healthy food options, did not exist in Langa. Living there taught me so much more than simply hearing a lecture or reading an article about it.”

Apartheid is gone
Thank you, Nelson Mandela
But wait, is it gone?
Poem by Charlie Cubeta

Even after democratic reforms, the Cape Flats continues to be ignored as economic development spreads elsewhere. Vanessa Watson, professor at the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics at UCT, spoke about Cape Town’s spatial planning. She explained that despite population density in the Cape Flats, economic and employment opportunities still lag far behind those in the CBD. Due to this separation of jobs from housing, most people living in the Cape Flats region must commute great distances to work every day. Cheap public transportation is a high priority for these residents but the current system of buses and trains lack sufficient accessibility and reliability. A BRT system has been planned, but the first lines are being constructed to service new suburbs along the northern coastline.

Filling the gaps in this network is an informal system of transport that uses private mini-bus taxis to pick up and drop off passengers along a flexible route.  Roger Behrens, professor in the Department of Engineering at UCT, said that mini-bus taxis are the second most used form of public transportation in Cape Town, with most trips running from the Flats into the economic corridor. However, the lack of formal oversight and regulation creates a gap in accountability where poorly maintained vans and aggressive driving habits have led to a number of fatal accidents. We began to question this system of taxis and ask how it could be better managed and integrated into a formalized and regulated branch of the transportation network.

Practice makes perfect
But all good things take time
Puberty is tough
Poem by Christine Hsu

We soon discovered that many of the problems in the city’s development are rooted in the structural issues of South Africa’s young democracy. Justin Sylvester, the Director of the Human Rights and Government Programme at the Open Society Foundation, explained that the parliamentary system used in South Africa promotes interest of the party over interest of the citizens. He claimed the consequences to be weak oversight, low transparency and a high rate of corruption.
However, this has not stopped many local groups from taking matters into their own hands. On a site visit to Valhalla Park, we met Gertrude Square, commonly known as “Auntie Gertie,” who had protested and fought against the government to secure rights of the informal settlements in her neighborhood. Auntie Gertie won her court case based on the grounds that the government was not providing sufficient services to the public. Christine Hsu, impressed by Auntie Gertie’s experience, commented on her visit. “You hear a lot about grassroots and ground movements but it’s hard to understand until you see them first-hand. Hearing the story of their protests outside the government buildings while standing exactly where it happened is a very powerful and moving experience. They are not highly formally educated but very knowledgeable about their own community and demanded change. It shows that community efforts can really pay off.”

Visiting a few artist cooperatives and the Percy Bartley Orphanage, a home that provides street art as a creative outlet for boys aged eight to eighteen, we met with young people who were changing perceptions in their suburb of Woodstock through art installments on buildings. They were proud of the art that they had made and of the space they were creating. Charlotte Heryman reflects on her lesson learned. “Art sometimes has the ability to change the feeling of the place and help people find a way to invest themselves in their neighborhood.”

Before saying goodbye to South Africa, we had a week’s break from the busy program schedule to enjoy a vacation. Just as Cape Town’s residents had reinvented their city with new and varied meanings, so too did we hope to revisit and find further meaning in our experiences through some rest and reflection. As we left Cape Town to head on to Hanoi we all look forward to the excitement and challenges that await us on the last leg of our journey.

Sao Paulo & Curitiba, Brazil Letter Home
By IHP Trustees Fellow Dan Woodard with input from Hillary Clark, Eva Warren, Jessica Nunes, Teddy Kent, Rachel Collens, Zoe Chaves, Bo Schlagel.

Beginning the next phase of our journey, we stepped off a plane and into São Paulo, Brazil. We received a warm reception from our country coordinator, Glenda de la Fuente, before boarding a bus to the center of the city. Along the ride, many were struck by the scene around them. “When I arrived in São Paulo,” said Hillary Clark, “I was quickly overwhelmed by the size and structure of the city. Coming from a city of 700,000 people to one of over 10 million is quite a rapid change.” Looking out the bus windows at South America’s largest city, we also saw the visible manifestations of the urban issues that we would cover throughout our time there, including informal settlements built on public land, the polluted Tiete River, and the relentless traffic congestion.

We met our homestay families the next day. While many of us are used to the freedom and convenience of living independently, all were excited not only to begin the process of understanding the city, but also to begin developing relationships with our hosts. Eva Warren reflects on her family experience: “My family has been essential in my understanding of São Paulo's culture.  They guide me to new places around the city, answer my never-ending questions, and cook delicious traditional foods. The families show a great sense of pride in their city and provide a warm welcome to me and the other students.”

While homestay families provided an insight into life in São Paulo, visits to neighborhoods outside the city core provided a different perspective on the stark dualities that exist in the metropolitan area. In a single day, we visited both the Complex Ciudade Jardim, a gated all-inclusive residential complex which contained a high-end spa and private mall, and two of Sao Paulo’s largest favelas, Paraisopolis and Heliopolis. Jessica Nunes comments on the day’s effect on her: “The proximity and extreme contrasts between the favela communities and private-gated developments became a stark image for me. I also became obsessed with the favela culture – their means of creating their own resources and seeking their own happiness served as a lesson for me about the importance of community.”

Of the 127 square kilometers of land and 3.3 million people that make up the favelas, we only saw a small sampling. However, visits with community health board leaders, school teachers and government housing directors, helped us learn about the different opinions and interests that contribute to the struggle over favela legitimacy and upgrading. Teddy Kent recalls his experience of visiting one favela near Jurubatuva: “I was able to witness the political struggle between residential developers who wanted to remove the favela residents and use the land, and the favela residents who wanted to stay on the land despite the environmental risks.  Many residents were passionately engaged in resisting their removal from the area. For them, they know a culture and sense of community that exists only in their favela.”

Not only in favelas, but throughout the whole city, lack of housing has pushed many citizens to find their own solutions. For some, housing cooperatives and the occupation of vacant buildings provide viable alternatives. We met with Associaςao de Trabalhadores Sem Teto, or the Roofless Worker’s Movement, and saw two of their 24 completed cooperative housing projects. Through the Movement’s system, residents receive guidance and permission from the government for obtaining land, materials and expertise but ultimately they must collectively construct their own houses.

We also heard from lecturers and conducted case study projects on a variety of other topics such as waste management, water resource management, green spaces and transportation. Lourenςo Gimenes, architect and urban planner from the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of São Paulo (FAUUSP), explained that traffic congestion in the city results in a net loss of 33 billion Brazilian reais each year. A group of us investigated this statistic further by conducting a survey, asking Paulistanos to map their daily commutes. The result showed various combinations of bus and metro rides, some taking over  two hours. These long commutes create a less efficient work force and have real economic consequences.   

Taking to the road ourselves, we traveled outside São Paulo and stayed at a cooperative for the Rural Landless Worker’s Movement (MST). Since 1984, the MST has been using land occupation techniques to secure large tracks of farm land. As stated in Brazilian law, land which is not meeting its potential social utility may be occupied and, if left uncontested, redistributed to the occupiers. The land for this farming cooperative, acquired through occupation, currently held 32 families and was granted a one hundred year lease for use by the government. Many of us were struck by the political activism and civil organization of Brazilian citizens. “We’ve encountered a myriad of group organizations,” said Zoe Chaves, “from organized trash gatherers in Paraisopolis to the Sem Terra (MST) movement. I’ve really been struck by the way that various peoples form coalitions around shared interests.”

Although civil society and public participation play a major role in Brazil’s current politics, our week-long visit to Curitiba showed us a different story about the power of autocratic rule in shaping the form of the city. Heloisa Jorge, architect at Jamie Lerner Arquitetos Associados, provided us with an outline of how Jamie Lerner, former governor, mayor and city planning president, has implemented bus rapid transit corridors, strict zoning laws and other planning policies to mold the city into his plans. Although his methods are controversial in today’s political context, the results have been hailed as a success. Curitiba has won numerous awards for urban planning and sustainable practices.

One area in particular in which Curitiba has received praise is in the active preservation of its green spaces. Boasting 34 separate public parks and woods, Curitiba has resisted pressure from both contractors and residents to build on open spaces. In his guest lecture appearance, Reinaldo Pilotto, explained how Curitiba’s parks, such as Parque São Lourenςo and Parque Barigui along the Barigui River, contain lakes and low-lying areas that control flooding in the city. Instead of filling rivers in with streets and highways (as was done in São Paulo), Curitiba planners and city officials have kept these spaces open for public use. Park management has also taken on creative solutions in Curitiba, such as using a herd of roaming sheep to maintain the grass landscaping. These lessons taught us how the natural environment can be maintained and used to provide real benefits to city inhabitants.

Whether experiencing public participation or exploring top-down planned cities, our time in São Paulo and Curitiba taught us about the role of citizens and the state in securing rights and services for the people. We appreciated the diversity of Brazil for creating a complex and intriguing country for study. Bo Schlagel provides his account of his time here: “Sao Paulo is very diverse and has a lot of different flavors. With my time here in São Paulo I have attempted to do Capoeira, ran on a closed-highway-turned-park at night, shopped at the municipal market and seen many fine art galleries all within the same space. These flavors have mixed to create a chaotic but mesmerizing Sao Paulo experience.” As we move onward to South Africa, we are all very excited about the different flavors and experiences that lie ahead.

Detroit, USA Letter Home
By Trustees Fellow Daniel Woodard with input from Megan Bowman, Rebecca Coven, Jessica Nunes, Leah Rosenberg and Nick Wilder.

Hauling their bags as they entered the Virgil H. Carr Cultural Center, the students of the Fall 2011 class of IHP Cities in the 21st Century started their semester-long journey with smiles and handshakes. Faculty and staff were present to give introductions and welcome the newest members  and their family and friends to the IHP family. Oliver Ragsdale, Jr., the president of the Arts League of Michigan (owner of the Carr Center and our classroom space) was also present to give the students their first directive of the semester: “Check all preconceptions about the city of Detroit.  The city is misunderstood in many ways and students need to understand it for themselves.” Challenging students from the beginning, Oliver asked them to open their eyes, ears and hearts to the city.   

Students rose to that challenge. Leah Rosenberg recounted a walk with other students to visit Roosevelt Park and enjoy a meal from Slows BarBQ, Detroit’s most famous barbeque restaurant. During the walk, she began a conversation with a friendly local who told her that Detroit is “the smallest town and largest city.” This slogan was repeated by many throughout the first week as presentations from guest lecturers pointed to the city’s large size, and interactions with residents invited students to engage with its friendly, small-town atmosphere.

During their keynote address, Stephen Vogel and Dan Pitera of the University of Detroit Mercy (our Detroit host institution) explained how the City’s phenomenal growth in the early 20th century was due to Ford’s doubling of  factory wages (to $5/day) and related accessibility of homeownership.  The city burgeoned with single family houses, wide streets and plenty of work through World War II and into the 1950’s. While changing economics have currently left Detroit neighborhoods with high rates of abandonment and blight, Stephen and Dan challenged us to see unused land as an opportunity for reuse and reinvestment. During the first week, we met with city agencies and non-profit organizations to learn more about their efforts on behalf of the future of the city. One group of students met with Olga Stella from the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) and learned about the non-profit’s efforts to retain and draw business into the city. Nick Wilder was struck by the spirit and passion of Olga and other employees of DEGC.

However, as students visited more areas of Detroit, they noticed different plans and dialogues, often uncoordinated or contradictory, emerging. Even the names of neighborhoods sometimes lack consistency. Leah Rosenberg recounted her experience in a neighborhood that was titled “Claytown” by the city government. However, she also saw signs, made by the Skillman Foundation, which declared the area to be the “Chadsey-Condon” neighborhood. Most residents she spoke with claimed the area to be Southwest Detroit. This battle over identity became an interesting display of different power players and the influence that they hold within a neighborhood.

Students were eager to continue their discussions outside of the classroom to understand themselves and the city more deeply. Inspired by a presentation on issues of race and class in Detroit given by Freda Sampson from the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, students led their own forum on the topic of privilege. As we discussed the racial segregation that exists in Detroit, we struggled between the personal drive to provide the best opportunities for one’s own family while also recognizing the values of living and investing in an ethnically and socially diverse neighborhood. The discussion was a great example of the open approach that the group has taken while discussing difficult issues.

During the second week, we explored different city neighborhoods to learn about the individual places and identities that exist within the web of the larger city. One group of students visited Indian Village, a historic Detroit neighborhood that used to be home to executives of Detroit’s big three auto companies. On her exploration, Megan Bowman spoke with neighborhood residents including Ray, who gave her a detailed history of the neighborhood and insight into its distinct character. Megan states, “I’ve learned so much over the past two weeks, and my most memorable and positive experiences were interviews with residents.”
Throughout the two weeks, students heard over and over again that Detroit’s strength is its people, and Rebecca Coven offered a story about witnessing that strength firsthand. “One Sunday we came across a barbeque with over 700 people. Asking around we learned that there was once a city resident named John who held parties for the neighborhood at his business every weekend. After John passed away, his building was left vacant and was eventually demolished. However, because many Detroit residents still had a connection to the space, they decided to hold a jazz celebration every Sunday to keep the memory alive. The residents were very inviting. We were asked to join in on their dance circles.”

Speaking to this sense of place, Jessica Nunes also found inspiration in the residents of Detroit. “The passion, love, and dedication that these residents have to their city have reinforced the fact that no place or space should ever be forgotten or disregarded.”

The students left Detroit on a melodic note by writing songs about the city and its future and performing live before the faculty and our hosts from the Carr Center. The creativity and variety in the students’ messages showed how they had experienced Detroit and made that experience their own. Detroit was a great start to the semester and we all look forward to the developments that lie ahead.

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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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