Author Archives: sethzeren

Arrival in Dakar, sweet smelling ocean air

We arrived in Dakar on March 3 in the afternoon. Immediately after exciting the plane, down the stairs the stresses of India and our travel flew away on the delicious sea breezes. We were met at the airport by our country coordinators Waly and Mariane and a couple buses. After dropping off the students at their hotel, the faculty got dropped off at their apartment. After being awake for over 36 hours with only a few hours of sleep, we collapsed into sleep.

Our first day in Dakar has been great. There was traditional food and dancing with the students and staff from the West Africa Research Center (WARC), our hosts for this phase of the program and then Waly and Mariane did a really thorough introduction to the program, logistics, homestays, and local culture. Then the students’ homestay families arrived and took them away. After the students had been whisked away, we went out to a delicious dinner with Waly and Mariane that included steak and fresh salad. We all have great feelings about this new country.

A visit the the Gazipur Dump


On Wednesday this week, I tagged along on some student research trips around waste in the city. First we went to Connaught Place and talked with primary waste pickers and also some construction workers about their trade and their understanding of poverty (for an assignment in the Politics and Development class).


Then in the afternoon, four of us went out to East Delhi to visit a neighborhood of trash pickers who sort the wastes. It was an amazing visit and I’m really proud of our students for thinking creatively and strategically about how to have those conversations, how to work with an interpreter, and build report to facilitate the harder questions. After that we went for fresh lime soda at the Radisson fancy-pants business hotel just on the main road in front of the settlement. When asked what was behind the hotel, the waiter prevaricated; but even though you could see the slum from the back windows, never acknowledged its existence.


After recharging, we hailed an Auto and headed for the big Delhi dump in Gazipure. Afterdifficulting convincing the auto driver that we really wanted to go there, we walked. Our “shortcut” took us through a neighborhood of metal working shops, recycler’s with houses perched above, and cow dairies(?), and finally arrived at the main trash pile, swarming with birds, smoke rising from a dozen fires, taller than any building in Delhi (it’s called Delhi’s Himalayas). We ended up walking to the top and looking in every direction as thesun sank low. When we descended, we hitched a ride with a garbage truck on its way down (and I almost fell out the door when it popped open going over a bump)





At the bottom we made our way back to the metro and then home to shower, and eat dinner. In short, it was a perfect IHP day.


Management and the informal sector

Today we are back in Delhi after a 16 hour train ride across the country. I’ve been thinking a lot about the many sights, guest speakers, and faculty sessions we’ve had since arriving in India. Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest themes is the informal sector–it is estimated that 1/2, or approx. 8 million people, in the Delhi area live in informally constructed housing. These are mostly the same people who are getting by on verily little income and lack security in the form of land tenure from eviction without notice. It’s a precarious life in many ways, but people are resilient and find ways to make it work and find joy amidst the struggle. The response of the state, at the municipal level and the nation, has been to treat these communities as illegal and clear them, resettling the residents in new (often unserviced) concrete block buildings on the edge of town. From our American perspective it’s hard not to feel both parallels to the failure of urban renewal, but also to feel like these are communities that desperately need help.

In the face of this, one of our speakers made the fascinating claim: that the slums are not the problem, they are the solution. In a fascinating recapitulation of Jacob’s observation that poor areas can often “unslum” themselves given reasonable security and public service provision. In this sense, the ability of people to “make it work” should be seen as an asset and you ask, if we just stopped poking people so much and instead worked to provide incremental public services it would be more effective than wholesale clearance that also destroys sometimes decades of social and physical capital in the slum communities.

So the issue I am wrestling with is what is the role for the urban planner? If part of the problem is that the state is too involved in the “management” of the city what are we to do? One obvious answer is as the community supporter/civil servant that comes out of the community planning model? A second answer is to work on the provision of basic public services (water, sewer, transport, roads, etc.). But to do that efficiently, such that tax base can support services laid out in an efficient pattern, an iteration of land use planning and infrastructure planning must happen. And this challenges the notion that we should stay out of the business of managing the city and just let the people do it (“as they have for thousands of years”). And yet, it’s interesting because the private sector has always done the majority of the building. So maybe the real question is what is the transition from “formal” to “informal” and back?


Wrapping up in Ahmedabad

Today is a DIY day for the students, so they are out working individually and in small groups on their research projects or class assignments. I am camped in my hotel room, trying to recover from my Ahmdebad belly and finish grading my first assignment–their neighborhood mapping. They did really impressive work most of them. (I have attached a couple photos below). Their assignment was to map their neighborhood (or a portion) on a specific theme (land use, safety, road conditions, etc.) and then creatively present it graphically. I am quite happy with the project as it got them out into their neighborhoods in Delhi with critical, observational eyes. Some of them identified significant principles: like parks aren’t sources of vitality, but spaces for it to take place, so parks on the edges of neighborhoods are often poorly used.

We head back to Delhi tomorrow on the night train. I’m looking forward to getting back to Delhi and being in a more comfortable location (with better wifi). We’re just getting used to dealing with the challenges of India, and of course we’re ready to depart (March 9th for Senegal).Map1 sm Map 2 sm Map 3 sm

One month in — Ahmedabad

Well, it has been a very India week here in Ahmedabad, Thursday was our one month anniversary of the students. We’ve had site visits ranging from forced-relocation camps for the riverfront development to a major new gated town under construction for the auto-oriented middle classes, starting at $80k all the way to $1.6M for a 6 Br Villa on the golf course. A couple students saw an attempted self-immolation, most have been sick at one point or another, and a rabid dog wandered into their hotel. A very India week.


We’re really being forced to wrestle with the disparities, the poverty, the apparent uncaring of the middle- and upper-classes toward the many, many poor who, through great ingenuity, cling to life in the forgotten spaces of the cities. It’s spurring some great conversations among the students, which I am glad to see. There’s a lot of furniture that’s getting re-arranged, so to speak. For me though, it’s been nice to be in a city where I have some knowledge of the landscape… feeling much less overwhelmed than the last time I was here.


Last night I slept for 14 hours, after starting to feel ill Friday afternoon. I went to bed around 4pm, and woke up again around 9:30. I was up for a bit and then went back to sleep until waking up to my alarm at 7:00am. At least I was feeling mostly better. Melinda and I worked out that it is easiest for her to skype to my room phone, a much better connection since my wifi is pretty dubious!


This morning I took five students to Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, and a Modernist “planned city” designed by two Indian students of le Corbusier. The students were impressed with the placelessness, emptiness, and general suburban feel—even in the very heart of the “city.” And yet, slums filled in around the edges for the workers who had not been planned for. We visited the Mahatma Mandir, a temple cum conference center piggybacking on Gandhi’s legacy to host annual Vibrant Gujarat summits on economic development. It’s hard to imagine that Gandhi would have looked at all favorably on the building, or the city that bears his name. On the way back we stopped at the step well in Adalaj, got ice cream in the village, and had lunch at Café Upper Crust in my old neighborhood. My stomach’s still a little iffy, but I ate some actual food, yay!


I taught my third faculty session on Friday morning and I’m happy with how it went. I lead in with a refresher and an evolution on the core issues of planning (intension, design, instrument; new cities or existing cities; plan or process) and a quick history of planning (cities have been planned for a long time, but modern planning is a specific profession that arises in response to the industrial city and the progressive era reforms). We then went into a discussion on a reading from James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, about the rise and fall of High Modernist urban planning. I’m using this as an “11” for the question of the role of “large plans” and central planners. It’s also a great way to highlight, in a not too personal context, the limitations of concepts such as Zoning and highway construction, urban renewal, etc. Scott also uses Jane Jacobs heavily in his counterpoint so I get to continue to weave her into my work—as I will continue to do. My next class is on Tuesday and, to continue the theme of each session encompassing an entire course, will focus on transportation, transit, and land use.


I’m feeling really good about my teaching at the moment. The students are really engaging with their fieldwork, they are using the frameworks that we are bringing to our faculty sessions, and are great fun to work with intellectually. My only concern is that as the semester becomes more “political,” by the nature of the social activist networks that mediate a lot of our interactions with the cities that frictions will grow in our Learning Community. Hopefully we can manage that so that it’s merely disruptive and not destructive. I am hopeful. We’ve got another three intense months with these students; not everything has to get addressed immediately. It’s better in fact if the “aha” moments come at the end as part of a deep, recursive, back and forth of experience, academics, conversation, and self-reflection. As I say about my class: I have many more questions than I have answers—questions I want the students to engage with—there are some bad answers that we will pick apart, but there is no one right answer, more of an array of pretty good ones we have to contend with. Because in the end we are called to action, because even when we do not act, we have made a choice about the kind of change that will take place in our cities.


Arrival in Ahmedabad

This morning we arrived in Ahmedabad after a 14 hour train journey across India. Despite the cramped sleeping conditions, and the nagging worry about your laptop stowed under the bunks over there, it was a good journey. The train is the best way to see India, as it takes you through the cities, into the hectic development of the periphery, past red-brick villages and dried out fields of cotton. I had a while to think this morning, as the red sun rose over the dusty fields, the train rocking and the landscape rolling away, about home and our work here. I miss home–Melinda, the cats, our lovely apartment together–and the other intangibles of home: a less peopled and stressful day. India retains that frenetic, throbbing sense of humanity in all it’s forms crashing together. It can threaten to overwhelm your ability to process, to cope. But I am excited by our work–my students are turning in their first assignment this weekend: a mapping project of their home-stay neighborhoods. They’ve turned out some really impressive work; I may post images of them when i have a chance to study them more closely. I’ve been really gratified at how the project has brought out their creative energies, pushed them to look closely at the area around where they live, and put them in touch with a key planning instrument. Looking forward, my next class will open up the conversation about Big Plans, looking at Burnham in Chicago, Haussman in Paris, and then the rise and fall of High Modernism in Brazilia, Chandigar, and elsewhere through James Scott’s competing lenses of le Corbusier and Jane Jacobs. But I’m still scheming on ways to make things more personal. First of all, I’m going to stimulate a debate in my class about using big vision plans, centrally administered to transform existing cities or create new ones. It’s a problematic story–I’m not sure there is a right answer–good or bad–though certainly plenty of both. But second, my devious scheme is to transform the classroom into a modernist experiment. The model right now is to rearrange the seats such that they are all in radiating lines from the doorway. Possibly leave their bags by the door, and then make them go back to get their notebooks, etc. or some other separation uses analog. I’m loving my teaching and the experiential learning. I am increasingly interested in the idea of a “City Semester” in the US–a traveling semester course in the US that focuses on urban governance and sustainability.

My first class in India

Today I taught my second full class of Urban Planning and Sustainable Environments, and my first class in India. It was also the first class where I started to address content in a deep way. I lead off the class with a bit of a whirlwind introduction to climate change, urbanization, and sustainability. It was a great return to my work at FES and before. In addition to some very basic mechanics, I got briefly into the carbon cycle, the increase in atmospheric concentrations of CO2, and addressed some specific consequences: particularly the implications of climate change to impact snowpack runoff in the himalayas, and thereby impact water supplies in the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers–flooding when the rain+melting snow comes too fast, drought when early melting leaves little snowpack for the summer and fall months. We also added adaptation and mitigation to the word bank and gave passing reference to geo-engineering, and the single state actor problem.

Moving to urbanization, we looked at the concentration of consumption in cities, the limited land area, but the large teleconnections to hinterlands. We also looked at the impacts of cities on biogeochemical cycles, UHI, water tables, etc. in the immediate urban vicinity. I was a bit disappointed with the students’ enthusiasm for the “hope” part–how cities can be an ally in sustainability, or perhaps it’s just something we have to address.

In sustainability we introduced environmental kuznet’s curves, I=PAT, and did some more term defining. We also quickly unpacked the Bruntland definition of sustainability, leading in to…

Our exercise! This was one of my proudest teaching moments (I was also proud that I was able to cover all of the above ground and only be 5 minutes behind). I had divided the class into five groups (the Indian Government, UN Environment Programme, d.light a small social entrepreneurial tech startup, Tata a major Indian conglomerate, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Adivasi indigenous community). Over 45 minutes these groups had to craft and agree upon a definition of sustainability (or sustainable development). If they could agree upon a definition then they would all get to share a giant pile of cookies. If not, then no cookies. The UNEP group was responsible for facilitating the negotiations, and the Tata team had secret information that if no agreement were reached, then their team would get all the cookies, because the benefited the most from the status quo. The game went off brilliantly. Each team got really into their roles. The Indian government tried to bribe the UN, with money. The Adivasi staged a protest and linked up with the scientists. Tata tried to recruit allies to vote against any agreement. The UN team was bumbling and well meaning. It was an amazing microcosm of the COP15 process I saw in Copenhagen. In the end the UN team crafted a gobledegook definition that used every word that the groups had wanted to include, but that still failed to receive the required 2/3 vote. The Tata team got all the cookies… and then magnanimously shared them with all. We spent a few minutes reflecting on what went wrong and let them loose for tea. It just reaffirms for me the value of simulations and games for bringing out the life of ideas like the challenge of semantics, multilateral agreements, science vs. development interests, and so forth. Fantastic

Up next class, a history of city planning efforts through the ages to the responses to the industrial city, the city beautiful (probably with a detour though Hausman), then on to the rise and fall of modernist planning, followed by a discussion about how to plan for urban transformation, the need for big plans, and planning for India’s next 300 million urban inhabitants. Whew!