A conversation with Noam Chomsky

This year at the Association of American Geographers I had the great (a bit surreal) opportunity of watching a live conversation between Noam Chomsky and the AAG Executive Director Doug Richardson. The full video of the interview can be watched here, but I decided to report my abbreviated two-cents on the most important topics covered. Dr. Chomsky eloquently and on a continuous stream of ideas elaborated about the state of affairs today and the future socio/economic/political (insert other here) context.
I should also mention that at the end of their talk Chomsky received the AAG Atlas Award which symbolises the quest of a scholar to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders in order to further studies in prominent fields.
On the topic of HUMAN RIGHTS:
NC: “The declaration of independence states the fundamental human rights and the role of the United States is variant in those three. The first is Life the second is Liberty.
The third component (the Pursuit of Happiness) which is related to cultural and community rights is simply ignored, such as the debates on social and economic rights such as the right to education healthcare and proper/decent employment.
It is worth noting that from the OR- Organisation of the Rich countries-  The US ranks at the bottom of this list of approximately 30 countries. The US is practically alone in the developed world without some form of general health care. And that is not because people do not want it. When the question is posed in an appropriate way (because we know that a lot of answers stem from how the question is posed) – so without some sort of manipulaive political agenda- when the question is posed the right way people’s answers are quite generally in favor of universal health care. However polititians (in the Reagan administration when reforming the bill) claimed that universal healthcare did not  have political support. (Nevermind the fact that when asked sbout it about 2/3 thought of course yes in favor while the other 1/3 already thiught that universal health care was provided and mandated in the constitution – as this great sacred document of all guidelines). Of course, conglomerates from the farmaceutical and insurance industries were not supporive. And there is is this thing called the population but they do not have political support.”
DR: “People are often trying to anticipate what the outcomes of their practices could be.
With all new technologies coming up we can run into unintended consequences. GPS was developed for environmental purposes and got translated into surveillance and warfare, for instance.”
NC: “Well there are movements that deserve our attention such as the Network of Concerned Geographers – which are widely about aspects such as the human terrain issues. The fact is that at this point the Top of the agenda for everyone should be:
Human survival. There are two areas recognised by anthropologists which are The Anthropocene and the Nuclear era that started after WWII that have drastically impacted the relationship of humans and the environment. Now The US is racing towards the precipice of environmental disorder while simultaneously the nuclear tension increases in the Russian border.
The doomsday clock established in 1947 (composed by data scientists and serious researchers) has established how close we are from midnight (which symbolises the apocalypse of the end of time as you will call it. The clock points have gone back and forth in minutes and the closest it was to midnight was in 1953. A couple of weeks into the Trump administration the clock has been the closest since 1953 and that is a result of the ominous threat of environmental capacity and nuclear warfare. Those should be topics of interest to geographers and researchers but also to human inhabitants in general.”
About LINGUSTICS and its connection to HUMAN RIGHTS
NC: “Well you see linguistics from the time that I started was developed widely in army language schools. Interestingly enough around the time that I started at MIT in the 50s, MIT was about 90% supported by Canada. My department, however, was 100% funded by the Army Services. The Pentagon from the 50s to 70s was the US government’s industrial development sector. It frightened the population into thinking the Russians are coming and put money into technologies and the high-tech economy which were decades later handed over to private enterprises for a profit.
The cutting edge of research and development in the university has switched from electronics to biology, and now the taxpayers are subsidising the biological economy which will be handed over to large companies for a profit. Much of the basis for modern tech economy was funded through the Pentagon.
If we look at infrastructure. The interstate highway was part of the national defence highway system to move missiles around. This was a way to undermine other types of transport (such as rail) to switch energy systems to fossil fuels. This is the way the economy functions pretty generally, these are far from being conspiracy theories (insert here the example of Exxon and GM which were sued for ruining the California railroad system and after trial convicted of paying the feeble U$ 5,000 fine).”
DR: “We have seen this as a cyclical event in history and do you think we are not back again on this process moving closer to the precipice of dictatorship?”
NC: “Yes, there is now is a rise of populism, nationalism, fear of the foreign. The US has always been a very frightened society. It does not take much to scare people. At this moment in Europe the majority of the population wants to keep all the Muslims out of their countries. All of them as if that makes sense.
The real question is why is this showing up everywhere now? It has to do with the actual (predictable) consequences of the social and economic (neoliberal) programs with the Washington consensus that were instituted in the 1990s of letting the market lead everything – which in practice is largely not true since we know massive subsidies have been established to large conglomerates.
The radical counterpart of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the view that if people are not doing well right now its because they did not work hard enough. There has been stagnation and decline for large parts of the populations. Middle aged white males with mortalities increasing in America? That does not happen in modern developed society! These are people who do not want to take hand me down from the government- who have contempt for the people who do- and want to have a purpose and do some honest work. But this has all been taken from them by very specific policy.
Look at the Troika for instance? Along with this attack on basic human rights there has been a clear attack on democracy. And people are aware of this. There is a general hatred and contempt for government and a lot of things that come out of that are very dangerous while others are very hopeful. Let us not look at the victory of Trump but at the success of Bernie Sanders (loud clap from the audience). This contradicts the very good predictor of candidate success which has always been campaign funding. Sanders comes along disregarded by the media, using scary words such as socialism and no corporate funding- and he who could very well have won the  electon if it wasn’t for party shenannigans.
When social and economic conditions bring about stress, despair and anger. One reaction is violence and xenophobia. Another kind if futility let us just give up. Another reaction is to think that there are drastic things that can be done.”
DR: “It is a difficult course [to achieve radical change] when you have a media controlled by coorporations with similar strong agendas.”
NC: “There are two paralel tracks: to change the media. There is still plenty wrong but it is a fact that society has become more civilized. That is the impact of the activism of the 60s- to educate people on all sorts of subjects and society did become more civilized. The media is more informed than it was years ago. If we look at the extermination of indigenous populations in the entire continent for instance, anthropologists stated it was about 1 million people who had no ownership of the land. It was a long way to go but that false history has been significantly overcome and high school students now can actually learn a good deal of what happened. There is a reaction to that. People in the media also grow out of false facts. The other path is the creation of new media which is a lot easier now. It is a matter of doing the things that you have opportunities for.
We should not disregard the hardships of the past of course but also recognize how far we have come. And what were the conditions that enabled this change in irder not to fall into futility and despair. (He gives the example of growing of a jew in the 1930s. The resson why MIT became so established was because anti semitism in the 1950s which prevented great scholares from getting employed in Harvard for instance. He acknowledges the difficulties of the tensions of the past).”
NC: “There is a boycott movement right here [at AAG]. I was supposed to be interviewed by a young journalist who is British and whose grandparents were from Syria and he got barred from entering the United States. You know that several scientits chose not to come to AAG this year and this does bring to light the question of how should professional societies respnd to issues like these. Should professional meetings even be taking place in countries that have these sort of sanctions? The ultimate point about boycotts is that they can be very efficient but we must ultimately be very strategic and think of how the victims can benefit the most from it. Boycott the srategy of warfare, we should always have in mind the victims caught in the middle of humanitarian crisis.”
DR: “Your thoughts on the rise of china. Do you imagine a time in the future in which the dominant Chinese internationa network would transcend that of the us and europe?”
“If we go back a couple of centuries China and India were the most industrially developed nations. Of course that has all changed through colonialism, but now china is starting to reclaim its place. In many ways it is threatening, in others necessary. There are several studies claiming that the center of power will shift over the pacific. Now yes, China does have a big economy and has been increasing its purchasing power but it is an extremely poor country and have been pretty much been stuck there. They do have problems that we do not have such as the lack of a strong agricultural technology. It is astounding though that even though they do have astounding problems, the world has somehow been looking for China for answers while the US is going backwards. However, the idea that America is over is fearmongering. WWII was very beneficial for the US economy and unprecedented growth rates from that period still makes the US a very rich country. While its power and wealth has declined, China has a very long way to compete.
If we look at how China has a huge assembly plant, the profits that come back from that process are very low. In the case of Apple, for instance, the richest corporation in the world, their design is made here and assembly made in China but they are still and making most of the profits. Even though a lot has been going through China, they are far from those who benefit the most.
We have moved from a period in which the identified rich nations were actually those who owned corporations. But now coorporations have global reach, setting up complicated supply chains. While still needing national base and taxpayers support obviously but they have independent lobbying capacities. So, okay if we step back and we look – aside from country capacity, 50% of the global economy is owned by american corporations, and that is very indicative. I dont see much chance of an asian century, even though it may not be a bad idea at this point.”
DR: “You are very consistent in your opinions. When i interviewed you before, one of the first questions i asked was “are you a libertarian socialist.” And you said yes, that seems still true.”
NC: “I do identify like that if we do have to pick a name that is ok… The only ism I seem to believe in is trueism.
DR: “This question I asked before was about anarchism and its relevance for an advanced technological society. You were pretty sympathetic with anarchism and you talk about integrating it to the 20th century.”
NC: “As you know anarchism covers a broad sPectrum. It is a valuable one, one that converges with libertarian marxism, there is a point in which some varieties come together.
Let us look at the huge problem of de-industrializing america. In 1977 US Steel decided to close down their plant in Youngstown Ohio, which was a town largely built by unions. The union offered to buy the plant and hand it over to the workforce. The company did not like that probably due to class reasons. Coorporations sometimes prefer not to make profit to undermine class struggle. This case went to court, the coorporation won, but people did not give up and established small worker owned enterprises in the old Rustbelt and integrated in the new service economy that has been forming there. These are things that can certainly be done at a very large scale.
The Obama Government in the 2008 crash nationalised the auto industry. The choice that was taken was determined by the ideological structure of the country: to bail out the companies and hand them back to the same banks and managerial institutions and have them now produce cars. A more sensible option both political, human and environmental would have ben to hand it over to the workforce and have them produce what the country needs. Not more cars for traffic jams but for decent public transportation. Well that was never considered, and if that is the case it is because of people like us. Who have the responsibility to act and mobilize and did not do so.
The same is true of the environmental problem. The federal government is a wrecking ball acting in the name of profit, but states, small governments can have an impact. And it has to be done. To prevent the federal government from destroying all of us.”
DR: “You have done so much. Have you considered the South of France, taking up a new musical instrument? There are rumours of you maybe taking up a new career and having a new gig in Vegas. Is it true? (this picture was shown haha).”
Source: Article published in The Onion about Chomsky taking residency in Las Vegas.
NC: “We will see.”

Qual + Quant method: Geo-narrative

Today I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr Mei-Po Kwan from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose extensive work consists of analysing data with GIS in a mixed-method research. GIS has long been used by geographers and planners as a valuable tool to spatialize quantitative information, but Kwan has revisited the technique by building tools that incorporate qualitative data as well. That is a growing need considering new lines of research that acknowledge that conventional GIS is not enough to capt people’s feelings and perceptions (such as fear or place attachment). While past research usually relied on pattern recognition algorithms, recent technologies such as sensors and personal GPS have allowed for collection and analysis of individual complex data. 

How residents perceive and use space is now a central concern for researchers focusing on people’s well-being and sense of place. The method called geo-narrative combines spatial patterns, analytical data and also social/behavioural information to generate an interpretive mode of analysis of large complex datasets (i.e. based on lived experiences). One important tool for narrative analysis, for instance, is called 3D-VQGIS, which permits adding images, audio files and texts to maps. Within the interface, the researcher is also able to code those texts according to nodes, a functionality common in qualitative analysis software such as NVivo. Another method presented was Ecological Momentarily Assessment (EMAs) which consist of live surveys of user’s sentiments on pre-determined or randomly selected spaces and time by questioning them via their smartphones. Sketchmap and cognitive mapping can also be used to assess user’s perceptions through participatory activities – all forms of connecting social aspects to GIS.  

Furthermore, an additional factor that adds complexity to geo-narrative models is their ability to incorporate time. Points and georeferenced locations as we find in GIS are a stable information, but in fact, moveable points and populations are increasingly important. As Kwan pointed out, most of the times the key question is not related to where people linger but how they move and where their trajectory is affected by space and sentiments (Image 1). 

Image 1: “Space-time paths of individuals collected with GPS can provide more accurate assessment of their exposure to environmental risk factors (e.g., traffic-related air pollution, carcinogenic substances, etc.) when integrated with detailed data about the
spatial and temporal variations of these risk factors.” Image and legend pulled from: meipokwan.org 


Another idea that can be revisited is that of geographic units of analysis, which have traditionally consisted of census tracts or neighborhoods. The problem with cartesian and state imposed boundaries is that they do not correspond to residents mobility and living habits, thus, such spatial and temporal uncertainties can lead to misleading results which Kwan names the Uncertain Geographic Context Problem. However, linking models to behavior and travel patterns provide researchers with a new form of establishing such geographies.

Finally, the challenge remains on how to conduct detailed and statistically significant geo-narrative projects. Meanwhile, it provides us with a comprehensive form of building a new theory based on events in space and time which can serve as a basis for predictive models. Detailed literature on Geo-narrative and geovisualization is available on meipokwan.org. 

Strategies for Literature Review

Any decent research process should begin with a literature review, in which the researcher analyses the state of the art – i.e. what has previously been produced on a topic of interest. That process is an interesting stage in which one can identify gaps in previous research and where lies the opportunity for innovation. However, a literature review also involves an extensive amount of reading, annotation and – in the age of technology – pdf management. As I have started studying for my comprehensive exams as a doctoral student, I have compiled three initial reading lists with approximately 70 sources each – all which I have read. The need to manage information poses a challenge not just intellectual but also managerial, and thus I have decided to share the main steps that I follow to organize all those dooming readings. None of the names of apps and softwares are connected to their websites – this is not an add – Google it.

  1. Download and Store PDFs

Yes, you will most likely download all those papers in your personal computer and spread them out in various folders that are likely to be named “Proposal 1”, “Proposal 1.1”, “THIS is the final Proposal”, “Proposal comments” and so on. Needless to say after 4 years plus that will become unmanageable. You need a proper manager and the list of FREE options is endless. Most common are Mendeley, Zotero and Read Cube.I use Read Cube (This is not an add, I am just sharing). But I am fairly aware that all three allow you to highlight pieces of the text, add comments and export references. I organize my texts in folders and highlight important passages (Image 1).

The one main advice is: DO NOT CHANGE. PICK ONE AND STICK WITH IT. There will always be a bar/library conversation in which nerd graduate students compare “the best” app for this and that and you may feel the grass is greener on the other side. Just make a decision and be done with it, changing apps is very time consuming.

Image 1: A screen shot of the ReadCube interface: lists on the left and all pdfs within one list. The software does a pretty good job at identifying title, authors and info the moment you import a pdf into it.

Read Cube lists and pdfs.png


2. Annotating texts: how to extract useful information

This is where things get tricky, you have done all those highlights and notes but you do not want to have to open each pdf individually whenever you want to write a paragraph: “who said that thing about sustainability?…”. So you annotate your texts, which usually involves writing in a few words the main point of the text and methods used for instance. I have made the mistake of writing those on word doc and boy was that a bad idea. I had to scroll through pages of paragraphs either way. So my solution ended up being Excel (Or any type of spreadsheet would have the same purpose).

I force myself to fill one row for every single text I read with the main points that I have set as relevant. This was a good idea because it forces me to write very little, in my own words (step one to avoid plagiarism) and think of how that text applies within my research. You can customize your table any way you want but a screenshot of mine shows the columns I have created (Image 2).

Image 2: Spreadsheet with categories for annotated bibliography. Notice the first column “Subject” is already my attempt of grouping readings based on their relationships, which can be helpful when writing.


3. Reference your bibliography when writing

Now that is a truly time consuming task and forgetting to reference a text can be quite troublesome in a review process. Again, a lot of softwares exist for that purpose and I am all about that open source life, but I thought paying for a proper reference software was a good investment. Endnote has a very decent price for students (U$ 120 for life) and it is backed by Ruthledge. What is the advantage of those you ask me?

  • Those pdfs on Readcube? I select the ones I want and export them to Endnote straight from my Readcube lists.
  • Endote is automatically connected to Word.
  • When I am typing a text on Word and I say: “Sustainability is important (REF, 2000)”; there is a plugin on Word that allows me to search for authors or text titles and once I select the one I wanted it inserts both the reference (REF, 2000) and the proper full reference at the end of the text in the desired format (MLA, APA, Chicago Style…). So you never have to worry about forgetting a name in your bibliography list.

Image 3: A search for “Harvey” shows all citations available in Endnote. When clicking “insert” the reference gets added to the text in the proper format. Notice this is on Word document.

Captura de Tela 2017-02-10 às 13.40.27.png

And that is pretty much it! Have any new suggestions? I hope this helps! Get to work!

Planning Practice and Profession

Last week (October 20th) I have attended the Southern New England American Planning Association conference (SNEAPA 2016). It is a yearly event which gathers planners and practitioners from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. The two-day event got me to reflect on certain aspects of the profession and also about its practice when comparing the United States and Brazil.

I have long heard the discussion in Brazil about the consequences of having Architecture and Planning schools mashed into one degree (both in undergraduate and graduate schools). On one hand, this leads to planning professionals with a strong technical background in design, deemed very important in developing and implementing ideas. On the other hand, there is a shallow understanding of the broader social-economic-ecological impacts of land use and development. However, what I believe the be the largest impact is that the lack of specific planning graduates/professionals leads to a lack of creation of specific planning jobs and departments. The mindset of having planning institutions is ubiquitous in the United States, but in Fortaleza, for instance, a city with about 2,8 million inhabitants, the planning department is fairly recent, compartmentalized in several secretaries (housing, transportation, general planning) and volatile (extinguished and re-established based on political will). The supposed planning professionals who should operate those agencies may also take jobs in architecture, design or even engineering – as the availability of urban design and planning jobs is uncertain. 

Any planning gathering confirms that planning is a hedge pot profession – discussion topics include sustainability, economic development and revitalization, social strategies, design, integrating technologies and community engagement (all which could be addressed by a specialized field of study). This is a challenge for new professionals who must strive to become specialized and worthy but still marketable with a wide array of skills. 

I was surprised to find out that over 500 planning professionals were attending the conference – largely because SNEAPA sessions award them credits to renew their AICP certification (American Institute of Certified Planners). But what really drew my attention in this event was the content of the presentations. Such event formed by such a large number of practitioners (from the public and private sectors) did not feature the large amounts of innovation often found in other conferences. This was evident in presentations on how to do community engagement (more on the lines of community informing), sustainability (still based on LEED certificate measurements and green technology) and visualization tools for planning (good old Sketchup and Adobe suites). 

I write this post as an ode to my professional decision of spending most of my career inside an academic environment. This experience made obvious there is a delay of knowledge transfer from research institutions to practice. However, this is a frustration we must learn to deal with in such an applied profession in which most research must be tested on the ground and depends on practitioners to be scaled up. Any attempt of taking theory into practice will be met with resistance from ongoing stable policies and from people who are convinced that “in this backyard” certain theories do not apply. Just one more thing to keep in mind.

Authoritarian Planning

In the popular essay “The Right to the City”, David Harvey reports how urban areas have been demolished, rebuilt and consolidated throughout the years, as construction was used to bring economic development and alter power dynamic in specific periods of political and economic changes (Harvey, 2003). Urban development is an efficient manner of absorbing capital surplus, and modern planning provided the framework for how to materialize it. In his very compelling book “Seeing Like a State”, James Scott reminds us of how the alignment of modern design principles to powerful administration, generated cities guided by rationalism. The goal was to plan cities in order to control rapidly changing social and economic contexts as well as to maximize efficiency in production, flows, health, transportation and so on. During such period, between the 1930s and 70s, scientific principles and modern architecture guidelines, generated new standardized cities (Brasília and Chandigarh being well-known) but also of reconstruction of blighted and slum areas.

            The criticism of authoritarian modernism became popular due to words of well-known planners such as Jacobs and Lynch who advocated for more humane scales of construction and were supported by civil rights movements, which simultaneously demanded civic engagement. The displacement of vital neighborhoods by highways or public housing projects is now judged by many as responsible for  furthering the decay of downtown areas and causing socio-economic damages in many American Cities.

            Considering such examples of past failures, it is puzzling to witness similar measures still taking place in post-modernity, especially in the Global South. The impending pressure for developing nations to attract capital and become Global Cities (Sassen, 1991) has led several administrations to adopt measures for sanitation and aesthetic embellishment that target low-income settlements (Goebel, 2007; Hall, 1996; Mukhija, 2001). While, in certain locations, slums are removed from visibility, in others, new complexes are built under the New Urbanism flag, which revisits humane planning and design principles with a goal of promoting sustainable urban development. The integration of transit and housing policies generate efficient land use, which frees up open space while promoting mixed used developments (Calthorpe, 1993). Despite efforts to generate diverse architecture, several complexes have been criticized as artificial and compared to Disneyland. As Sorkin concludes: “Disney invokes an urbanism without producing a city (Sorkin, 1996; 413)”, and new urbanism cities can be accused of the same.

            Those contrasting examples lead to the question of what can be a better solution for urban development in which existing neighborhoods seize to be destroyed while others artificially emerge. This ostentatious mean of promoting economic and spatial growth impacts low-income dwellers who are further displaced to the fringe of existing urban fabric and replaced by higher income housing that is “desirable” in a clear display of gentrification. In current urban planning, one cannot hope to promote sustainable development in housing and break the cycle of displacement without analyzing issues and potentials which emerge from slums.


Calthorpe, P (1993) The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community,   and   the   American   Dream.   Princeton   Architectural Press, Princeton.

Goebel, A. (2007). Sustainable urban development? Low-cost housing challenges in South Africa. Habitat International.

Hall, Peter. (1996) Cities of Tomorrow. Oxford Blackwell,35. Print.

Harvey, David. (2003) The Right to the City, 27 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF URBAN AND REGIONAL RESEARCH, Issue 4 (2003), Pages 931-941;

Mukhija, V. (2001). Enabling slum redevelopment in Mumbai: policy paradox in practice. Housing Studies.

Sassen, Saskia. (1991) The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. Print.

Scott, J. C. (1998) “Authoritarian High Modernism.” Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale UP. 87-102. Print

Sorkin, M. “See You in Disneyland.” Readings in Urban Theory. Ed. Susan S. Fainstein and Scott Campbell. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1996. 392-414. Print.

PhD: Policy and Informality

It is astounding to remember that I created this blog as a tool to document the process and knowledge obtained from my final thesis to graduate from Architecture School in Brazil. Immediately after in 2014, two years ago, life and opportunity have brought me to the United States to complete my PhD in Urban Planning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Not only have life and personal growth been tremendous but so have my understanding of planning and what my focus of study should be (for the time being). Previous posts  document my passion for inclusionary zoning and housing as a governmental policy to control land values and thus promote affordable and central housing for communities usually placed on the fringe of the formal city. But as many have told me, and I have been feeling, the purpose of a Doctorate is to (try to) let go of your strong ideas and investigate further.

Perhaps I can even say that all the ideas I has until this point have existed due to my confidence in existing land policy and in traditional government. During most of my education I have studied zoning, which, as a trained architect, was appealing due to its ability to orient growth and directly affect the constructed outcome. However, the process of occupation in Brazilian cities continually reserves central open land for upper classes, often enclosed in gated communities monitored by guards and use private automobiles. Raquel Rolnik explains the social and spatial risks of dividing classes: “From a spatial point of view, the separation between the rich and poor expands social tensions, as the classes are being increasingly separated by apparatuses of control and safety, further fragmenting the urban space” (ROLNIK, 2009: 2). The approval of the Statute of the City as a mean to guarantee the ‘right to the city’ for those often marginalized, demonstrated the relevance of the housing deficit and urban order to public officials and the population. However, ZEIS as an inclusionary zoning mechanism, is just one of the tools presented in the Statute that has faced setbacks for implementation. While private and public stakeholders fight redistributive policies, housing programs build at a slow pace not sufficient to cope with the existing deficit. In 2012 research indicated a national deficit of 5,792 million homes equivalent to 9.1% of total homes. The character of that deficit was composed by 45.9% of homes paying excessive rent, 32.2% of homes in a situation of co-housing, 15.3% of homes in precarious living conditions and 6.6% of rental homes with excessive occupation (CEI, 2014). Additionally, the census of 2010, indicated that Brazil had 3.2 million dwellings located in 6329 informal settlements (comprising about 5% of all identified census tracts) (IBGE, 2010).

Past research on informality has guided policies that displace low income populations and view spontaneous or squatter settlements as a malaise. However, from November 2014 to May 2015, an exhibition called Uneven Growth presented proposals from six teams of researchers and practitioners to deal with urban growth in New York, Lagos, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong and Mumbai (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Image provided by the MoMA as an advertisement for Uneven Growth. Source: http://uneven-growth.moma.org. A book was also published with the results of the exhibition.

I was amazed to see a study of urban growth presented in the museum, which proves the relevance of the topic and the momentum that is being created to push the housing agenda. My interpretation of the proposals is that they were based on the assumption that those existing settlements in the Global South (I will include Istambul in the terminology) have hidden potentials that could be somewhat improved by design. The small-scale interventions in specific areas of the slum or housing project were formalizing the informal activities already happening or serving as a platform to enlarge the scale of the impact of that activity. For instance, in Istambul the designers created an app which facilitated bartering and trading of services. Those relations were already happening informally but only within each individual social housing high-rise building, thus and the app, with other way finding techniques, enabled the communication between people from different buildings. One can critique all the proposals but I prefer to acknowledge that the designers have approached the existing issues in those settlements from an innovative and less judgmental perspective.

The renewal and infrastructure projects that are often implemented by governments fail to assess existing potentials and provide support to existing activities while improving what is lacking. That initial step is crucial if we are to preserve community ties and consider a sustainable form of improving informal settlements. The clear scrapping of slums and subsequent rebuilding in a “formal” acceptable design provides benefits for the construction industry but is traumatic for the people involved and presents a tremendous demand for infrastructure and materials. In addition, housing programs move at a slow pace not efficient in predicting urban growth. However, Uneven Growth was based on architects’ and designers’ short-sided perspective that all solutions for urban problems stem from constructed and physical interventions. While I can personally relate to that and understand the intentions behind the proposals, I have been bothered by architect’s “God syndrome” (more on Design and Brainwashing to follow).

Architects are mislead in the course of their studies to believe that their good design is pivotal in changing people’s lives and that those drawings have magic power for betterment. It is unfortunate to state that eliciting requisites from the client is was not really a focal point of my formation (and many others if I may say so). This leads to an increasing perception that, when entering a community or approaching a client, one has an inherent position of power in the conversation. There lies my challenge: to deconstruct the implicit biases I have developed over time regarding communities as “clients who do not speak” and slums as “bad”. One must keep in mind, however, to not be attracted by the romantic view of the slum as “vernacular” and a “true representation of people’s needs”. This romantic and simplistic view disregards urban development as a power struggle and slums as a physical representation of the illegitimacy of a chunk of society.

With those dilemmas in mind, I have come to finally accept that I shall study slums, instead of housing policy, as the topic of my studies.


CEI – Centro de Informações e Estatística (2014) Déficit Habitacional no Brasil Anos 2011 e 2012. Christensen, KS. (1993). Teaching savvy. Journal of Planning Education and Research. Retrieved from http://jpe.sagepub.com/content/12/3/202.short

IBGE – Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (2010) Census 2010: Aglomerados Subnormais. Published in SIDRA database. Available in: http://www.sidra.ibge.gov.br/cd/CD2010RGAADAGSN.asp

ROLNIK, Raquel. Regulação Urbanítica no Brasil: conquistas e desafios de um modelo em construção. In: Anais do Seminário Internacional:Gestão da Terra Urbana e Habitação de Interesse Social, PUCCAMP, 2000




Research relies on this thing called methodology- a long word that particularly had no meaning to me until I took my first quantitative methods class (i.e. Statistics – another ugly word). No need for panic, methodology is simply related to the techniques and tools that one should use in order to address a specific research question. Those methods are generally divided into quantitative and qualitative, which are unfortunately often used independently and based on the idea that “those who do not like numbers, do qualitative and those who do not like people do quantitative”. I do not agree that any research should be attained by exclusion; on the contrary, a mixed method approach can be enriching for comprehensive analysis (Image 1). However, for the sake of organization this post is dedicated to ethnography as a qualitative method and its applicability.


Image 1: The chart shows how different typologies can be mixed according to the method used to collect data and method to analyse it. A few examples are also showed in parenthesis. Assembled by: Lara Furtado, 2015.

Qualitative research seeks to understand social and cultural phenomena through the observation and engagement of people. The methods used are often geared toward a low number of participants, therefore, one will rarely achieve a sample that is statistically significant, but the strength lies in the depth and richness of the information obtained.  Qualitative data has historically been devalued in certain fields such as economic development, policy or hard sciences, since numbers are a primary source of governmental and public interest. However, the existence of BIG DATA has facilitated the access to information for the general public and researchers, and thus quantitative limits are being exhausted at a faster pace. Research involving user interaction becomes increasingly popular including in computer science fields (Human Computer Interaction).

One relevant qualitative method is ethnography (informally called participant observation), which includes long term immersion and is typically place/community based. It consists of ongoing relations between the researcher and the participants, making ethnography a fluent and continuous form of observation and engagement. Interviews are aligned to the analysis of people’s behavior in place in order to put them into context. To summarize, the basic principles of ethnography are the following:

  1. It is based on rich data with a lot of detail;
  2. It Is used to understand processes, in a specific context, through which events and actions take place;
  3. The results are used to identify and anticipate phenomena.

Another important aspect, when collecting qualitative data is to document it accordingly by mastering the techniques of documentation and registry through field notes, transcribed interviews, drawings/diagrams, images and so on…The texts should be as systematic and detailed as possible. Finally, doing qualitative research is an inter-subjective process, which means that the role of the researcher as an influence cannot be ignored. One cannot be completely unbiased when collecting information but you can train to be a more passive and inviting listener.


When living in New York City, I had an interesting conversation with a young African American man in which he passionately explained to me how difficult it was to be black in the U.S. while I looked with puzzled eyes thinking “how difficult could it possibly be to live in the richest country in the world?.” What I realize now is that I had been for so long one of those people who deny the existence of a predatory system against minorities. A system which has consistently disadvantaged certain people, while blaming them for their own defeat. One instantly ties that to Jim Crow Laws, which justified government-sanctioned racial oppression and segregation in the South of the United States from the 1800s until the 1960s such as segregation of public schools, places and transportation and so on. Racial inequality was also entrenched in one of the most important aspects of everyday life and directly related to planning: where one could live.

When examining the way the cities are formed today, it is clear that specific neighborhoods are formed by particular demographics and social class. Often the general explanation is that members live in such location because they want to be closer to those equal to them, or simply because in a capitalist society they are not able to afford certain locations. But recently I read a book called Sundown Towns by James Loewen, which documents how minorities have organized in latino, chinese or black neighborhoods because they were forcefully excluded from elsewhere. Between the 1890s and the 1930s – only slowing down around 1970 and still present in some places – many white citizens formed segregated suburbs, putting to practice the idea that African Americans (the most disadvantaged among other minorities) were an inferior race. This geographical segregation is made clear in a passage from the book:

“If the founding fathers and their successors thought African Americans were altogether unfit to associate with the white race, then let’s stop associating with them. And let’s do this not by altering our behavior, but by limiting their choices – by excluding them.” (Loewen, 2005; 21)

Suburbs were already considered the solution to bring up a family, to secure social status and to escape the disamenities of the city (industry, pollution, prostitution, etc.), but it also had racist implications: “The single social fact which can destroy the whole image of middle class respectability is to be known to reside in a neighborhood which has Negroes nearby.” (Loewen, 2005; 121) Many whites refused to accept African Americans as social equals and neighbors, so the move to the suburbs in search for the good life, consolidated a mean to avoid “the black problem” by increasing the distance between them, while declaring upward mobility. And that is how Sundown Towns were established: areas where African Americans were excluded and specifically not allowed to enter or stay after dawn. Signs in the entrance of the town often read in the lines of: “Nigga, don’t let the sun go down on you here”. A town could go sundown in different ways: via violent expulsion, a quiet zoning ordinance, or a more subtle freeze-out or buyout, but it made no consistent difference over time. Either way, African Americans lost their homes and jobs, or their chance for homes and jobs. (Loewen, 2005; 114)

Scottsboro, Alabama. 1935.Scottsboro, Alabama. 1935. Source: Loewen, 2005.

A related development to the former sundown towns are the new gated communities, all of whose units are priced within a narrow range, and whose popularity in Brazil is widely famous. “Gated communities provide no amenities, not even streets, that are open to the public. Their walls and fences keep the public away from streets, sidewalks, parks, beaches, …- resources that normally would be shared by all the citizens of a metropolitan area.” (LOEWEN, 2005; 392) The rationale for all this exclusion is allegedly relief from crime, but another reality implies the Sundown desire of ensuring social status and separating from others ‘not worthy’. The Sundown Town movement in the United States has grave implications for the integrations of minorities in modern societies, and culminated with the riots in the 70s and the current protests that have been felt nationwide (Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in NYC, riots in Baltimore).

Indiana Sundown Sign. 1973.

Indiana Sundown Sign. 1973. Source: Loewen, 2005.

Historically, Latin American countries, including Brazil, have looked up to the United States as symbol of development and opportunity. This post is written to remind us how some developments in the housing sphere, protected by the government and culturally ‘acceptable’, can alienate a large percentage of the population who will come back at some point to collect. The establishment of sundown/gated cities/suburbs only moves problems elsewhere and reinforces prejudice. Brazil, as a developing country whose population strives, and is succeeding, to exit the poverty line and become a part of the middle class, must fight the private and cultural inclination to segregate and maintain breed.


Loewen, J. (2005). Sundown towns: A hidden dimension of American racism. New York: New Press.


I have recently had the pleasure of going home for the holidays – home being the city of Fortaleza in the Northeast region of Brazil. It is no secret that Brazil has been an economically stable country in the past decade and its cities have been trying to catch up on years of stagnation in terms of infrastructure and urban development. This December I noticed several measures being implemented in Fortaleza with the goal of developing the transportation network such as the long awaited construction of a subway and bus rapid transit system. 

As part of those transportation policies the city has also implemented a bike sharing system and has slowly been building bike lanes across central areas (Image 1). The lanes have not been added without controversy: in a city dominated by automobiles for so long it is almost impossible for the middle class population to accept dividing street space with pedestrians or bikes. Bikes are associated to the poorest people and many consider it a vehicle used in robberies. Those preconceptions do not exist only in Brazil, but several American cities have also not been able to advocate for the importance of bicycles.


Image 1: Bike sharing station in Fortaleza sponsored by a local health insurance company. Source: http://www.unimedfortaleza.com.br/portal/bicicletar_principal.html

What I find interesting is that while researching the development of bikes I learned that it was once quite popular in the United States. So in this post I will expose a bit of that entertaining history.

The modern two-wheel bike with gears was developed by John Kemp in 1885 and by 1890 bikes had taken over the nation in the period called the “bicycle craze”. The widespread use of bikes originated the “Good Roads Movement” where advocates for improved roads led by bicyclists turned local agitation into a national political movement being responsible for paving several roads across America. Bikes were also an important social equalizer as everyone was able to ride one, due to its affordability. During the social movements of the 20th century, the “toy” represented freedom and became a symbol of feminism, of the fight against restrictions in everyday life ranging from a lack of mobility to the Victorian dress (http://www.crazyguyonabike.com ) (Image 2). 

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”  Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) 


Image 2: Women wearing shorts while riding bikes. Photograph by Hermann Landshoff (1905-1986) for LIFE magazine. 

However, around 1897 sales plummeted – the bicycle was no longer fashionable. Cars became a desired object and the highway movement further encouraged automobiles (Image 2).

LA cicleway

Image 3: The Los Angeles Cycleway, once called “one of the most noteworthy infrastructues of California” was replaced by a freeway. Source: http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/in-1897-a-bicycle-superhighway-was-the-future-of-california-transit

The Sixties arrived, marked by an oil crisis, the hippie movement and a remodeled 10-speed bicycle which was not as expensive. It started being used more for recreational purposes and for children but that era still represents an advancement into reintroducing bikes as a mean of transportation (Image 4).


Image 4: advertisement for a Bike catalog in 1963. 

The Millennium generation has arrived and in the midst of a hipster, young crowd came a new bike boom. As people have moved back to the cities and realized there is not enough space for cars, there is a gap in the transportation means used and bikes are becoming once again a useful locomotion device. The design scale of bicycles inherently discourages sprawl while promoting a closeness that urbanists strive for. New policies such as Traffic Calming and Bike Sharing fit into the new movement that supports bikes as a sustainable alternative.

Fighting this movement is unrealistic – not saying that using bikes (or buses, or cars, or walking) will save the world, but policies need to support this mode as an alternative to those who wish to use it. In several countries bikes have already been embedded in the culture despite extreme weather conditions or large distances (often brought up as to why the use of bikes is impossible). My advice to Fortaleza: while gas prices increase, the dollar becomes more valued and society worships more and more physical fitness – sit back and relax because the “hipster ecologists” of the 21st century will probably win this fight.