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!


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: 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

IBGE – Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (2010) Census 2010: Aglomerados Subnormais. Published in SIDRA database. Available in:

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.