Learning to Read the Contemporary City

As public interest in cities has grown, academic approaches to urbanism have proliferated. The forces and flows that shape cities touch on the subject matter of a wide range of academic disciplines, in design, the humanities, and the social as well as physical sciences. Many students are exposed to serious study of cities through coursework in economics, sociology, architecture, political science, or through work experience in community service or construction. According to the College Board, 128 four-year colleges and universities in the US and Canada offer urban studies as a specific, undergraduate major. But those of us who want to understand how cities work – and the role they can play in meeting our environmental, political, and social challenges – know that nothing can substitute for the experiential insights gained from observing a diversity of urban contexts first-hand. “Cities in the 21st Century” is an interdisciplinary opportunity to study abroad, offered by the International Honors Program (IHP), that brings a cohort of college students to four cities, around the world and across the developed / developing divide, for a semester of intensive urban studies. This past semester, students visited New Orleans, São Paulo, Cape Town, and Hanoi, meeting with local planners, community organizers, and government officials, immersing themselves in debates over redevelopment, transit, or the informal economy. In the essay below, Andrew Wade, an instructor in the program, considers the benefits of cross-cultural comparison and direct observation in the education of the urban practitioners of the future. –C.S.


Photo by Andrew Wade

Copan, São Paulo

Urban studies programs are sprawling faster than the cities they critique. The qualifier “urban” has become ubiquitous: where once stood geography, politics, and ecology now stand urban geography, urban politics, and urban ecology. While we wait for a new vocabulary to ease repetition of the word, we must unpack what constitutes study of the urban realm. Doing so is critical to developing our collective consciousness of cities and how they should function, how they should shape our expectations, our actions, and the way we choose to relate to one another in an increasingly urban 21st century.

The logic for the sprawl of urban studies is clear. Cities are seen as a source of both problems and solutions for contemporary life. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities; this figure is both over-cited and impossible to ignore; and the processes fuelled by cities are reaching further into remote regions of the world to tap resources and feed economies dependent on growth. Understanding this terrain is vital to society’s successful adaptation to the unique pressures of the 21st century: the scarcity of natural resources, the vulnerability of constructed resources, and our carefully managed mutual dependency. Our constructed resources, whether they are buildings in earthquake or flood zones or the soft infrastructure of our digital communication systems, come with a built-in risk of failure under pressure, poor management, or instability. Our precarious footing in the modern city is becoming obvious. The devastation wrought by the recent and recurring floods in Pakistan, the 2011 tsunami on the shores of Japan, and the 2012 hurricane in New York demonstrates that cities in the developed and developing world alike have urgent roles to play in mitigating the vulnerability of coastlines and infrastructural systems. These disasters support the case for a more thorough and concentrated study of cities.

Cities became an object of social scientific study in their own right in late-19th-century Germany, but the first undergraduate majors in urban studies didn’t appear for half a century. Some of these programs focus on sociology and geography, others on policy and politics, others on design and planning. Harvard established the first formal North American program in urban and regional planning in 1923, and went on to do the same for urban design in 1960. However, it was the evolution of the undergraduate urban studies major in the early 1970s that brought the study of cities out of graduate professional training and into the liberal arts. These days, college students eager to understand cities can choose from a vast array of programs.


Photo by Andrew Wade

Streets of São Paulo

Over four months, I ventured into one of them as faculty of the International Honors Program (IHP) “Cities in the 21st Century.” The program gathers undergraduate students from colleges across the United States, guiding them through four cities around the world for one academic semester. We approached the task of studying New Orleans, São Paulo, Cape Town, and Hanoi by traveling through each and treating them like encoded texts to be read with a critical eye. Students from different majors, cities on different continents, and local activists and experts with different agendas and levels of influence were brought together in conversation. It was urban studies remixed, reimagined, and rebooted, through an acknowledgement of the variables inherent in the urban equation. In living with local families throughout the semester, students were privy to a more intimate view of each city than a typical tourist. By remaining in each foreign destination for four to five weeks, students were able to take in the histories and perspectives of their host families while constructing their own critical understanding in parallel. Each city was alive and on display, with the IHP structure allowing a level of engagement typically inaccessible to visitors. Despite the transience of the semester, students temporarily became a part of each city; however marginal their role, they felt a connection to each place, and negotiating this simultaneous distance and closeness to their object of study was a recurring point of reflection.

In class-based lecture and discussion, we offered students the traditional tools to read the city, the “lenses” of sociology, planning, and development studies. The framing of these lenses was fundamental to the pedagogical structure of the program. Each carried with it a history, terminology, and methodology critical to understanding the complex interactions of the city. These spaces allowed the students to build theoretical foundations to inform their site visits. We spent a lot of time, both structured and unstructured, wandering city streets in search of information, impressions, and insight. As faculty, my role was less one of transferring textbook knowledge than nurturing each student’s capacity to interpret moments of experience. We spoke with slum dwellers under threat of eviction and observed shopkeepers in gentrifying neighborhoods. We walked through townships created by the Group Areas Act, and visited shopping malls selling multi-million-dollar yachts. Such visits allowed theoretical foundations from class to be tested by the political and experiential realities of the city, revealing unique points of conflict and consensus in citymaking.

The semester was a process of reorientation — of becoming familiar with the predispositions and biases that we carry with us as individuals and impose on the places we encounter. In the street-side food seller, some see illegality and nuisance; others see creative entrepreneurship and initiative. Some see exclusion, others opportunity — claims to urban space become arguments made through action.


Cape Town’s minibus network | Photo by Kaori Ogawa

Creative Entrepreneurship vs. Unsafe Nuisance
In Cape Town, we asked students to analyze the city’s prevalent, unregulated minibus taxi network in distinct ways. The minibuses transport 15 people at a time between neighborhoods — many of which are entirely unreachable by public transportation. Drivers provide this service between Langa and the City Center (a 15-20 minute drive) for roughly 90 cents per person. This private transportation network has flourished because it meets a genuine need to get around the city at a price affordable to much of its population, and in doing so stitchs together a city fractured by Apartheid-era planning. As such, students interpreted the informal minibus system as entrepreneurial industry, one in which supply was created to match an existing but unmet demand. However, because they are unregulated and informal, the minibus taxis are not subject to inspections and safety standards, which gives them a reputation for being unsafe. White South Africans have come to connote this industry with poverty and the lack of freedom that accompanies it — a stigma that persists to this day.


Photo by Andrew Wade

New Orleans After Hurricane Isaac

Interpreting Experience and Embracing Disruption
After discussing post-Katrina New Orleans in a classroom setting, we made structured visits to the Ninth Ward and organizations operating there — Habitat for Humanity, Make It Right, and Common Ground Relief. Passing through water-soaked lots of the Lower Ninth Ward, our path was interrupted repeatedly by freshly-dug ditches, newly poured gravel and cement, and scattered construction equipment. To reach the office of Common Ground, we were confronted with the reality of a Lower Ninth Ward that was far from recovered — that had become an unwilling exhibition of parachute architecture and vacant lots, seven years on. Days later, Hurricane Isaac blew in. But while the rain and wind battered the city and sapped its electricity, we were able to relocate to a hotel in the Central Business District, where our security and comfort were instantly restored. The disruption became a moment to reinterpret what we had seen in the city in previous weeks — and to recognize our privileged access to a wealthy, protected area of the city. In just one of many such shifts throughout the semester, our circumstances allowed us better awareness of New Orleans, and the curriculum morphed to suit the mood of the city.


Photo by Andrew Wade

Cabuçu de Baixo, São Paulo

Defying Easy Categorization
Another telling moment came in the Cabuçu de Baixo region of São Paulo, an area included in the municipal government’s Renova São Paulo program to upgrade and integrate pre-selected areas of the city. The faculty team selected it as a case study, creating an opportunity for students to engage with a challenging, current program of urban upgrading. On a site unique in its characteristics but typical in its complexity, hillsides on the periphery of São Paulo were swathed in low-rise buildings — most informal, some self-built. Clarity of land ownership, adherence to building regulations, and connection to formal public infrastructure was blurred. Some residents held the land title to the plot on which their house rested, but their connection to electricity, water, and sanitation was self-devised, shared, or non-existent. Others did not own the land they occupied but lived in permanent structures that had evolved over years of piecemeal construction. Precarious shelters pushed up against a free-flowing stream and suffered perpetual threat of flooding and disease from contaminated water. Adjacent to this site stood a cluster of 19-story private apartment buildings, occupied but without a formal sewer connection. Cabuçu de Baixo occupied an undefined territory in between the formal and informal, defying easy categorization.


Photo by Andrew Wade

Cabuçu de Baixo, São Paulo

Throughout the semester, we observed vastly different priorities and strategies by municipal governments in implementing their agendas. We could sense these priorities — to be a competitive global city; to be a world design capital; to be a “slum-free city” — in the daily life of each place. Tracing channels of investment and financial support was often an effective way to determine where government priorities lie. IHP sought to invite students not only to read these aspects of the city, but also to arm them with the tools to become instigators of the changes they wanted to see.

IHP is less an initiative in changing cities than an investment in the people who will shape their future. In conversations throughout the semester, it became clear that an inability to resolve existing injustices was countered by the hope that in their positions of relative power and privilege, students could remember what they had seen and — informed by empathy and expertise — act to create more just and responsive cities. For some this will be at the level of policy, for others planning or design. They will work in cities with the cultivated abilities of a sociologist, a scientist, a service designer. When they do, their exposure to participant observation will magnify their impact and keep them in touch with the needs of the communities they serve. Importantly, they will also carry with them an awareness of disciplinary backgrounds and biases, as well as a genuine ability to work collaboratively toward common goals. By seeing how these collaborations take place — between the public and private sectors, the departments of transportation and housing, the street artist and the neighborhood that is his canvas — students are better prepared to navigate, say, the shifting politics of city governance and to persevere in proactively changing their own cities for the better.


Photo by Andrew Wade

Infrastructure in Vietnam

The comparative cities model encourages students not to leave their critical lens behind at the end of the program, but to continue the comparisons: to see New Orleans, São Paulo, Cape Town, and Hanoi reflected in their own city. On arriving home, students have the opportunity to cast their city in a new light. It is the same book being read with new eyes, and instead of accepting the status quo as a foregone conclusion, students can envision the potential of their city, forging paths to make it a reality.

As a graduate of architecture school, I believe in design’s potential to improve cities, from buildings as physical objects to the social functions they support. As the structures and discourses of urban form and governance shift from city to city, so does the agency of designers in shaping new portions, changing existing ones, and determining what values they carry. This valuation of building stock in a city — from economic exchange value to social use value — is a primary determinant in which areas are maintained, changed, or razed to the ground. The urban fabric of one city may be dictated by regimented top-down policy; in another it may respond fluently to bottom-up intervention. In each case, the designer occupies a middle-space that is uniquely situated to integrate these scales coherently.

The academic study of cities should seek harmony between theoretical grounding and experiential understanding in urban life. Cities are a moving target, and the forces that alter their compositions cannot be felt without spending time on their streets, in their buildings, within their neighborhoods. Speaking with non-governmental organizations, public institutions, and community organizers makes urban processes more tangible. Experiential learning can foster a critical lens through which theory is tested in contemporary urban conditions. While we drown in information on cities, knowing on-the-ground realities highlights the importance of context while revealing the paths forged to implement change.


Photo by Andrew Wade

Cape Town

Andrew Wade was on the faculty of the International Honors Program “Cities in the 21st Century” during the Fall 2012 semester. He studied Architecture at McGill University and Development Planning at University College London. After six years of “reading” London — by tracing its streets, frequenting its pubs, and embracing its cultures — he turned the page to New York in 2013. He is now a Mills Fellow at the Architectural League of New York, and a writer for polis.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.