Aseem Inam: A friend of mine recently asked me about one of my books, Planning for the Unplanned: Recovering from Crises in Megacities. The book examines a critical issue for cities in the 21st century: How do we deal effectively with crises? The April 2015 devastating earthquake and terrible human tragedy that affected Kathmandu and surrounding areas in Nepal brought to the fore the urgency of the issue. However, while most research and analysis of crises focuses on what went wrong [extremely valuable as that research is], I wanted to find out what went right; that is, what kinds of things do work in urbanism, why, and what can we learn from them.
The book examines the specific case of how large public institutions respond to crises in nimble and adaptive ways. I did a careful study of how local governments in Mexico City in 1985 and Los Angeles in 1994 dealt with rebuilding housing after the earthquakes. What is particularly interesting is that both these cities have long had poor images [e.g. traffic, pollution, crime, etc.]. These case study analyses, on the other hand, yielded surprising and valuable insights into the dynamics of urbanism, particularly in terms of their institutional effectiveness.
One counter-intuitive insight was that these public institutions were effective because they were bureaucratic; that is, they relied on established institutional routines and procedures, which were then adapted and applied relatively quickly to the situations at hand. Another insight was that the key actors were neither the leaders at the top nor the community groups at the grassroots; instead, they were the mid-level managers who understood both: the resources and procedures at the national level as well as the needs and conditions at the neighborhood level.
One of the most important lessons from the book is to learn to compare in an increasingly global and interconnected world. Fortunately, there are many efforts in comparative urbanism. Unfortunately, many of them can be fairly superficial [e.g. ideas about “best practices” that fail to taken into different political and economic structures] or viewed through a singular lens [e.g. one-size-fits-all ideas of “sustainability”]. To compare in a meaningful way, one has to carefully think about why we are comparing [e.g. purposes] and how we are comparing [e.g. analytical frameworks and research methods].
The comparative method is one of the most powerful ways of learning about urban practices from all over the world, to reflect critically on one’s own city, to be sensitive to the similarities and differences among contexts, and to collaborate across international borders. One critical component for comparative research and practice is to be multilingual, because language opens the door to local cultures and social norms that are essential for engaging with contextual differences. The other critical component for comparative urbanism is being self-aware, because even well meaning urban practitioners and scholars are often unaware how their values [e.g. middle-class or Euro American-centric] color how they perceive and act in different contexts around the world.
In these ways, comparative urbanism can be an extremely effective way for learning, for practicing, and for planning for the unplanned. AI