Lessons from the Third World
What does Calcutta, with its slums and squatters, have to teach the prosperous First World? Plenty, says an urban studies professor with a foot in each culture.

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs


Calcutta’s poor are being displaced to the city’s periphery to make room for upscale housing developments. Hence, poor women are forced to board crowded trains to reach their jobs as domestics in the city.
Anaya Roy photo, 1997

28 August 2002 | Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky aren’t names normally associated with city and regional planning, but their words help Ananya Roy, a College of Environmental Design professor, explain her approach to the subject.

For Roy, planning should focus not only on the mapping of streets and structures, but on the social pressures placed upon a city’s citizens. That perspective is wonderfully illustrated in the work of these artists, she says.

“The descriptions of homelessness and poverty described in the writings of Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky are, unfortunately, still pertinent today,” Roy explains from her office in Wurster Hall. “I tell my students that, as planners, we must look through the eyes of a city’s residents to truly understand how it operates.”

Roy’s brand of urban study seeks to flip the traditional structure of city planning, where trained “experts” make decisions about how a city should work. While this “we know what’s wrong so we’ll fix it for you” approach is well-meaning, it isn’t effective, particularly when dealing with Third World cities, she says.

“There’s this glorified model of Euro-American cities, against which Third World cities always fail to make the grade,” says Roy. “I don’t see it that way. The urban future lies in the developing world, so we need to take a closer look at how these cities work.”

For years, Roy has done research in her native Calcutta, a city of 13 million people disparagingly described by some as “the black hole of the world.”

Like some other cities around the world with nominally socialist governments, Roy’s hometown has begun to embrace the marketization and privatizing of public land. As a result, poor residents are being moved to the city’s fringe to make room for upscale housing developments. This trend has been especially hard on women, most of whom must commute long distances to domestic-servant jobs in the city. Roy recalls interviewing a woman who, between walking and taking a train, spent eight hours every day going to and from work.

But that woman, and thousands like her, are feisty and smart, says Roy, and they’re taking action to exert some control over their predicaments.

“These women refuse to buy train tickets because they don’t believe in paying for something they can’t afford,” Roy explains. “When train workers ask for their tickets, the women confront them en masse and force them to back down.”

This small political statement is a sign of hope, she says.
These marginalized women, despite their deplorable situation, are organizing and trying to reclaim some of their dignity.

“We planners in the U.S. can learn from this grassroots effort,” she says. “It is important for us to ask Third World questions of the First World.”

Such a novel line of inquiry might well yield practical results if applied to some of the West’s chronic social problems. For example, Roy notes, it’s instructive that nearly 40 percent of Calcutta’s population lives as squatters. Local politicians allow the practice in exchange for votes.

“I spoke with a squatter who was amazed at the number of homeless people in America, and couldn’t understand how a citizen could be denied shelter,” says Roy. “I had never really thought about it in this way — that as citizens, everyone should have a right to shelter.”

This revelation has motivated Roy to look at how informal housing might be implemented in America. She hopes through her writing to convince policymakers to take a serious look at Third World housing alternatives to see if they could be adapted to help solve First World homelessness.

This “transnational” and sociological view of planning seems to have struck a chord with students, says Roy. Thirty-five enrolled in her “Urbanization in Developing Countries” course in 1999; by 2000, that number rose to 200.

The popularity of this and related courses prompted the Col-lege of Environmental Design to create its first-ever undergraduate major in urban studies. The program — structured by Roy and faculty colleagues Karen Christen-sen and Fred Collignon — will admit its first 17 students this fall. Enrollment will expand to 30 next year.

The major, according to a departmental announcement, will introduce students to “urban environments as objects of study, analysis, criticism as well as planned change and social transformation.” The cornerstone of the program will be a class titled “The City,” an interdisciplinary look at the role of cities as sites of economic development and “crucibles of civic citizenship.”

Urban-studies graduates could pursue a variety of careers, says Roy, such as working for nonprofits that promote urban sustainability, evaluating issues of globalization at an international foundation, or becoming housing advocates who push for policy responses to homelessness.

“The intent of the major,” she says, “is to produce urban citizens willing and able to imagine an alternative world order through innovative forms of social practice.”


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