“The problem of the present time is that the future is not what it used to be,” said Sonia Hirt, professor of urban planning at Virginia Tech, at a conference at the Watson Institute for International Studies Friday. Professors of various disciplines from universities around the world gathered for “Comparing Cities — An International Conference on Comparative Urban Studies” to discuss issues ranging from segregation to sustainability to shopping habits, covering cities such as Sao Paulo, Paris and Mumbai, India.
The first group of speakers at the conference, which was co-sponsored by the Urban Studies department, outlined the focal point of the event by focusing on the importance of urban comparison today. Keynote speaker Jennifer Robinson, professor of human geography at University College London, opened the conference by discussing the challenges of global urbanism and the growth of cities worldwide.
Robinson said “the geography of urban theory,” which she described as the context in which theorizing takes place, is changing — studying cities individually is no longer as useful as the world becomes increasingly globalized, she said.
“Something needs to be done to change urban studies,” Robinson said. “We do not have a complete theory of urbanity and never will, but there is a future that is open for us if we allow ourselves to transform our craft of theorizing.”
Jane Jacobs, professor of urban studies at Yale-NUS College, Singapore, followed with a presentation about using comparative research methods to create a general hypothesis about all cities. Jacobs advised students that studying cities individually or comparatively to make such a statement is very difficult and sometimes unsuccessful but nonetheless important. “Not everyone who looks at cities is interested in … explaining what they see,” Jacobs said, adding that observation is just as critical as analysis.
Comparisons made at the conference crossed not only time zones but also time periods. Sukriti Issar GS, a doctoral candidate in Brown’s department of sociology, delved into the changes — or lack thereof — in poverty structures within India from 1880 to 2010. Issar emphasized the importance of comparing cities across time periods.
Edmond Preteceille, senior researcher emeritus at the Observatoire Sociologique du Changement, and Setha Low, professor of environmental psychology, geography, anthropology and women’s studies and director of the Public Space Working Group at the Graduate Center at City University of New York, both made comparisons about segregation between different parts of the world. Preteceille studied Paris, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, looking for differences and commonalities between the cities. Low took a more theoretical approach and explored the idea of spatial segregation, or how the geographic layout of cities can reinforce existing cleavages.
Hirt teamed up with Virag Molnar, assistant professor of sociology at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts to lead a section about post-socialist cities. They compared private and public housing in Budapest, Hungary and Berlin, discussing how cities evolve differently after being ruled by facist governments.
Sharon Zukin, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and CUNY, used the lens of shopping to understand urban life. “Local shopping streets are important to me … because when we talk about change in cities, we often see that change first on shopping streets,” Zukin said. “We see the change in the faces of the shops.”