An interview with urban researcher Clara Irazabal of Columbia University

By January 28, 2014August 11th, 2020Blog, Featured, Interview, Professors & Collaborators

“What we regularly see in developmental efforts around the world is that the economic ambitions of a few are predatory of the environment and detrimental to equity.”

Clara Irazabal is assistant professor of Urban Planning and director of Latin Lab in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, New York. She has worked as consultant, researcher, and professor in South America, Europe, Asia and the US. She explores social justice struggles manifested in processes of transformation of urban space and how markers of minoritized identity and their intersections with one another are negatively impacted by planning processes, when the supposed mandates of planning urge respect, celebration, and nurturing of diversity. In this interview, Clara gives us some food for thought on the issue of practicing urbanism for positive global change.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how that shaped your interest in urban sustainability.

I was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela and have always lived in large cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. I enjoy urban living and definitely believe that cities hold the potential to help us unravel more sustainable futures. However, traveling around the world and studying the climate disruption we are facing on the planet has also sparked my awareness about the interconnectedness and codependency between urban and non-urban areas, and led me to believe that we should focus our efforts beyond urban sustainability per se, instead striving to weave multi-scalar sustainabilities.

The conditions of climate disruption, the persistence of poverty, the growth of inequality, and the stubborn resilience of neoliberalism around the world are also prompting me to seriously question the traditional definition of sustainability as resting on the balance of the three “E” pillars: Economy, Environment, and Equity. What we regularly see in developmental efforts around the world is that the economic ambitions of a few are predatory of the environment and detrimental to equity. What we need instead is for the economy to be a means—and not at end on itself—for the realization of ecological and human wellbeing that are within the planet’s biocapacity.

On a more controversial note, I propose we have to seriously question the faith we usually put in “really existing democracies” to take us, soon enough, to the hard decisions and actions we should be taking NOW as humanity in order to guarantee the survival of the species.

In addition to teaching, you work as a consultant and researcher; what have been some of your most important projects?

I am very proud of the teaching, service, and research projects that the Latin Lab that I direct at Columbia University has undertaken along its three lines of work:

1) Immigration and Ethnic Urbanism, where we have, for example, worked with a rural-to-urban community of immigrants in our our workshop with the UIC master students in Medellin , Colombia for them to realize their right to permanency in a territory that is been claimed by the city for a project that threatens to displace them.

2) Urban Rehabilitation and Resilience, where we have offered the Secretary of Housing in Rio de Janeiro rationales and strategies to promote inclusionary and affordable housing in a central area of the city that is been renovated for the 2016 Olympics. And lastly,

3) Regional and Transnational Planning, where we have offered recommendations to municipalities in Leste Fluminense, Brazil, to strengthen their coalition of governments and face the growing demands for housing and services brought about by the incoming petrochemical complex that is opening in the region.

Clara Irazábal (left) with her team and our co-director Carmen Mendoza (center) during our joint workshop in Medellín

Our joint workshop in Medellín spent a day participating in a protest march organized by the stakeholder community. “Borders of Comuna 8 fighting for the right to live with dignity in our territories.” photo by Creación Libertaria on flickr

Can you recount a specific event or project that provided a particularly significant learning experience during your career?

Each project is a unique learning experience, if you cultivate an open-mind and an open-heart to continue learning throughout your career. The greatest learning has precisely been realizing the importance of working with sincere humility, genuine curiosity, and a growing willingness—and daringness—to always bend towards justice and sustainability in everything you do.

For those interested in our program, can you give a sneek peak into what your workshop with our students was about?

My course in this program is entitled “International Cooperation, Sustainability, and Socio-Spatial Justice.” Environmental sustainability and socio-spatial justice struggles are always manifested in processes of transformation of places and communities, whether they are explicitly acknowledged and addressed by planning agents or not. International cooperation frameworks should make explicit these two goals—environmental sustainability and socio-spatial justice—as guiding benchmarks of their planning efforts. However, what they mean for different stakeholders in different contexts, as well as how they are achieved and how are costs and benefits of such processes distributed, may vary greatly.

In this course, we examine two interrelated research questions: What has planning done and what can planning do, when operating through frameworks of international cooperation, to serve as an instrument for the promotion of environmental sustainability and socio-spatial justice? The former question, what has planning done, uses a methodological approach rooted in qualitative examination of case studies. The latter question, what can planning do, relies on normative approaches to scholarship composed of explorations into planning and policy-making theory. The students add critical and comparative analysis of case studies of their choosing around the world.

Our students with Clara Irazábal during her workshop this month at our campus ESARQ-UIC.

Any recommended reading for those interested in this field?

I recommend avid reading of all genres. In this field, I evidently recommend at least the readings in my syllabus*, but in this twitter-era of instant messages, I am going to give you three questions—which I have adopted from other people—that I use to support ethical and daring decision-making efforts in this complex discipline:

1. What would X do? Substitute X for Jesus, Buddha, your significant other, or whoever, whose wisdom you greatly admire.

2. What would I do if I weren’t afraid? This question does not ask of you to disavow your fears—a sometimes-impossible task; but to choose the courageous thing to do despite them.

3. When was the last time that you did something for the first time? This question promotes creative thinking and experimentation “outside the box”, preventing our ossification in replicating old modes and mores. It invites you both to be mindful of your experience and to adventurously expand it on new grounds.

Can you give aspiring urban professionals 3 reasons to pursue a career in emergency/cooperation/sustainability?

A practical reason is that well-trained professionals in the areas of emergency prevention/response and international cooperation are hard to find and badly needed. A related negative, yet very real reason is that the world is doomed to face more frequent and severe climate-related disasters (and other types of disasters, sometimes also indirectly related to climate disruption, such as resource wars) in the years and decades to come, which can promise professionals in this line of work a busy career. Lastly, an altruistic reason, and truly the reason that I hope mostly matters for students to select this career path, is that socially responsible, culturally literate, and technically competent emergency prevention/response and international cooperation professionals can make a profound and lasting difference in relieving pain, improving quality of life, and promoting hope in the lives of suffering communities around the world.


*Clara Irazabal’s reading list for our students includes the following articles and publications:

Campbell, Scott. Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities? Urban Planning and the Contradictions of Sustainable Development. Journal of the American Planning Association 62(3): 296-312.

Irazábal, Clara. “Retos Urbano Ambientales: Disturbio Climático en América Latina y el Caribe.” In ONU-HABITAT, Estado de las Ciudades de América Latina y el Caribe. 2010, 141-162. (For those who read Spanish)

Irazábal, Clara. “Transnational Planning: Reconfiguring Spaces and Institutions.” In Stefan Krätke, Kathrin Wildner and Stephan Lanz (eds.). Transnationalism and Urbanism. London, New York: Routledge / Taylor & Francis Group, 2012, 72-90.

Talen, Emily. Sustainability. Chapter 7 in Oxford Handbook of Urban Planning, ed Rachel Weber and Randall Crane, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Irazábal, Clara and Anita Punja. “Cultivating Just Planning and Legal Institutions: A Critical Assessment of the South Central Farm Struggle in Los Angeles.” Journal of Urban Affairs 31(1): 1-23, 2009.

Marcuse, Peter. Justice. Chapter 8 in Oxford Handbook of Urban Planning, ed Rachel Weber and Randall Crane, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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