UEP Colloquium: Aseem Inam

Transforming Cities – Transforming Urbanism

In the first of this Spring’s UEP colloquium series we were visited by The New School’s Professor of Urbanism and director of TRULAB, Aseem Inam. Clear from the title of his presentation, Inam’s focus is on transformation and urbanism. He began the talk by clarifying his use of words like “transformation”, as well as distinguishing between “urbanism” and “urban design.” Truly transforming a city, according to Inam, is not likely to be achieved by tweaking reform, but by a fundamental shift in ways of thinking about the structure of cities. More than once during the presentation, he stressed the avoidance of “best practices” and formulaic approaches to urban design, in favor of aspirational and investigative perspectives.

In defining his use of the term “urbanism,” he emphasizes the ideal of what it could be instead of its current definition in relation to urban design. Inam’s urbanism is more future oriented, embracing of plurality, and welcome to change. This can only result from a change in the way we think about cities, incorporating the following:

  • adaptability
  • collective thinking
  • engaging in constant change
  • testing ideas, with constant tweaking
  • multiple approaches

Inam then walked through several examples from around the world, many featured in his book Designing Urban Transformation (2013). He presents his concept of the “city-as-flux” through the development of Al-Azhar Park in Cairo, Egypt. In the development of a new park, planners cleaned up a 500 year old landfill, replaced it with water tanks, and trained local people in historic preservation for artifacts encountered along the way. The plan changed throughout its implementation.

Finally, Inam emphasizes the use of urbanism as a “creative political act,” using the Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi, Pakistan as an example. The project is set in an area with a history of extreme poverty and ethnic and religious violence. It functions collectively, allowing residents to work on solving their local sanitation issues. While this may not sound revolutionary at first, it was effective enough to ruffle the feathers of those in power, leading to death threats and the eventual assassination of the nonprofit’s director.

In a topical discussion, brought up by a member of the audience, Inam gave his opinion on the possibility of the Olympics coming to Boston. He noted that the only Olympics in recent history to have made a profit was the 1984 Los Angeles games. In the World Cup, for example, the only entity making a profit is FIFA. He stressed that the city should identify first how it can be done equitably, and second whether or not it should be done at all.

Next week’s colloquium will follow the university-wide forum on Race, Inequality, and Action. The UEP Colloquium on #BlackLivesMatter will be centered on how we, as students and future changemakers, see our role in working towards equity.