Berkeley in the World

This is a time of unprecedented globalization. While globalization is not new, the scale and intensity of global flows of capital, labor, innovation and information is perhaps unmatched in the history of the world-system.

Equally striking is the emergence of global social movements, global campaigns and global alliances that seek to address issues of poverty and inequality. Indeed, the start of the 21st century has been marked by the globalization of responsibility for the human condition – from human rights to environmental crisis to disease to extreme poverty. What is UC Berkeley’s role in this bold, millennial moment? This is precisely the question that led to the recent establishment of the Blum Center for Developing Economies on campus. How can UC Berkeley train the next generation of global citizens to tackle, in inspired but responsible ways, the world’s pressing problems? In doing so, how will they better understand their place in the world and thus remake the future of America?

But it is important to ask yet another question: what is the role of urbanists, urban planners, urban designers, architects, environmental planners and landscape architects at such a global moment? I do not ask this question simply because urban planning is my professional calling card. I believe that this question has urgency for all those concerned with globalization, its promises, and its stark inequalities. After all, the 21st century will be not only a global century, but also an urban century. Cities are, and will be, a key space of economic development and of material and symbolic citizenship. The “right to the city” will be one of the most important human rights of the 21st century. What role will urban professionals, scholars and activists play in articulating this right to the city? How, in particular, will CED train the next generation of “insurgent” architects and planners?

Let me simply share one lesson that I draw from some of the classes, seminars, studios and workshops that a few of us have been organizing and leading in CED: the act of planning and designing is fundamentally an ethical and political act. We can claim we are neutral technocrats or well-meaning artists, but neither guise fully captures the extent of our impact or paradoxically the impotence of our plans. We produce space. And we do so in a world that, despite what the gurus of globalization would have us believe, is not flat. The production of space thus implicates us in the structural logic of urbanization and urbanism; in the political fields of power and powerlessness; and in the unequal, and often unjust, landscapes of cities and regions. The ethical question is how we choose to participate in the production of space. Are we the consultant who plans the redevelopment of a slum and in doing so fiercely opposes evictions, the one who negotiates resettlement and compensation for slum-dwellers, or simply the one who follows our client’s script? Are we the planner who is commissioned to create a new city for a global elite and in doing so insists the city has to be open and inclusive for all classes, the one who revels in the high-style architecture we can design, or the one who rejects the commission?

During this past semester, I have watched students in the Nano City Super Studio admirably struggle with these issues. How will they convince their clients that a vibrant and just city is one whose value derives from more than simply valuable real estate and global connectivity? How will they make tangible and visible these alternative forms of value, those that are less commodified and lucrative than property capital? How will they plan for the villagers who live on the edges of the site, who are subsistence farmers and eager to sell their land and stop farming? Will they, as benevolent planners, preserve these villages as quaint relics of a lifestyle that the villagers themselves refuse, or will they imagine a different future for the relationship between city and countryside? Most important, the students have known that the answers to these questions are not technocratic or aesthetic but rather ethical and political. While they have been able to utilize their technocratic and aesthetic expertise, this expertise has been shaken and disrupted by the sheer social reality of the site, that encounter between the villager aspiring for a better life and the UC Berkeley student desperately desiring to do the right thing. The site haunts the studio and this is the way it must be – this always tense ethical and political relationship between expertise and social reality, university and community. We mediate this relationship as “double agents,” often complicit in the production of space but also hoping to subvert the cruel calculus of this production.

Global Engagements: Teaching Transnationally

The College of Environmental Design (CED) has a long tradition of engaging in various ways with the world at large. Indeed, it can boast some of the world’s top experts on Latin America, the Middle East, and South Asia amongst its faculty members. The expertise of our faculty members also represents the diverse panorama of environmental design and is evidenced by CED’s proficiency in many fields ranging from housing to urbanization and from urban design to infrastructure planning. Courses in the College’s three departments clearly illustrate this international and interdisciplinary outlook and while design studios conducted abroad and structured around the problems of other countries are not new, they have taken on a new dimension as well as a new urgency at this moment as this issue of Frameworks illustrates.

Globalization and the rise of the information society have redefined the landscape of both professional knowledge and practice. But while such trends may have resulted in homogenization to some degree, they have also offered the possibilities of recognizing the international and cross-cultural potential of local and regional traditions particularly as they relate to the developing countries of the so-called “Third World.” One may argue that we are embarking on a new stage in the relationships between the First and the Third Worlds, one that may depart from the long and brutal legacies of colonialism. Many Third World countries in the global South, like China, India, and Mexico are now witnessing unprecedented rates of urban development and economic growth. Often these changes have been coupled with transnational alliances and aggressive policies that help countries position themselves globally and in ways that have allowed some of them to rapidly join the advanced or industrialized nations of the First World. From our vantage point today, it appears that the latest wrinkle in the old international division of labor, previously characterized by the flow of information from South to North and its return in the form of manufactured products in the 20th century, has been replaced with the flow of information from North to South and its return in the form of outsourced knowledge and specialized immigrant labor. And while it is too soon to cheer the demise of colonial structures of surplus extraction or labor exploitation, we may also recognize that these have been fundamentally recalibrated allowing the global South to shape the prospects of the North just as the latter continues to study and practice within the former.

I believe that a truly global approach to teaching architecture and planning in this transnational world must be based on two separate yet linked educational beliefs. The first is the belief that the study of other people, cultures, and environments is an obligation that should be pursued with the conviction that such knowledge is necessary for our own well-being as well as that of others. An exchange between various cultures and or countries when pursued on this premise often brings mutually beneficial by-products. For example, many traditional environments in the Third World offer innovative solutions and practical insights regarding the complexity of the social environment — knowledge that is crucial to contemporary practice. Learning from such places and practices allows us to situate ourselves in the wider human context — which one may argue is the very essence of our profession and discipline.

The second belief underlying this approach stems from the conviction that we in the First World have an ethical responsibility to play a role in the development of the Third World, possibly reversing the decades of intellectual hegemony that accompanied centuries of colonization. Training practitioners in areas like managing urbanization and providing infrastructure in which the First World has been generally successful is no longer a luxury but in fact a necessity. For we must accept that as one of the premier public institutions in the First World, we are also part of a Berkeley “tradition” that reminds us that the circumstances of the Third World are neither irrelevant nor marginal to the well-being and continued strength of the First World.

In the pages that follow, you the reader, will learn about the various ways in which the CED has carried forward its own epistemological traditions as well as those of the Berkeley campus at large. As the guest-editor of this issue of Frameworks, I hope that this magazine will stand for more than just a catalog of CED’s accomplishments in the past year. That the various global studios conducted by the College will be understood as more than simply a means to gain professional skill or license. Mostly, I hope that our efforts at transnational teaching will help us recognize that we need to learn more about the world and our place within it, while also recognizing our professional limitations and our complicity in the current state of global affairs.