Exclusive interview with the winners of the 2016 Reducing Urban Poverty Paper Competition

by Rebekah Revello, Frances Goyes, Valeria Vidal Alvarado, Sera Tolgay

From left: Valeria Vidal Alvarado, Francis Goyes and Sera Tolgay


The 2016 winners of the IHC Global sponsored* Reducing Urban Poverty Graduate Student Paper Competition are Valeria Vidal Alvarado, Francis Goyes and Sera Tolgay. The MIT Masters in City Planning students come from three very different backgrounds- 26-year-old Alvarado is from Lima, Peru, 26-year-old Goyes is from Quito, Ecuador, and 25-year-old Tolgay is from Istanbul, Turkey- but they have pooled together their expertise and experiences to create a project focused on something that they care deeply about. As the refugee crisis remains one of the most pressing global issues at hand, much attention is paid to the journey; where the refugees go, how they get there, and if they’ll be allowed in. Much less focus is on what happens to these families after they receive sanctuary. Their research project does just this; Refugees, Incremental Housing and Shelter in the 21st Century seeks to examine the design and implementation of the incrementing housing model of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)’s Urban Shelter Program in cities in Northern Jordan, and provide recommendations on how it can improve. The paper was selected out of hundreds of entries as the winner of the competition, and Alvarado, Goyes and Tolgay were given the opportunity to present their findings in front of a captivated audience at Habitat III in October, in Goyes’ hometown of Quito, Ecuador. IHC Global International Communications Officer Rebekah Revello interviewed the three researchers about their project, what it means to them, and what they hope it will do for refugee communities around the world.

Can you give a brief summary of your project?

FG: The NRC program intends to provide adequate shelter for vulnerable Syrian refugees by supplying grants to Jordanian homeowners to increase rooms or floors to their existing houses. Syrian families are then allowed to live in these expansions rent-free for up to two years. After the two year period is over, Jordanian homeowners can decide if they want to continue to renting to Syrian families or use the expansions for a different purpose. 

VVA: There is a lack of adequate and affordable rental housing stock to accommodate the increasing number of Syrian refugees, which has put a strain on the capacity of cities in Northern Jordan such as Jerash, Ajloun, and Irbid. Through surveys with participant homeowners, semi-structured interviews with NRC and UNHCR officers, and mapping of social and public infrastructure, we have found that NRC’s Urban Shelter Program increases the total housing stock available in Northern Jordan cities, ensures minimum building standards and quality of materials, and supports the local economy. As opposed to cash-for-rent programs that can add pressure to constricted housing markets, NRC’s approach provides adequate shelter for refugees without disrupting existing urban systems    

What initially drew you to your project? Why did you choose the subject?

FG: I was interested in this project for a number of reasons. Having lived my entire life in Ecuador, I was accostumed to the incremental housing  approach the majority of families practiced – houses are built informally, and expanded through time based on the growth in family members and the financial resources they have access to. I was very curious to understand how NRC could draw inspiration from incremental housing to then use it as a solution for housing refugees.

Furthermore, the NRC program was also interesting to me from a city planning perspective. Much attention is drawn to refugee camps like Zaatari and Azraq, yet the majority of Syrian refugees live in urban areas, as there they have greater access to economic opportunities, as well as social infrastructure and networks. However, many cities are unable to accommodate the increased demand for housing, and many refugees are forced into substandard living conditions. Urban programs for housing refugees that provide cash-for-rent assistance intend to solve this condition, yet in turn increase rental prices in cities and saturate the market. NRC’s program increases the housing stock, thus bringing more equilibrium to the housing market.

Given the enormity of the Syrian humanitarian crisis, I also wanted to use this opportunity to draw attention to this innovative program in the hope that it can be adapted in other countries that have also opened their doors to refugees.

VVA: The possibility to make a small contribution to solving the refugee crisis, understanding why projects work, whether these can be replicated or adapted in many other parts of the region that are currently facing a similar problem was the reason why I became interested in this project. Dr. Reinhard Goethert, Professor at the Department of Architecture at MIT was the one who pointed out the great potential that incremental housing, slowly expanding the houses over time, could have to help the refugee crisis which then led me to further investigate if this was a strategy already being taken advantage of. 

ST: As part of our research group, Special Interest Group on Urban Settlements at MIT, we had been studying incremental housing models around the world, trying to understand the factors that make housing projects successful. We really took a “shelter plus” approach, where housing is not just a roof over your head but also the accessibility to a bundle of services like transportation, education or markets that make day to day life possible. The NRC project is very interesting because it acknowledges the reality that the majority of refugees in fact live in urban areas (this number is close to 85 % in Jordan). In Turkey, for example, the government has responded to the crisis by setting up state-of-the-art camps, but this has not been a sustainable solution as people have left the camps to go to cities, where they have more access to services and jobs. We thought that the NRC problem recognized this dynamic from the start and could provide a model for providing shelter for urban refugees.

Alvarado and Goyes look on as Tolgay presents.
What sort of feedback have you received about your project, from colleagues to the international community?

FG: We’ve received very positive feedback from our university and other colleagues. I’m particularly happy that other NGO’s and government organizations that didn’t know about the program before have become aware of it through our presentations at Habitat III.

VVA: The team has received overwhelmingly positive feedback about our project. Many fellows students, Professors and international organizations have reached out to read our paper, further discuss our analysis as well as request us to make presentations. It has been quite touching to know that we are able to have this experience inspire others to learn and work on the issue.

ST: It was also interesting to hear reactions from audiences about how the refugee crisis is typically associated with camps, so our research in urban areas gathered a lot of interest.

What do you think presenting at Habitat III has done for your research?

FG: It’s definitely increased awareness of NRC’s program, especially for people from private and public sectors that work in the humanitarian sector.

VVA: Presenting at Habitat III has opened a lot of doors for me. From giving me more exposure in the school on the potential and quality of my work as a researcher, to networking with organizations I would love to work at as well as meeting many other people who are as passionate as I am about the issue to further collaborate on research.

ST:  Through our presentations at Habitat III, we got to exchange ideas with a number of organizations, such as the Project for Public Spaces, Affordable Housing Institute and Habitat for Humanity, who are all working on the issue of housing for refugee populations from a shelter plus approach as well. Given the enormity of the current crisis and the shortcoming of traditional humanitarian approaches, we saw how critical it is to develop flexible models that can bring the host communities and refugee populations together rather than creating silos.

What do you plan to do with your research going forward?

FG: I’m excited to see it published in the Wilson Center’s annual Urban Paper Competition book. I also hope others continue researching this and other innovative intiatives in Jordan and other countries.

VVA: I hope that the research can continue to be disseminated in different ways. The analysis of the research has also prompted Dr. Reinhard Goethert to continue with this line of work looking at another case study in Lebanon that could potentially be used for comparison and the  exchange of best practices. 

ST: One key takeaway from our research in Jordan is the fact that employment opportunities will directly affect the sustainability of any kind of housing model in the coming years. While the Jordanian government has announced that they will be giving work permits to a portion of the refugee population, many are still forced to take low-wage, low-skill jobs to provide for their families. To re-think employment in this context, I will be taking part in a long-term initiative through the Art, Culture and Technology group in our department, called Future Heritage Studio. It is currently at a very nascent stage, so I cannot provide a lot of information yet, but through a collaborative design workshop with the refugee population and local partners in Jordan, we are hoping to identify ways in which art, technology and design can be combined with existing know-how, crafts and skills to provide alternative livelihoods.

How do you want your research to be used to help the communities you studied and others like them?

FG: I intend this research to serve NRC and other governmental and non-governmental organizations that are interested in creating humanitarian programs that are urban, creative, and site-specific.

VVA: In the most practical way, the research can be used to duplicate NRC’s Urban Shelter Program in other areas of Jordan or neighboring countries that have a similar housing ecosystem. At the same time, the analysis of the research has highlighted that it is quite expensive to keep up such a comprehensive program. In this regard, the research can provide insight and pin point certain areas that have the potentially to become more cost saving.

ST: Additionally, we hope to draw lessons for other contexts regionally, like in Lebanon, which has an even larger urban refugee population than that of Jordan. At a larger scale, globally, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people around the world has surpassed 60 million for the first time in history, so as people are forced to flee their homes due to conflicts or natural disasters, these innovative models will be especially critical in the years to come.

Alvarado listens to questions from the audience at Habitat III.
What do you think the New Urban Agenda will do for urban refugee communities?

FG: I hope the NUA increases awareness of urban refugees and internally displaced populations. I particularly wish that the NUA emphasizes the need for a human rights approach to projects intended to help urban refugee communities, and more data about urban refugees is gathered and shared with the humanitarian community.

VVA: I believe that the New Urban Agenda helps urban refugee communities by setting the issue at the forefront of the international community. This then is able to spark discussion and more allocation of funding to help with the different issues such as housing that refugees have to deal with. Creating awareness of the urgency to address this use, as well as setting the guidelines and priorities to do so, is definitely the first towards more concrete solutions, such as funding research, to fund programs like NRC’s Urban Shelter Program as well as do evaluations of such, which is as extremely important as just designing and implementing the project. The evaluation phase helps to keep the program aligned with the changing needs of the refugees. 

ST: Similarly the people-centric approach called for in the NUA can also be applied to the humanitarian field, where the complex and multifaceted problems faced by urban refugees require going beyond providing baseline needs.

Given your research and the current trajectories, what do you think will happen with urban refugee communities over the next few years?

FG: I think urban refugee communities will continue to grow around the world, especially as more vulnerable populations have to migrate from the negative effects of climate change. I hope that lessons learned from the Syrian refugee crisis and others before it provide the humanitarian community with expertise for these changing times.

VVA: This is quite a tough question to answer. As the current situation is going, the number of urban refugee communities will only keep increasing. However, we are seen positive programs like the NRC helping to alleviate the problem, at least one of the problems, safe and reliable shelter. The refugee crisis problem is quite complex and sensitive subject to address, both from a refugee and host country perspective. However, I think that as long as we know that we are doing the best to help families who have been forced to flee from their homes until it is safe to come back, I’m sure we will be able to learn how to best adapt our built environment and our attitude towards the issue.

What have you personally learned from this project?

FG: This project has given me an incredible opportunity that I am immensely grateful for. Academically, I have grown tremendously through this experience, learning much more than I did before about humanitarian work and the ongoing refugee crisis. The project has also expanded my professional network, particularly through our presentations at Habitat III. Personally, I have developed new friendships with people that I would have never had the opportunity to meet if I had not participated in this project.

VVA: I have learned many things from this project. I have been fascinated by the passion and dedication that people have towards solving this issue. This project has also brought hope that there are good stories to share about programs that are helping refugees and positive experiences between refugees and homeowners who rent their spaces to them. As it was my first time in the Middle East, this research trip served also as a very rich cultural immersion. This project has absolutely helped me grow as a person and a professional; it exceeded my expectations in various ways. I think what made our project special was that we had the unique opportunity to be in the field for about three weeks not only analyzing the project technicalities but also learning about people’s lives, their stories, their struggles and their favorite meals. The personal connections we made throughout our research were the most rewarding and memorable parts of this project.

ST: Seconding Francis, this project has shown us the importance of taking the leap to do fieldwork in a new and challenging environment and the power of teamwork to make this happen. It was a great privilege to meet in person the Syrian families and also to hear from the Jordanian homeowners, some of whom came to Jordan from Palestine as refugees themselves. Despite the gravity of the situation in Syria, I hope that sharing these positive stories can inspire us to go beyond the immediately possible.

Judges and the winners: Allison Garland of the Wilson Center, Tony Piaskowy of USAID, MIT Professor and project adviser Reinhard Goethert, Alvarado, Laura Lima of Cities Alliance, Goyes, Tolgay, IHC Global President and CEO Judith Hermanson, and Victor Vargas of the World Bank stand together for a picture


*Sponsors for the competition include Cities Alliance, IHC Global, The Wilson Center, The World Bank and USAID

Humans of Habitat III

by Rebekah Revello

Two Thursdays ago, Habitat III came to an end after four days of riveting discussions and presentations on the new frontiers for urban sustainability. Throughout the week, while the United Nations deliberated the New Urban Agenda on the conference grounds, the Habitat III Exhibition was taking place up the street, resting on the slope of the mountains like a city upon a hill. While the conference was meant for heavy discussions and evaluation of policies, the exhibition offered a lighter approach, as a platform for countries, organizations and companies to share their innovations in urbanization.

The atmosphere in the giant, tented space was thrumming with excitement and opportunity. Every other booth boasted a game-changing urban strategy; every conversation held the possibility of a new partnership. And among the exchange of business cards, the interactive exhibits, spectacular performances and complementary food and drink (a fan favorite), people from around the world were kind enough to share with me their experience at Habitat III and their views on the New Urban Agenda. Their occupations, nationalities and interests vary, and some spoke mere sentences while others spoke volumes, but their contributions are important to understanding how the New Urban Agenda will be perceived and understood worldwide.

Key: R is me, and the other initials will correspond to the interviewees.


Team members from PUSH, an Italian design lab that is partnered with Global Communities, and aims to help communities, public bodies and private organizations to innovate and have impact in a sustainable way.

R: “What did you want to come out of Habitat III?”

P: “We are here to expand our network and to try to implement our solutions in other contexts.”


Belen Vallejo and Stefan

R: “What made you come to Habitat III?”

S:We started a company. She’s an environmental engineer focusing on water sanitation. So we have one main project, which is turning chicken manure into organic fertilizer. We wanted to share it.”

R: “What do you think of the New Urban Agenda?”

S: It’s interesting, it’s focusing on cities? It’s good, but we’re trying to link the urban to the rural.

R: “So you think it should be more global?

B:It is difficult. In these stands you don’t see a lot of information on natural resources. We use so many natural resources and sometimes we don’t do enough to get back what we take.”

S:There are three or four events on natural resources, but in our opinions, there’s a bit of a lack, because the cities absorb a lot of what is produced in rural areas. Especially in Ecuador, where the cities are very close to rural areas. So that’s what we’re trying to do- connect those two worlds.”

R: “Are you satisfied with Habitat III?”

S:It’s an opportunity. You have to see that we are living in Ecuador, and there are not a lot of big events like Habitat III, so it’s a great opportunity to meet others and look into other environmental projects.”


Johannes Mengel, International Council for Science and Habitat III X-Change

R: “How do you feel about the New Urban Agenda? I know it’s a broad question, but what are your basic feelings?”

J: “My basic feeling about the New Urban Agenda is that it matters less than the fact that all the people have come together in Quito have met and have talked about what the future of cities should look like.”

R: “And why did you come here?”

J:I came here with a coalition of three organizations, to create this Habitat X-Change space as a place where people can meet and exchange ideas about the future of cities and also hopefully discover that science and data visualization can play an important part in thinking about the cities of the future and planning that future.”

R: “Are you satisfied with the conference?”

J (laughing): “Well, I’m certainly satisfied about what happened at our space, but I can’t comment on all of what happened at Habitat III. I’m satisfied with what the conference did for Habitat X-Change.”


Margarita, and Ecuadoran teacher

R: “Why did you come to Habitat III?”

M:I came to Habitat III because it is interesting. It is important for everyone to learn. We are all involved because we want to live well in our cities.”

R: Do you know much about the New Urban Agenda?

M: “I don’t know a lot about it, but I want to know more. I’m very happy to be here.” 


Anne, far right, from the Huairou Commission

R: “What do you think of the New Urban Agenda?

A:I think that there were a lot of expectations for this document to transform global policy framework, but in the end it became more complementary than transformative.”

R: “Why did you come to Habitat III?”

A:It started as my Master’s thesis actually, and then I got really engaged in process and we brought many grassroots women that the organization needed for support.”

R: “Are you satisfied with Habitat III?”

A: “It’s a great networking opportunity and platform…but I must say that the conference layout and design was frustrating. And it was very intense in terms of the events. Very rich, but very intense.”


Brenda and Allen, Habitat for Humanity UK and Asia Pacific

R: “What were you expecting out of Habitat III?”

Al:Honest answer? I manage the urban crisis learning partnership, and a lot of work that we’re doing is focusing on accountability to affected populations, and so… we only started really doing the research in Haiti and Bangladesh in the last three months, and we’re finding that there’s a lot of resistance to this concept, a lot of sensitivity around it. And so here, I just had this session where I was asking people their views on accountability in the humanitarian sector as part of the research to find out what kind of attitudes other people have about this. So really, it was to generate more knowledge for our own project.”

Br:I think Quito is just the end of a very long process that started two years ago, which Habitat for Humanity International has been involved with for a long while. Personally, the reason why I’m here is because as an urban specialist and practitioner, this is an opportunity to expose yourself to everything that is happening, in terms of subjects, in terms of approaches, ideologies behind everything that is being proposed… So the opportunity for networking, for learning about other countries and ways of doing things and visions of the city is great. But it’s also the closing of a long advocacy effort in which we were trying to influence the way that cities must be seen globally, what they should look like. And that was the discussion for the past few years, so this is just the formal sessions in which the states are saying ‘this is what we’ve agreed on’, but there were so many discussions beforehand that were very very rich. I think there is an agreement on how cities should look globally, which is very difficult. We are at very different stages of development but we still have a common vision on how cities should work.”

R: “What are your takes on the New Urban Agenda?”

(Long pause)

Br:As an urbanist…all the keywords are there. Inclusiveness, resilience, etc… But they seem hollow sometimes, they seem like they lack content. And then all of these discussions and critiques don’t say how we are going to do this, how are we going to be implementing this, what does it mean to create a compact city. There are no specific tools; the New Urban Agenda is just an ideal, which is good, because I believe we have to have an image of what we’re trying to achieve. But now the task is how you implement that. And what it means to be in a resilient city in Bangladesh is different than what it means to be resilient in the Netherlands. Interpretation is a big issue after this.”

Al:Somebody said yesterday that it’s interesting that the word mayor doesn’t appear in the New Urban Agenda at all, and then we kind of went through again and looked for a whole lot of other words that don’t appear. I think it’s kind of amusing and it doesn’t really tell us anything because there are so many references to municipalities and local authorities, but to be honest, I’m normally very cynical, but this is the way the world works on these kind of complex subjects. Because it’s not legally binding, it can be very ambitious, so you find that it’s not a process of international law where countries are agreeing to be bound, because when that happens, what they agree to be bound by becomes smaller and smaller and smaller. So you’ve got to start with these massive ambitious, aspirational and maybe a bit woolly ideas. But the purpose is not to bind, and as Brenda said, different parts of the world are so completely different, you couldn’t really have an adequate tool kit or implementation plan for the whole world, it doesn’t really work like that. But what you do have is priorities, you have a consensus on what’s important, and that’s no small achievement. When you compare it to 20 years ago, the Habitat agenda then was quite thin, a bit woolly, with very little follow up. And walking around here and seeing how the content of the New Urban Agenda is already being implemented by the various things many people are already doing is great. And it gives us- particularly in civil society- a great opportunity for advocacy at local level.”


Andrew Earle, student, University of Cape Town

R: “Why did you come to Habitat III?”

An:I was traveling to Ecuador already and my supervisor recommended Habitat III, but I would’ve gone anyway. I would now consider myself an infrastructurist/urbanist.”

R: “Do you know about the New Urban Agenda?”

An:I don’t know much actually. I’ve learned more here but I haven’t really looked at it. From what I can glean, it’s a way more intersectional approach to the next urban frontier, and they’ve tried very hard to cover all the bases, which makes it extremely hard to do. So they’ve set the bar pretty high. Do I have faith? I don’t know.”

R: “So then, are you satisfied with your experience here?”

An:Yes. Well, no. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s anything lacking- there’s been more than enough of everything, but some frustrations have been in that, it’s more about cities and municipalities presenting a CV rather than engaging and ideating. Instead of talking about what needs to be done, they say ‘here’s what has been done,’ and the conversation ends there. There isn’t really a space for voicing criticism, because for whatever reason the conversation is quite disjointed, and the dialogue I’m looking for isn’t there.”


Alessandra Sgobbi, European Commission, DG Climate Action

R: “Why did you and the European Commission come to Habitat III?”

Ale:There are several linkages between climate change and urban development, and urban areas and cities are most vulnerable to climate change because of the concentration of people and assets, but they are also a major source of emissions of greenhouse gases, so they have to be a part of the solution. For me, the linkages between tackling climate change challenges and ensuring sustainable urban development are numerous.”

R: “What is your opinion on the New Urban Agenda?”

(Long pause)

Ale: “Ah. Well, it’s a good opportunity to bring together at a local level the international frameworks that we agreed upon over the course of the past years. We’re talking about the SDGs, the Paris Agreement, Sendai framework for action- all of these need to be implemented in a coherent manner at a local level as well as a national level, and I’m hoping that the New Urban Agenda will provide such an opportunity at the local level.”

R: “Are you satisfied with the outcome of the conference?”

Ale:Yes. The first day was tricky because of the logistics, but it was all part of the challenge. I was very happy with the events that I followed, and we had several successful events. This year will be the implementation challenge and we have a whole lot of frameworks, so we have to see how we’re going to turn them into reality. The hard work is still to come.”


Marielena and Pamela, student architects

R: “How do you feel about Habitat III?”

Ma: “It seems to me the conferences were not great. They didn’t have much content or proposals. They seemed poorly organized with a lot of people. I didn’t find a comparison or a sense of how we have advanced in the last 20 years. We don’t have a diagnosis of if we have advanced or not advanced for the creation of the New Urban Agenda. There have been objectives and we don’t know if they have been achieved.”

R: “Okay, and what do you think of the exhibition?”

Ma: “Of the space…it’s cool that it seems kind of empty. I don’t know the logic of the country presentations, if it was for tourism? I don’t understand…if it was for people to just come and see? I don’t understand the logic.”


These girls were students from the University of Ecuador. They didn’t have much to say about the conference, as they were just passing by and decided to explore the exhibition. But they were glad that Habitat III was in Ecuador, and were fascinated by all of the exhibits.


Sylvanus Kofi Adzornu, Urban Planner from Ghana

R: “Why did you come to Habitat III?”

Sy: “We’ve come to learn, and also to witness the ratification of the NUA, which we’ve been part of preparing from PrepCom1 in NY to PrepCom2 in Kenya, and we were also in Surabaya for the negotiations. It’s important for use to come witness this final step, and learn from other stakeholders. It’s important to see the outcome, ultimately. We want to share Ghana’s experiences with the world, as an area of decentralization and an area of constitutional development. The progress that we have made over the past 20 years needs to be showcased in terms of urban development and the policies we have formulated. The world can also see how we can partner with other nations- especially in the sub-Saharan region in helping them with new urban policies and decentralization. Our experience in the democratic process can also help in all of Africa, with elections, and how to process them successfully. This was a very good and worthy trip to Quito. It takes a very successful organization to manage 40,000 participants, and I think they did well. And this city is captivating.”

R: “What do you think of the New Urban Agenda?”

Sy: “I think that it’s going to help nations to ensure that their cities become more inclusive, resilient, sustainable and safe, and to help guide nation states. It is not a legal document, it’s not binding, but essentially it will help nation states to begin to use urbanization as a strategy for development, because it’s inevitable. It leads to innovation, it leads to civilization, to people who are more civilized and informed and it leads to improvement in quality of life. It’s a way forward for each nation, especially for those of us who are developing countries and have adopted the strategies who want to use and harness them properly. And I think the NUA is set to do that, and the international agreement, the SDG 2020, all of this will guide us as a country to begin to formulate our own internal urban policies at a long-term perspective, to change the standard of living for our people.”

Urban Poverty Essay Competition: Lyn Chia

by Rebekah Revello and Lyn Chia

Each year, IHC, the World Bank, Cities Alliance, the Woodrow Wilson Center and USAID collaborate to hold an Urban Poverty Essay Competition, in order to hear from the best and brightest in the urban development community and to encourage new thinking and innovation about urban poverty from young scholars. This is the third of the interviews with our three finalists.

Lyn Chia is one of the finalists for the 2015 Urban Poverty Essay Competition. She uses her background in design and passion for inclusivity to forge her way in the urban development world. After returning from a 7-month fieldwork in Sao Paolo, Brazil where she worked with a multidisciplinary group called Habitacidade to fix the city’s housing deficit, she is now dedicating her time to a public realm consultancy in London, England.

  1. What inspired you to get into the urban development sector?

I’ve always been curious about how people relate to one another and to spaces. It was this interest that led to my background in architecture and urban design. However it was really during my masters degree when I became involved in urban development, particularly around inclusivity and capacity building. 

Coming from a design background, the research/practice opportunities offered by the course deepened my understanding of the wider socio-political, theoretical and economic aspects of cities. Working [with Habitacidade] alongside highly driven members of social movements, academics, field practitioners and residents who all shared a common goal was inspiring in itself. At the end of the day my inspiration comes from the people around me and from being on site.

  1. What are your current or future plans? 

I’ve recently joined a public realm consultancy in London. The office produces evidence-based urban proposals that are rooted in extensive local analysis. I’m really enjoying the hands-on aspect of working on live projects; there is a lot to learn from being in practice. Once I’ve settled in I’d love to continue writing and perhaps in a few years return to academia. 

  1. What is a particular cause you are motivated by? (One that you haven’t discussed)

Homelessness and housing are both issues that are close to heart. I believe housing is far more complex than just a place to live. It represents status and economic growth, expressions of private aspirations, social networks, but above all, it provides the security and stability to build individual capacity. 

  1. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing cities is, as they work to reduce and eliminate extreme poverty?

Cities are growing at an accelerated rate and there is an increasing imbalance in the distribution of wealth, power and resources. Finding ways to prevent and reduce inequality is one of the biggest challenges faced by cities.

  1. Is there a benefit of thinking through development issues through an urban lens (rather than a specific sector)? Have you seen differences in how projects might be implemented in cities vs rural areas?

Absolutely. Good cities are highly complex entities that have been moulded by a diverse range of people over a long period of time. They are as such, products of co-creation and should therefore be seen as a whole, with geographical rather than sectoral forms of understanding. 

  1. As you continue your research, what topic(s) do you think are most in need of further research and attention? 

I think technology is an incredible resource, one that is relatively new and isn’t currently being used as well as it could be. It would be fascinating to explore less prescriptive forms of technological innovations that could transform how people engage with their cities and their governance structures.

Lyn is one of the many students honored for their participation in the Urban Poverty Essay Competition, and who are dedicated to creating sustainable urban communities across the globe. Check out the rest of our blog to learn about the other honorees.

Urban Poverty Essay Competition: Jason B. Scott

by Rebekah Revello and Jason B. Scott

Each year, IHC, the World Bank, Cities Alliance, the Woodrow Wilson Center and USAID collaborate to hold an Urban Poverty Essay Competition, in order to hear from the best and brightest in the urban development community and to encourage new thinking and innovation about urban poverty from young scholars. This is the second of the interviews with our three finalists.

Jason B Scott is one of the finalists of the 2016 Urban Poverty Essay Competition. Originally from Milwaukee Wisconsin, Scott is a PhD Candidate and Cultural Anthropologist at University of Colorado Boulder. He is currently living Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where he is bringing his passion for social justice and achieving urban development through government to the sprawling slums (Favelas) of Rio.

  1. What inspired you to get into the urban development sector?

I am currently writing my doctoral dissertation concerning the use of digital technology in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. It is a subject with great history behind it yet still reflects humanity’s technological and social future. One major concern for favela residents is that the world’s attention will turn away from their plight after the Olympic Games.

  1. What are your current or future plans?

I am approaching the final year of my doctoral program. In this final year, I will leave Rio de Janeiro and move back to Boulder, Colorado where I will be teaching classes and working at a Center that helps junior scholars to see their teaching as a form of research. During this time, I will also attend academic conferences while writing and publishing articles based on my dissertation research.

After completing my Ph.D., I hope to find an academic position at a university where I can find continued support for my research and help grow the next generation of Brazilian anthropologists. I am also very much to take part in policy and nonprofit discussions. Through my ethnographic research, I have seen the positive ways that academic concepts shape underdeveloped communities.

  1. What is a particular cause you are motivated by? (One that you haven’t discussed)

I am particularly motivated to information, reading, and literacy. The ability to express and create knowledge is a fundamental right that is often unavailable to many. With modern digital technology, expression relies on a new set of tools and literacies. The idea of literacy–both in a technical and traditional sense– and expression informs my understanding of almost every issue I have encountered in Latin America.

  1. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing cities is, as they work to reduce and eliminate extreme poverty?

A lack participatory democracy is the ultimate obstacle for cities attempting to eliminate and reduce urban poverty. Government and civic institutions–even when well-meaning and locally engaged–often fail to sincerely hear the same marginalized voices they claim to include. Cities must not only seek to change a community but also develop mechanisms for a sustainable and critical form of urban citizenship.

In the favelas where I do research, everyday violence between police and drug traffickers has seriously threatened all other forms of economic, political, and educational development. A history of discounting residents’ claims to land helped to justify the government’s failure to develop adequate sanitation, electrical, and transportation infrastructure. A failure to build schools has left generations with little cultural and social capital to escape the clutches of generational poverty.

As such, modern technological developments such as online social media–that allow communities to share their opinions and experiences as well as participate in a broader civil society–are incredibly ineffective without those in political power paying attention. Communities that are silenced need to be heard and involved in long term political discussions.

  1. Is there a benefit of thinking through development issues through an urban lens (rather than a specific sector)? Have you seen differences in how projects might be implemented in cities vs rural areas?

The “urban lens” is incredibly important. Over half of the world lives in cities and this share is projected to grow in the future. About a third of urban residents in the developing world live in slums, a number that is also expected to grow. Due to globalizing social forces, urban slums increasingly share common problems and needs. Issues-based development such as digital inclusion, delivering potable water, and  providing housing will indeed improve urban lives but no single issue will provide a panacea to these issues.

Using my research in the Complexo as an example, the urban/rural dichotomy could be seen as problematic. Many of the residents of the community are rural migrants or the children of rural migrants. In this sense, individual poverty displaced from a rural to an urban setting. Furthermore, Brazil’s suburban regions combine both rural and urban problems. In rural areas, projects are far more difficult to deliver and resources become ‘stretched’. Issues related to poverty become entrenched and amplified in urban environments. The urban/rural dichotomy is ultimately a matter of perspective, scope, and intensity, but they should ultimately be seen as related.

  1. As you continue your research, what topic(s) do you think are most in need of further research and attention?”

My current research concerning digital inclusion in violent Brazilian favelas has led me to several related topics. Firstly, some of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are experiencing a wave of gentrification: a new socio-economic and geographic process heretofore unseen in Rio de Janeiro. Many believe that gentrification has been brought on by mega events such as the world cup and olympics but this perspective overlooks the militarization of the favela and decades of real estate speculation in Rio’s “formal city” that has made the city one of the most expensive in the world. While some scholars, activists, and journalists have begun to explore the short term effects of gentrification in the favelas, I believe only a longterm generations-long research project will reveal the effects economic removal will have on these communities.

Secondly, I believe the illegal drug policy will continue to decide the destiny of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Over the course of 30 years, anti-drug policy has allowed governments and civil society to avoid the favela. While debates over decriminalization and legalization of marijuana and other illegal drugs have garnered significant attention in Brazil, it remains unclear if the favela will reap the benefits of loosened drug laws. The war on drugs could possibly transform into a new type of “war” in the favela or it could lead to a significant step towards the end of police abuse.

Jason is one of the many students honored for their participation in the Urban Poverty Essay Competition, and who are dedicated to creating sustainable urban communities across the globe. Check out the rest of our blog to learn about the other honorees.

Urban Poverty Essay Competition: Stephanie Butcher

by Rebekah Revello and Stephanie Butcher

Each year, IHC, the World Bank, Cities Alliance, the Woodrow Wilson Center and USAID collaborate to hold an Urban Poverty Essay Competition, in order to hear from the best and brightest in the urban development community and to encourage new thinking and innovation about urban poverty from young scholars. This is the first of the interviews with our three finalists.

Stephanie Butcher is the winner of this year’s Urban Poverty Essay Competition. She is a PhD candidate from California that is currently studying at University College London. But London is not where she’s spending her time; she is deep into promoting sustainable development in Kathmandu, Nepal, and she doesn’t plan on stopping her work there. We asked Stephanie a couple of questions about who she is and what she wants to do to change the world.

  1. What inspired you to get into the urban development sector?

My interest in the field came from a slow and gentle shift from an interest in international politics, to a focus on developing countries, which finally brought me to the development sector. While I’ve always been interested in governance and the ways in which people make decisions, this interest really activated when I started thinking about the particular challenges of urban poverty within a social and political framework.

  1. What are your current or future plans? 

I’m currently in the second year of my PhD, based in Kathmandu Nepal, working with several squatter settlements located alongside the Bagmati river. The research topic looks at the ‘everyday (micro) politics’ which impacts how diverse residents are accessing and controlling water and sanitation services, and how this influences their experience of citizenship in the wider city.

Following the end of fieldwork here, it’s the long task of writing up and finishing, and developing a new undergraduate course focused on ‘Global inequalities and Urban Development’ with my department, the Development Planning Unit, University College London. 

Beyond that, it’s hard to say—I’m sure I will continue to have a connection with the academic world, but I also would love to spend some more time ‘in practice’, with an NGO or similar, perhaps continuing to explore the South East Asian context.

  1. What is a particular cause you are motivated by? (One that you haven’t discussed)

One thing I’m very interested in is the creation of new democratic platforms to raise the voice and visibility of issues faced the urban poor. I’m thinking here of the role of citizen media, or the use of participatory photo/video as used for advocacy or raising certain issues. I’m really excited to see some of the interactive tools being used by individuals themselves to highlight inequalities.

  1. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing cities is, as they work to reduce and eliminate extreme poverty?

I still think there is a real challenge in ‘linking the scales’ at which change is needed in order to reduce and eliminate extreme poverty. When you talk about social equality or justice in urban areas, this requires interventions which focus on interlinked deprivations happening at the home, community, and city scale. This means understanding how wider political trends or infrastructure services impacts diverse individuals, or reinforces inequalities in households, for example. This becomes even more a challenge when you start to think about individuals as containing multiple facets of identity, for instance, understanding how female tenants might have more or different risks than female homeowners.  

  1. Is there a benefit of thinking through development issues through an urban lens (rather than a specific sector)? Have you seen differences in how projects might be implemented in cities vs rural areas?

There is absolutely a benefit of a specific focus on the urban. Of course, this is apparent in many visible ways, including the heightened intensity of issues around urban services such as water, waste and drainage, as well as the need for interventions to support a diversity of people with different needs and aspirations. In terms of specific project implementation, a key issue that I have seen in the urban context is the need to account for impacts on tenants and the rental market with slum upgrading initiatives. The implementation of community infrastructure or housing improvements can often have an unintended impact on vulnerable tenants or more transient populations that cannot cope with a subsequent rise in rental fees. Including this population in the benefits of any development intervention needs to be a key consideration in projects focused on urban areas, in distinction with rural based projects.

  1. As you continue your research, what topic(s) do you think are most in need of further research and attention? 

One of the areas on which I have focused, and which I think should continue to receive more attention, is the influence of embedded social norms around identity, and how this affects the implementation and sustainability of development interventions. While the emphasis on participatory forms of development is an exciting one, I still think that the ‘everyday politics’ through which people negotiate with each other, and have a differentiated access to these participatory platforms, is much harder to make visible. Still, there is a lot of interesting work that is being done linking the urban poor’s material conditions with a wider project that seeks to reshape their recognition in their societies, and that’s where I see exciting change happening!

Stephanie is one of the many students honored for their participation in the Urban Poverty Essay Competition, and who are dedicated to creating sustainable communities across the globe. Check out the rest of the blog to learn about the other honorees.