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Understanding urban issues

Two faculty-led research clusters are developing innovative methods for studying urban life. One group, through scholarly interaction and diverse case studies, has turned on its head the notion that the industrialized West acts as a model for developing nations. Meanwhile, another group is discovering how network analysis can better inform inquiry into urban school systems. Both clusters came together this academic year with the help of the Northeastern Humanities Center’s 2012-13 Collaborative Research Cluster Grants.

Northeastern professors Tom Vicino (Department of Political Science) and Liza Weinstein (Department of Sociology and Anthropology) formed an interdisciplinary group of Northeastern scholars under the theme “Globalizing Cities/Regional Challenges” to compare urban challenges across the Global North and Global South. Vicino and Weinstein’s cluster met monthly to soak in new approaches shared by colleagues focusing on similar issues across regions. While the scholars’ sites of investigation—including Mumbai, São Paolo, New York, Jakarta and Manila—are quite diverse, all represent low-lying, coastal cities with shared environmental challenges related to rapid urbanization, housing needs for increasing labor forces, and access to energy and clean water.

The urban crises presented in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy informed a number of the cluster’s discussions. Many cities in the developing world have been forced to tackle population growth, infrastructural expansion, and environmental issues with limited resources and varying degrees of engagement from regional governments. Through the exchange of ideas, the group looked to cities like Manila—which has been addressing flooding for more than a decade—to determine how areas affected by Sandy might cope with ecological challenges, as well as housing and infrastructure crises.

Global processes, such as weather-related disasters, often elicit responses at the local level where, Weinstein noted, there may be “a disjuncture between the site at which challenges scale and the site at which we have the resources and authority to address the challenges.”

“This creates a myriad of socioeconomic problems, in a sense, that are greater than any single urban neighborhood or jurisdiction where they occur,” added Vicino.
Weinstein has also begun to question what actually pushes local agencies to action in the face of adversity brought on by urbanization.

“Clearly, the environmental challenges alone don’t [force agencies to act], because they disproportionately affect the low-income populations that lack the political power to really push for the issues,” Weinstein explains. She has found that, in cases where local governance lacks the power to respond to environmental and urban housing issues, solutions and strategies often stem from local agents in civil society.

Professor Shelley Kimelberg (Department of Sociology and Anthropology) led another urban-focused cluster this year. She organized an impressive group of scholars from multiple universities—representing sociology, human services, communication studies, and education policy—to share research on urban education and explore the role of social networks and access to information in producing inequalities in education. Kimelberg’s specific interests in how parents select schools laid the foundations for the cluster, which has since expanded with other members’ input to include the influence of social networks on educational experiences more broadly.
“One of the things we realized when we started coming together is that the school choice question was merely one piece of the puzzle for which there are now multiple strands; we expanded our focus once we started talking,” said Kimelberg.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the cluster was establishing an informal network of peers with overlapping interests who are willing to share work and insights with each other in the future.

Approaching research topics across disciplines has encouraged Kimelberg to broaden her conception of social networks and has exposed her to new methods of analysis.
“It was really interesting coming together with the two researchers from communication studies because they were also focusing on social networks but using language and methods I wasn’t familiar with,” she noted.

“They have a much more quantitative orientation towards social networks, and ways of measuring networks and their effectiveness that I had never really considered. That has expanded my way of thinking about what I could potentially do with network analysis.”

Both clusters have planted seeds for intellectual growth and have yielded tangible results for participants. Kimelberg’s group submitted an abstract for the annual meeting of the International Network for Social Network Analysis. The cluster also assisted two professors from Northeastern’s Department of Communication Studies, Brooke Welles and Jesica Speed, in drafting a major funding proposal that they have submitted to the Waterhouse Family Institute. They hope to launch a study on networks of communication among students, parents, and teachers in urban public schools. Input from the cluster also helped Kimelberg successfully apply for funding from the College of Social Sciences and Humanities Dean’s Research Development program to start a new project on urban public schooling in Boston.

The discussions in Vicino and Weinstein’s cluster have led both researchers to develop their own projects, which have each recently been awarded seed funding through the College of Social Sciences and Humanities Dean’s Research Development Grant program. Weinstein returns to her question of local agents’ motivations as she explores the power of the state to evict low-income city dwellers in India, while Vicino turns to topics of urban sustainability in the high-population megalopolis of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. As a cluster, group member James Connolly (Department of Political Science and School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs) is drafting a white paper detailing the shared discoveries and outlining possible directions for the future. The cluster’s exploration of sustainability or urban growth in developing cities world-wide, along with GIS analysis, is a strong possibility for a future NSF Geography and Spatial Science Program proposal. Two graduate student participants plan to present their research at next year’s annual Urban Affairs Association conference while Weinstein and fellow member, Professor Gavin Shatkin (School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, and School of Architecture), will publish work related to the cluster in a forthcoming 2013 issue of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (IJURR) and an accompanying edited volume published by Wiley’s Studies in Urban and Social Change book series.

Last fall, the Northeastern Humanities Center named and funded ten Collaborative Research Clusters for 2012-13. These working groups bring together scholars, artists, activists, and practitioners, both within and outside the university community, around a common theme of interest. They are meant to facilitate productive discussions and collaborations amongst the participants. Each working group is supported, by the Center, with a modest yearly budget for expenses and the possibility of additional funding for conferences, symposia, workshops, or publications that grow out of the working group.

– By Burleigh Hendrickson

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