More than half the world’s people now live in urban areas, and nowhere is urbanization happening more rapidly than in Africa and Southeast Asia. As this urbanization process unfolds, slums and informal settlements are expanding throughout the Global South. Victoria Beard, City and Regional Planning/Southeast Asia Program, has been fascinated with the effects of urbanization since high school. Beard first witnessed the effects of rapid urbanization when she lived as an exchange student in Indonesia and later in Egypt. Her interest continued throughout her undergraduate career and into her studies as a graduate student and Fulbright scholar.
“The urbanization process involves issues of poverty and inequality, environmental sustainability, and social justice, which most municipal governments do not have the capacity nor the resources to handle,” says Beard.
How communities deal with these problems is Beard’s primary research question, and it’s one that doesn’t have a single, simple answer. From Mexico to Southeast Asia, Beard’s work illuminates the complex dynamics that develop when community members or “citizen planners” take on the tasks of organizing, planning, and governing their settlements.
When Citizen Planners Fend for Themselves
The world’s cities are home to more than a billion squatters. Many urban squatters reside outside formal planning and regulatory frameworks. In such contexts, planning can occur independently of, in collaboration with, or even in opposition to state and local government agencies. Beard’s research examines how local people plan for themselves to alleviate poverty.
For her theoretical work, Beard addresses questions ranging from how people plan to meet their basic human needs to how they plan for broader social and political transformation. The research analyzes the conditions that accompany public participation, collective action, cooperation and elite capture. Beard’s empirical research analyzes data at the individual, household, community, state, and transnational levels. Beard uses diverse research strategies, analyzing qualitative and quantitative data, ranging from ethnography to comparative case studies to large household and community data sets.
She examines how communities form groups, make decisions, build consensus, and find creative ways to alleviate poverty. For example, throughout the regions that Beard studies, residents with varying capacities to deliver basic infrastructure and services, such as potable water, waste management, basic health care, and microfinance. In rare instances, they mobilize for broader societal change. “Over an extended period, this kind of planning can generate social learning and a sense of a collective agency that can undergird demands for broader social and political reform,” says Beard.
The Limitations of Community-Driven Approaches
By her own admission, Beard initially romanticized community-based planning processes. “As I’ve gotten older—perhaps it’s experience or the opportunity to examine these processes over an extended period of time—I am now much more critical. There are limitations to what communities, even in the most ideal circumstances, can accomplish.” Communities that solve their own problems can often create others. One of the simplest examples is of a settlement that fixed a drainage problem only to create a flooding problem in the adjacent community.
Beard’s findings have implications for large international development agencies, such as the World Bank for which she consults. Over the past 30 years, attention to community-based or community-driven approaches to development has increased. While communities can help with certain issues, “there are larger more complex matters, ranging from planning and connecting to broader infrastructure systems to how global economic forces create and sustain poverty and inequality, that are very difficult for communities to respond to,” says Beard. “The challenge for planning and development practitioners is to match aspects of these problems to coordinated actions and interventions at the appropriate scale.”
Some communities solve their local problems through long-distance solutions. When she was a faculty member at the University of California Irvine, Beard and her students studied communities in Oaxaca, Mexico and their corresponding organizations in Los Angeles. These communities form “hometown associations” in Los Angeles and raise money that they remit back to their pueblos in Mexico for collective projects. The system is so well established that the Mexican government created a program (Programa 3x1 para Migrantes) that matches the amount raised by the hometown associations. “From the perspective of the community, this approach relies on establishing clear boundaries, rules, and sanctions to protect collective action,” Beard says. For example, members who defect or behave opportunistically are put on the association’s formal blacklist, and they are at risk of losing their rights or being cut off from their pueblo.
Attention to community-based or community-driven approaches to development has increased over the last 30 years.
Getting Students Involved in the Field
When she came to Cornell, Beard developed an international development planning workshop course where Cornell graduate students travelled to Indonesia to work with a local non-government organization (NGO). For two weeks, Beard, her students, and the local NGO, met with community representatives, government officials, and international development practitioners to learn about problems related to potable water access and shelter in poor communities along the Pepe River in Surakarta (Solo), Indonesia.
Beard didn’t want the experience to begin and end there for the students. So, during the semester prior to the trip, she asked the students to Skype frequently with their NGO counterparts, and once the students returned from Indonesia, three different collaborators came to Cornell for two weeks. Each worked with students, analyzing the data they collected together. “It allowed students to engage in deeper conversations about what they had experienced in Indonesia,” says Beard. “I think having our counterparts come to Cornell helped compensate for the limited amount of time students were able to spend in the field, and I hope it helps address some of the inherent inequalities involved with bringing Cornell students to the Global South in the future.”
Beard made sure to cultivate a two-way exchange with her counterpart. “I try to emphasize the importance of people, information, and experience going in both directions,” she says. “I am striving for a more balanced exchange of knowledge and experience.”
Thanks to Beard’s efforts, there will likely be a new generation of students looking to better understand the nuanced and complex challenges that more communities will face as the urbanization process continues.