Observing, Understanding and Respecting Nature is Imperative of Deep Faith

The Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) thanking students for remembering that some things decompose and others don’t.

 Last week, I read Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet, a book that calls you to open your heart and care deeply about yourself, your community, city, country, continent and our shared planet. I started the book after reading In the Footsteps of the Prophet, a book in which Tariq Ramadan writes:

“This relationship with nature was so present in the Prophet’s life from his earliest childhood that one can easily come to the conclusion that living close to nature, observing, understanding and respecting it, is imperative of deep faith. […]Being close to nature, respecting what it is, and observing and meditating on what it shows us, offers us or takes (back) from us requirements of a faith, in its quest, attempts to feed, deepen and renew itself. Nature is the primary guide and intimate companion of faith” (Tariq Ramadan, In the Footsteps of the Prophet, p.13)

This insistence that nature is needed for faith intrigued me, because I love the natural environment, but I am my most energetic and passionate when I’m in a beautiful city. I love the gleam of skyscrapers, the chatter of coffeeshops, the bustle of a crowd, and the feeling you get in a large city that you could meet a wonderful new friend just around the corner. This book however, asks us to think about the world that our city hides from us. It asks us to think about where food comes from beyond the grocery store, the scarcity of water beyond our (Western) household taps, how polluting energy sources adversely impact the planet, and where waste goes beyond the ‘chutes’ in our apartment building or the garbage can outside our house. It acknowledges it is hard to be mindful of these things, but emphasizes that understanding chains of consequence is a key component of living an ethical life.
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Great Cities Are Like Great Books

Bandung 2012

Bandung 2012

You’re no use to Toronto if you only know Toronto. You’ve got to leave and see other places. Great cities are like great books. As a planner, you have to see as many as you can.  – Joe Berridge, Urban Strategies

A doctor spends years learning the intricacies of the body. An artist spends years learning their craft. But how does one become a person with a deep knowledge of cities?

One answer is to travel. Last year as graduate students we had the opportunity to sit with Joe Berridge of Urban Strategies and Ricky Burdett, the Director of the LSE Cities program in a small student seminar after a large public lecture, and both of them gave the same advice. That as young planners seeking to develop our skills, we have to leave Canada for a few years and immerse ourselves in studying the great metropolitan cities.  Both of them also strongly advised me to learn Arabic.

When I went to Bandung this summer, I thought a lot about this advice.  While I think there are caveats to travel – that you must do so responsibly, ethically and intentionally and not with a selfish desire to collect ‘cool experiences’, seeing the tremendous social capital of Bandung (theories around social capital began in Indonesia) was a lesson that travel has the potential for good. Visiting Singapore was another tremendous education.

I read a WashingtonPost piece this week about a growing trend of Americans leaving the States and going to Asia and the ME to work. Though the article is about people moving out of America because they can’t find employment locally – I’ve been thinking about the article ever since. Though Canada has always been home, perhaps at some point to be a well rounded planner it is necessary to take one’s anxieties about major moves and reframe that into intentional learning in a new location. In the meantime, I’m lucky to be close to an academic library, and right now there is a stack of books in my room about Indonesia and Cairo, and how faith is negotiated in cities (questions that I find particularly compelling) more generally. As I read and continue my studies, I hope to share thoughts here with you. I was in Toronto recently for my convocation ceremony, and being in the city again and having long chats with friends and mentors over chai and good food was an energising and inspiring reminder that though the unknown is scary, it’s a gift to be young and at the beginning of your learning and contributions.

(Below, notes from the seminar I mentioned above.)

Ricky Burdett

  •  LSE started a program that combines city design and social science. It’s the only school of social science that bring these issues together
  • Book: Living in the Endless City. Also has a website that is updated quite regularly
  • Discipline of understanding cities is about two dimensions: macro and micro. People may be thinking at one scale and not think about other scale at all. Cities are aging.  European cities are aged, but African cities are very young cities.
  • Importance of being interdisciplinary in dealing with issues. It has the risk of being an amateur of many things and a specialist of nothing. But that is what is necessary for good cities: need to know a bit of everything.
  • Design is one of many components.
  • In many cities, people show much more interest (than is shown in Canada) in what other cities are doing. City builders look internationally to see what other places are doing. Expecially in when sitting in relative comfort of Toronto, important to look at Bangkok.
  • You don’t want to have no idea what is going on rest of world. Need to bring where you are into your understanding of the rest of the world. Be an actor, know what’s going on.
  • We talk about phenomenon: but not the shape of cities.
  • Mexico city: endless city because it doesn’t end, but also not classical form of European cities.
  • 7-8 years of LSE Cities research is framed by three statistics:

a)2% of earth’s surface is occupied by cities.
b)53% of world’s population lives in cities.
c)33% of city dwellers live in slums

  • People move because they have a better opportunity of quality of life for children.
  • Mumbai like living in bird of gold because if things work you come in at the bottom, move up and then you fly. No doubt that urbanization comes with massive benefits if you channel urbanization properly.

Q: Where do planners fit into the developing world?
A: What is role of someone whose role is formal planning regulation in places of informal planning regulation? There is space but it requires a different way of doing planning. 75% of world’s CO2 emissions are produced by cities. As economy improves, people expect dignity of basic amenities and “modern facilities”. Not difficult to find tower blocks in new age cities. Don’t believe in one normative approach of cities, of someone saying “do it this way, and any other approach is wrong”. If wanted to be normative though, New York is good. It has continuous housing stock, and urban fabric. Very little possibility of resilience in totally zoned cities.

Mexico City, 2005.

This shows how we go from social to environmental. In 2005, there were 4 hour commuting times per day.The more city is spread out, the more infrastructure spreads, therefore can’t support a bus. Infrastructure of 22 million people is spread this way. Think about what kind of police officer and nurse will you be with those kind of commute times? What kind of family will you have? Think of your social life and what you are like as a parent.
Convenience mentioned as something as very important in HK. Everyone wants to be 12 minutes from work. In Rome, restaurant and friends are important. So context is always important.

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (Review/Reflection)

Singapore, 2012.

I saw an outstanding film called English Vinglish this weekend. Though the entire film is memorable, one of my favourite moments was a scene where the protagonist arrives in America visibly nervous about how she’ll manage with her limited English skills, and her seatmate on the flight wishes her well on her stay, and says, “Don’t worry about anything. It’s now time for them to be scared/worried about us“.

He is smiling and confident because of India’s rising economic strength, and in the film’s treatment of a woman altered understanding of herself and her changing relationship with her family, a larger tale of changing economic and cultural rules on a global scale is told.

Through a different story and different characters, the theme of the rise of “non-Western world” and the decline of America is also addressed in Dave Eggers’ new book A Hologram for the King. If you haven’t read it already, I recommend the read for the following five reasons:

1) The World is Changing

The book centers around the story of Alan, an American who comes to Saudi Arabia to bid for an IT contract for KAEC (the King Abdullah Economic City) on behalf of the company he works for called Reliant. KAEC is meant to be a massive project, and Alan desperately needs the commission from the contract to resolve his personal economic failures and limited career prospects. In telling his story, Eggers tells a larger story of America’s shifting financial power and the decline of its manufacturing sector. Against the “real-life” backdrop of an election that has focused so much on domestic jobs and restoring America’s economic strength, it is a timely read.

2) Urban Planning is Changing

The book argues that the most exciting and innovative planning work is not happening in North America anymore. In my own graduate work, I attended lectures where planners such as Larry Beasley praised the vision and resources of cities like Abu Dhabi while exhorting domestic planners to embrace the challenges of Canadian cities with creativity, not blind “rule-following”. In this book, the main character’s experience with municipal planning is facing obstacles/penalties when attempting to build a simple three foot wall; in KSA he is desperate that the King should follow through on his dream of an entire city. This book also suggests that  city building can act as a battlefield where war and hostile relations between nations can be addressed.

3) This book is beautifully constructed

Eggers describes KSA and Alan’s struggle with Saudi Arabia well.  He desperately needs the IT contract, but he is also fearful and incredulous of the place, and the combination leaves him weak. In one scene in particular, he passes by a playground and sees women in “charcoal black burqas” with their children. The sight of “their hands stretched forth” to play with their kids strikes fear in his heart. In another scene, he sees “young women in abayas, glittering abayas on their forearms, groups of young men hungrily inspecting them (p.220), and he judges what he sees.

As a result of this cognitive dissonance, he is incapable of performing anything successfully. He imagines tumours, he is unable to catch the hotel shuttle, and he cannot write successfully to his daughter, meet the KIng, or be with a woman. And his own powerlessness and tense waiting is carried throughout the book by sentences that are lean and efficient. Each sentence is carefully crafted. Each word has to fight for its survival.

4) Timely

The topic of the decline of America’s manufacturing sector is timely against the backdrop of the current US election, but throughout the book there are references to recent events that we should continue to think about. The events in Gaza. The BP spill. In these references, and Alan’s discomfort when thinking about them, there is an opening to think about our own understanding and responses to these events.

6) Thoughtful.

This book has some wonderful passages. Below are two of my favourites.

a) “Kit you know the key to relating to your parents now? It’s mercy. Children, when they become teenagers and then young adults grow unforgiving. Anything but perfection is pathos. Children are judgemental on an Old Testament level. All errors are unforgivable, as if a contract of perfection has been broken. But what if one’s parents are granted the same mercy, the same empathy as other humans? Children need more Jesus in them” (p.104)

b) “The Earth is an animal that shakes off its fleas when they dig too deep, bite too hard. It shifts and our cities fall; it sighs and the coasts are overtaken. We really shouldn’t be here at all.” (p.102)

No Matter What the Weather Is, It’ll Always Change

I haven’t been well for the past few weeks, and instead of being a focused paper-writing machine, I’ve barely been able to stay awake. The few hours each day I haven’t been asleep have been filled with sneezing and coughing and trying to keep my fever down. It’s been awful to have such little control over my consciousness and health, and instead of bright eyes and a smile, to see a pale, exhausted person whenever I catch sight of my reflection.

The result has been much resolution- making to be a kinder, gentler and more grateful person. It’s been a negotiation of sorts. If I can only stay awake I say in my waking moments, I will refrain from complaining, I will be less impatient, I will cherish small moments, and I will focus on growing and learning as much as I can.

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When You Put It That Way, It Sounds So Simple

After nearly 10 weeks (!) immersed in planning classes and agonizing over where I belong in the world outside the classroom, this week’s readings in my theory class provided some much needed reminding that the world is in desperate need of all kinds of planners, and regardless of what I decide to do in the future, I want to really develop and polish my writing thinking and speaking skills during my time at U of T. (There certainly are enough assignments to help with that goal, now to focus and deliver my best effort).


Planners who hope to pursue an equity agenda must speak and write and as well as think and calculate. They must develop an articulate voice, organizing attention to issues and maintaining credibility even when data are inadequate and tempers are short. They must face the challenge of being persuasive without being manipulative. They must face uncertainty without being paralysed by it. Faced with the real complexity of housing or transit or service delivery problems, they must select which issues to focus upon and which to put aside. They must be articulate organizers as well as clear-thinking analysts. Gauging what to say and what not to say, when and how to speak to be understood, whether to be challenging or not, encouraging or not – all these are practical problems of rhetoric, of speech and writing..”~ Krumholz and Forester, Making Equity Planning Work

If planners consistently place before their political superiors analyses, policies and recommendations which lead to greater equity, and if they are willing to publicly join in the fight of the adoption of these recommendations, some of them will be adopted when the time is ripe. It is this process conducted with verve, imagination, and above all with persistence, that offers the planner challenging and rewarding work and a better life for others.~ Norman Krumholz, A Retrospective View of Equity Planning Cleveland 1969-1979