Chaplaincies are Like the Caravanserai of Old

” What makes our work relevant is love. We need love. The Prophet’s love was a source of productivity for those around him. He built the souls of the people around him. People whose hearts are filled with love, their work never stops because their work is driven by love and not by expectation. The absence of this from our life makes our life heavy. It makes a difference when we do things with love. If we have love of God and His Messenger, we see that love in our interactions with each other. Rather than claiming your rights and responsibilities and asking about your responsibilities and rights, instead of expecting, just love others.  ~Shaykh Ahmad Saad Al-Azhari, Toronto Grand Mawlid, Jan 1st 2014.

At the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga on January 1st, 2014, I sat in the audience of the theatre with 1300 other people listening and participating in poetry and songs in praise of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. At end of that powerful, moving event, Habib Ali al-Jifri, a spiritual educator from Yemen concluded the evening with a beautiful prayer for all of the attendees, for the state of the world, for peace outwardly and inwardly, and made special mention of the Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto. He spoke about the Chaplaincy as a project that is doing critical work to support youth during a transformational period of their lives, commended those involved, and spoke how the project needs to be supported in order to continue its work. (To learn more about making a sustainable contribution, please see here.)

A Prophetic Model of Islamic Chaplaincy, IMO, Toronto.

A Prophetic Model of Islamic Chaplaincy, IMO, Toronto.

Earlier in the day, I had been at a lunch titled “A Prophetic Model of Islamic Chaplaincy” at the IMO Mosque in Toronto to learn more about the Muslim Chaplaincy’s success in its first year, and what it needs to become a financially sustainable organization. As a student at the University of Toronto when the Chaplaincy was an idea, to visiting Toronto a year ago and meeting the Chaplain and attending the initial programming, to returning back to the city now, it was a delight to see how the project had grown and developed in the intervening months. There was a blog post recently on Seriously Planning on Faith Friendly Communities, and this event was a reminder that strong communities require proactive organizing and investment to make change happen.

The event started with Amjad Tarsin, the Muslim Chaplain at the University of Toronto talking briefly about their success over the first year, (more information about their work can be found in their 2012-2013 Impact Report here) and the philosophy that governs their actions. A video was also shown of a student named Zahra that was a beautiful, moving reminder that student support looks different for each student, and a university has to address issues of spiritual wellbeing and a positive university experience in ways that resonate with a diverse student body.

Below, a few comments from the different guest speakers who spoke at the event:

Amjad Tarsin

Our philosophy is about three things. Embrace. Engage and Empower.

We start with embrace because people want to feel valued. And so through our programming we let people know that we care. We also engage with students spiritually, intellectually,  and socially through educational programming, film screenings and other events, and empower students with the tools they need in order to understand key issues and have confidence in their faith. There are other campus ministries at the University of Toronto that have been established for decades, and with nearly 5000 Muslim students at the St.George campus alone, it is important that Muslim students also have the resources they need to succeed.

Ingrid Mattson

MSAs and chaplains are two different things. An MSA does not have the resources or skills to support students theologically. The genius of Islamic civilization was that it created structures and institutions to meet the needs of the environment it was in. Minarets, domes and tiles are not in the Prophet’s peace and blessings be upon him original mosque, but they serve a specific purpose and function that is beneficial to the surroundings. The same is true for madressas, muftis and ijazas. The development of new things to respond to circumstances is a perennial issue.

In the Nawawi Foundation’s first trip to China we learnt about the system of female imams, and asked what made someone suitable to be a female imam. They showed us Mariam, who looked the same as everyone else, and said that since she was a young girl, she loved to come to the mosque and help people.The core competencies identified for this role were love of God and love of people.  China is primarily Hanafi (a particular school of Islamic law), so these people were not leading prayers. Instead the female imam is a spiritual guide, a spiritual leader, a teacher, someone who can deal with family problems. The community recognised that there is too much work to do to leave for volunteers alone.Th ey knew they needed a paid position to meet the needs of community, and this paid position came out of the 10% that everyone gave out of their income to support the needs of the community.

We need people who love to help others. Helping people, chaplaincy work requires a certain firasa, a certain insight about people. The Prophet peace and blessings be upon him always looked at people directly in the face. He was with people fully. It’s not about mechanically doing what he did. it’s about having the attitude that I am here as long as you need me to be. A chaplain is fully there. It’s a professional role. Often we put too much focus on buildings and not on people. But we live in a time of great dislocation. How many times in our life do we move? When we invest in people, the knowledge that they get goes with them wherever they go.  The tradition of growing in community in one place is rare, and chaplains are important for transitionary populations. In jails, in hospitals, in universities, in these environments chaplains are important. Our tradition tells us “to be in this world as a traveller.” And in the past there were the caravanserai. They were endowments for Muslim travellers that offered help if a person needed help. Chaplaincies are like the caravanserai of old.

Strong communities invest in their youth.

Strong communities invest in their youth.

Walead Mosaad

We are all refugees. We have not been able to form communities in productive manners. Buildings don’t make people. They don’t develop people. We have a building fetish. We have buildings but no imams. Al-Azhar is not the building. Azhar is a way. it’s a practice. It doesn’t go away even if the building goes away. It’s a methodology. We have to think, “Have we left something for our children? Is there a mantle for them to take on? Or is there no mantle to assume?” It’s good for people here at this event to know about the chaplaincy, but other people, and other people still, need to know. We need to tell others. Not every student of sacred knowledge can be an chaplain. A chaplain deals with issues beyond textual issues. They deal with emotional issues. Bereavement issues. It takes resources, training, sacrifice. Doesn’t work with volunteers. If serious about developing communities, need to develop these resources. It’s not charity. The best people need to be supported in these roles.

Shaykh Ahmad Saad Al-Azhari

Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him himself carried out the training of young people. The word qawm (community) is not necessary people linked to by lineage or by location. It’s people linked in any way. Can have a qawm of profession. Muslim have become very unwelcoming to people with difficulties. People’s souls are very tired. They don’t need more discourse but they need to talk. People don’t find people who will listen to them.  Prophet gave us a methodology. He said that we must have have good character and a cheerful face. Cannot run short of these two. At the same time though, still need training. The second thing the Prophet did was that he spoke to people’s minds. He addressed them intellectually. And finally he made dua (supplication) for people. So we see in the example of the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him that he addressed people’s social side, their intellectual side and their spiritual side.

Let us renew our pledge of mercy and service. Of high morals and ethics.

On Faith Friendly Communities

Urban sanctuaries, Bandung Indonesia

Urban sanctuaries, Bandung Indonesia

When at home, conversations about Islam, the sight of other people praying and the sound of the greeting assalamu alaykum (peace be upon you) are commonplace. But when I travel, or am in an unfamiliar environment more generally, encountering the same moments become vital for personal health. I need a quiet place to pray and meaningful conversations about faith to process my surroundings or to decompress from frequent questions about my background.

On December 14th last year, I stood waiting for the light to change at a downtown street. As I waited, I played absent-mindedly with my phone before flipping it on and turning to Twitter. But instead of retweeting messages about the event I had just left –  lunch at a downtown hotel where I had been celebrating the work of staff members whose secondment was coming to an end, the news that greeted me was that a massacre had taken place in Connecticut, killing 20 young children in the school.

Nearly a year later, I still remember that moment of feeling dizzy and shaky on my feet. In those seconds I couldn’t breathe, and all I wanted was a mosque, or any quiet place to sit and pray. But I was downtown, and there was no multi-faith space to be found. And so instead I rushed to the Vancouver Central Public Library, spread out my coat, and prayed behind a stack of books once I arrived.

As cities we have physical health strategies, strategies for a food secure city, programs and strategies to improve economic health, but we lack non commercial spaces for quiet and reflection.  In moments like that, we need spaces that offer refuge and solace in times of crisis. We need spaces without stimuli – not religious spaces necessarily, but places that nurture and nourish the spirit. We need spaces and services that help us improve our spiritual health in ways that resonate with our personal spiritual and philosophical traditions. We need cities that facilitate reflection.

A few weeks ago I experienced such a moment of reflection.  I was visiting University of British Columbia – Okanagan in Kelowna BC and when I arrived, I was delighted to discover that the Health and Wellness office offers a multi-faith room for the use of the campus community. The room isn’t big, but it has plenty of natural light and beautiful hardwood floors. In the cupboards in the back there are prayer mats, but the room itself does not have any religious imagery, making it accessible to individuals from a variety of religious and philosophical backgrounds. The best part of the Centre is its accessibility; it is centrally located on campus. And because the campus is small, the prayer centre is 5 minutes away from any of the other main academic buildings. (More information about the Multi-Faith space can be found here)

In my last visit to the Centre before I flew home, another student was already there when I entered. We exchanged a few words, I confirmed the direction of prayer in the room, and then we prayed together.  That combination – being greeted with kindness, the joy of hearing some of my favourite verses beautifully recited, and praying in a beautiful space brought tears to my eyes, and that moment is perhaps my favourite experience from my trip. It is, to use Karen Armstrong’s words, a ‘spot of time’ that I will return to again and again in my memory.

That moment, and that prayer space reminded me of the University of Toronto. I attended to the University of Toronto for graduate school, and while no school is perfect, U of T serves as an important model of what a faith friendly community can look like. In an interview with Sun TV, Mark Toulouse of Emmanuel College says the following:

“Three to four thousand Muslim students go to the University of Toronto in the St George downtown campus. In a thriving international city like Toronto where the evidence of a rich tradition of faith expression are all around us, it makes sense to work intentionally to create forums where we can have conversations and learn more about one other.. In many respects religious practices are private, part of one’s personal devotional life or personal beliefs. But religious practices across the world are also often public and rightly so… Religion is one of the most important forces that shape an individual’s life, and whenever people engage the public, they can only engage it with what the fullness of their life is. And part of fullness of that life is what shapes and forms them, and religious practice is among those things that do that.  We believe it is very important to encourage dialogue, to have conversation with one another.”

The University of Toronto is exceptional (and I’ve outlined some of the ways that they support a faith friendly campus below) but they are not alone. Across Canada, more and more universities are recognising that any robust health and wellness policy needs to consider spiritual health as well, and support the pastoral needs of its community members.


The University hosts the Religion in the Public Sphere Initiative that “examines how religion manifests in public spaces, institutions, and interactions, and considers the challenges and possibilities of religious diversity in Toronto and around the globe.”  They hold events, curate religion related news on their website, and host a ‘religion themed’ service learning course.

In Vancouver, Simon Fraser University has been a leader in interfaith understanding. The Interfaith centre at the University has its own interfaith mission and charter that outlines how the university will meet the pastoral, educational, bridge-building and worship needs of its members. It’s a forward thinking, impressive set of principles that recognises that spiritual health is a core part of personal wellbeing and success.  There is also a Dispute Resolution proposal that is clearly outlined on the website. In addition, the University is continually offering dynamic, relevant programming through the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures that is available to the students and non-students alike. Within the History department, it is possible for students to pursue a concentration in Middle East and Islamic History. Over the past year or so, I’ve been so grateful for the presence of the CSMSC and the breadth and depth of the scholars they have brought to Vancouver to give public lectures.

2) Faith Based Perspective to Services/Student Development

At the University of Dalhousie, spiritual wellness is an important part of how health and wellness is understood.  The  Dalhousie Multifaith Centre features the events of diverse groups (including a group that looks at Women and Spirituality) and in general aims to provide “a complete education (that) addresses the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.”

Like Dalhousie, most universities have some sort of chaplain system in place. In one of the most interesting projects in Canada, students at the University of Toronto, fundraised over $70,000 in Sept 2012 for Canada’s first full-time Muslim chaplain. The Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto offers classes, counselling and dialogue programs and is a project that offers fascinating possibilities of how student affairs can provide indepth pastoral care. It is a project to watch, learn, and benefit from.

c) Athletics

Women in headscarves feature on the U of T athletics marketing materials and signage. On a personal note, seeing myself reflected in materials reminds me that exercise and athletics matter. There are ways to exercise and swim while still being covered, and health and faith are not incompatible. The Athletics facility also offers one hour of women only time daily in the weight room and reaches out to different populations at U of T to encourage them to prioritize their physical wellbeing.  (Their postcards advertising their classes and pooI for instance, feature Muslim women). In 2014, the U of T Multifaith Centre will also offer programming about the connection between spirituality and physical health.

The meeting of food and spirituality.

The meeting of food and spirituality in Kelowna, BC

d) Food

I lived at New College at the University of Toronto for a year, and the daily cafeteria menu at New College offered halal options every day. There were clearly marked signs and separate pots when a halal version of a dish was available. When the same item wasn’t available, an alternate menu item was offered and prepared separately.  At the cafeteria I visited at UBC -O, there were signs posted frequently indicating that halal, vegetarian, gluten and vegan options were available on the menu.

At UBC-O, I was impressed to see how halal, vegetarian and vegan food was clearly marked in the cafeteria, giving visitors many options for lunch, regardless of their faith background.

A moment of peace, Kelowna BC

A moment of peace, Kelowna BC

Seeking direction, Kelowna BC

Seeking direction, Kelowna BC

3) Space

There are multiple prayer locations at the University of Toronto and since the 1960s, there has been accommodation at Hart House for Friday prayers for Muslim students. There is space at Robarts, (the main campus library) prayer space at OISE for education students, prayer space at the Multi-Faith centre, prayer space at Bahen for engineering students, and prayer space at Emmanuel College.  There are nine prayer spaces in total at the University of Toronto, and these multiple prayer locations ensure that students are able to access prayer space easily, regardless of their field of study. Out of respect for the students and the needs of their prayers, the room at Hart House where Friday prayers take place has abstract art – no faces or figurines are present in the room.

At the University of Victoria, there are also multiple prayer locations on campus, and a variety of groups are engaged in spiritual practice on campus. At Simon Fraser University, each of the 3 SFU campuses offers easily accessible, bookable prayer/meditation spaces.

4) Dialogue

Through informal and informal programming at the Multi-Faith Centre, there is also ample opportunity to meet other students from different faith backgrounds. One of my favourite programs was called Muffin Madness, and featured tea, wonderful muffins and students from different faith groups. Any faith group that books space through the Multi-Faith Centre is required to co-host one Muffin Madness and one multi-faith experience, and the diversity of multi-faith programming offered over the course of the semester is impressive. For the most part, the programming is intersectional, and emphasizes the connection between spirituality and other aspects of identity or programs on campus.

 In September 2012 the U of T Religion in the Public Sphere began the “Religion Diversity  Leadership Project” a 3 year, $500,000 project with Citizenship and Immigration Canada to “build networks of communication, inquiry, and action around the problems and possibilities of living in a religiously diverse society.” The project offers religious diversity youth leadership training, service learning projects that focus on religious diversity, and  public forums and community research workshops.

At the University of Calgary  Faith and Spirituality centre, the Student team organises events (including an interfaith bookclub!) and holds weekly meetings for community members interested in Faith and Spirituality community work. Its weekly event calendar  features a variety of events, weekly teas and a program called the Communal Table that focuses on “building community around cooking and eating together.”

Effective public spaces are accessible, comfortable, sociable spaces with activities (source: The Project for Public Spaces). These four characteristics define great public spaces, and the same is true for vibrant faith friendly spaces and communities as well. Any organization or community that holds diversity as an important community value, must take spiritual health and faith friendly environments seriously in order to remain relevant.

A Community is Made of Men and Women

Men's prayer space/our Arabic classroom in Carrolton, Texas.

Men’s prayer space/our Arabic classroom in Carrolton, Texas.

As much as I love Vancouver, there are moments when I want to move. There are moments when I miss spaces where the educational experience of men and women is equal, such as the SeekersHub in Toronto, where I always felt welcome, and never felt like my gender was a barrier to furthering my Islamic education.  I miss interfaith prayer spaces such as the MultiFaith Centre (and other prayer spaces) at the University of Toronto that were physically beautiful, and did not barricade women in a corner.  And more recently, there are moments when I want to return to Dallas, where I spent a month in a mosque learning classical Arabic grammar this summer, and where class was held in the main prayer space, and structured in a way that men and women were on opposite sides of the room, and equally able to learn from our teacher. Aside from the learning benefits, knowing your teacher means that you can model their behaviour. From the ways a teacher interacts with you, you learn what appropriate gender interaction looks like, and can extend those principles to the rest of your life. Knowing your teacher means that you have someone to ask questions and seek advice when you are unsure what to do. It is essential.

In Vancouver however, we’re not there yet.

Two nights ago, the founder of the Bayyinah Institute (the same institute that offers the Arabic course I did in Dallas) came to Vancouver for a lecture on stories in the Qur’an. Though he wasn’t my teacher in Dallas, during one of our class days he came to help us review for an upcoming exam, and I was looking forward to a small way, reconnecting with what was a very special month of learning for me.

Unfortunately, I never heard him speak. The hall where the lecture was held was large, but the women were in a different, crowded space, with no video link. So after waiting for a bit and seeing if I could sit outside the lecture hall, my brother and I left. The teacher was surprised as well I think, and mentioned that ‘he wasn’t used to women not being in the same space, would do a Q and A session after the event with the female attendees, and would stay as long as women wanted him to stay.”

I appreciate his attempt to address an inequitable situation. But it’s not up to a guest teacher to find some way to include everyone; equity needs to be thought of at the outset of the planning process. To give an example from urban planning, when the floor plans of housing developments and community centres do not consider the needs of the multiple communities and cultures, it is a message that only the dominant culture matters. When transit users with wheelchairs experience horrendous delays, poorly lit and dangerous transit stops, and systems that do not account for their needs, those barriers of access signal that their needs are not valued. We send messages about who does and does not belong in the ways we structure spaces and places.

As long the learning experience of women is not valued, the education of women, communities and families will suffer. As long as the learning experience of women is not valued, it becomes difficult to invite friends and colleagues who may be interested in learning more about Islam and wish to fill in their own gaps of knowledge. As long as the learning experience of women is not valued, it sounds hollow to talk about how gender equity is something inherent to Islam.

And so, rather than running away to another city, below are a few thoughts and suggestions on how to create better spaces. These are not new ideas, but they make a real impact.

1) If you only have one space available that is large enough for all your attendees, have the men and women share that space, and set up tables that are side by side.

You can have an aisle separating both sides of the room for ease of movement. If you don’t have a classroom available and you’re in a mosque, use the men’s prayer room.  In Dallas, the women’s section of the mosque was on the same floor as the men’s section with a one way mirror. During our evening classes, if anyone from the larger community wished to sit separately, they could still see into the class easily, but nobody could see them. (95% of attendees sat in the main section of the mosque though). A few years ago I was on a study trip called the Rihla, and spent a few weeks with teachers from the US and UK in Saudi Arabia. We sat on the floor in our classes, on opposite ends of the room. In Toronto there is a week long retreat held annually with incredible teachers from around the world, and again, that event happens through side by side seating, with a section in the middle of the room for families who wish to sit together.

2) If you are designing a space and you’d like a partition, make it subtle. At the SeekersHub in Toronto, one of my favourite spaces to learn, the men and women sat on opposite sides of the room, the teachers were at the front of the room, and there was a bookshelf in the middle. The room was equally divided, you could see the teacher, but the students on the other side of the room couldn’t see you. It was a beautiful set-up.

3) When you see an uninclusive space, act as an ally. It’s not up to women alone to advocate for inclusive spaces. In our family, we only go to events where I can hear and experience the event properly, and my Dad and brother are my strongest allies in bringing up issues of access. The teachers that I value most: my teacher in Dallas, my teacher at the Hub in Toronto, and other teachers I’ve learnt from in other settings, often speak out about how communities need to view the inclusion and involvement of women differently. The students I studied with at the University of Toronto were men and women who cared about equity, and if I was ever in a situation where I felt uncomfortable, there were lots of people who noticed the same dynamics and worked to address them. It is alienating to be the only person advocating for your learning.

4) Have an ongoing study of the life of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. Sometimes spaces are segregated in harmful ways because we aren’t necessarily familiar with the ways women were nurtured historically in Islam. But when we study the life and character of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), the ways in which he created a community in which men and women were equally valued, and the contributions, dignity and independence of his wife Khadijah, the courage of his daughters, the beauty of other members of his family and community, it is clear that gender equity are part of the Islamic tradition. One great learning resource to learn more is the Qalam Institute’s Podcast on the Prophet’s Biography, which goes into the Prophet’s life in a lot of detail.

5) Support organizations that care about their female students. If you can’t find inclusive spaces, still continue to learn. I’ve been remiss this year in organising regular study circles with others, but this is something I hope to do in upcoming months.  SeekersGuidance is a place with wonderful online courses, the Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto publishes its lectures and classes on its SoundCloud page, and both of these resources are wonderful resources to share, support and learn from.

Notes from the Human Rights, Religion and the Law Lecture at U of T (Jan 11th 2012)

In January 2012, the University of Toronto held a lecture called Human Rights, Religion and the Law as part of a series of events with the Ontario Humans Rights Commission (which was updating its policy on creed) and the University of Toronto Religion in the Public Sphere program. Every time I’ve heard Barbara Hall speak I’ve been moved by her warmth and powerful intellect, and that evening was no different. The other two speakers of the evening, Winnifred Sullivan and David Seljak were equally powerful, and scholars who I hope to continue to follow. What was powerful about that night was the widespread acknowledgement that we need to unpack our definitions and understandings of secularism, understand its foundations, and recognise the role of power in constructing what we assume to be natural. Once we do this, it is easier to see that models based on accommodation and tolerance are deeply flawed.

I mostly just listened to the speakers that night, but today I came across my (brief) notes from the lecture, and I’ve included them below.

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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.

Terima Kasih For the Memories

It’s the last day of my trip, and I leave for the Changi airport (I’ve been in Singapore again for the past six days) in about an hour to start the trek back to Canada. It’s been an amazing month, and I feel so blessed and grateful for the chance to have made this trip. From the University of Toronto David Chu Travel Scholarship in Asia Pacific Studies and the Peter Walker Travel Scholarship that made it possible financially, to our wonderful professor Ibu Rachel that set up an amazing field course for us, the beautiful and friendly people we met in Indonesia, my extraordinary host family in Singapore, the amazing staff at our hotel in Bandung, family and friends who prayed for a successful trip and encouraged me to go, fellow students, and new friends in Singapore who showed me around, there are so many people that came together to make this trip possible. I hope there will be other trips after this one, but even so, this time will always hold a treasured place in my heart.

I hold a debt of gratitude, and before I leave, I want to make the intention that over the next days, weeks, months to come, I take these experiences and translate them into action. I want this trip to be a means of becoming a better, kinder person, who is engaged in service, who is a better social planner, who is improved for having made the journey. The blogging dropped off over the past couple of weeks as we became more involved in our research and it became increasingly difficult to verbalize internal reflections, but one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot during the past few weeks is that fun is a luxury that few can afford to have. Bandung is an amazing, trendy city, but it is also a city with tremendous poverty. $100 Canadian goes a long way, but the equivalent amount, 900,000 rupiah is difficult to earn.

In the past couple of weeks I hiked through the tropical rainforest, visited volcanoes, dined in the mountains/hills of Bandung, visited museums, and shared experiences with new friends. It’s been great, and now that the trip is coming to an end, it is tempting to think of the next stamp on the passport, the next neat sight to see, the next cool picture to take. Except the majority of people in Bandung are simply making a living. The roadside vendors, the men who carry a portable stove on their backs so can they can sell their wares, the men who play the guitar for you when your angkut (minibus) stops at a traffic light, the people carving wood into familiar shapes in the forest to sell to tourists, so many people are simply trying to feed their kids, and seeing this helps you realize that the abundance that we have, from plentiful water, to clear air, to trees, to education, are gifts that demand to be used in the appropriate way.

Terima Kasih (Thank you) for reading the few entries about the trip, and hopefully there will be more reflections/stories/pics in the weeks to come. The actual work begins now!

Becoming a Better Person in Indonesia (Day 9 and 10)

It’s Jumu’ah (or Jumat in Indonesian) today, which is the day of the week that holds special significance for Muslims. Last Friday I was in Singapore, and so today I thought I’d go and pray at the Masjid Alun-Alun, the Grand Mosque of Bandung. Yesterday during lunch with the staff of the Bandung Institute of Governance Studies though, I was told me it’s not common for women in Indonesia to pray Jumuah at the mosque, and so I’d really stick out. So pray at home it is! Still, Friday is a day of extra prayer and attention, and a day of praying intentionally for what you want. It is said that there is a time in the day when all prayers are accepted, and since you don’t know when that is, making supplications throughout the day helps ensure you find that time.

The prayer I keep thinking about is that I really want to cultivate the qualities of hospitality and generosity that have been so consistently noticeable in the people we’ve been meeting within myself. Everyone here has been so incredibly nice to us, and giving of their time and attention.Two days ago (my apologies, I haven’t blogged for a bit) a small group of us went for lunch with the owner of the hotel, his wife and a friend of theirs who lectures at a local university, and we learnt more about their impressions of the city, drank beautiful coffee (I had a melted creme brulee hazelnut cappucino!), ate wonderful food, and generally learnt more about the city that we never would have learnt on our own. He has invited us out again for dinner and a movie, but so far that plan hasn’t come together as yet. I felt the same warmth in Singapore with the families I was staying in welcoming me into their homes and dropping whatever they were doing to facilitate me having a comfortable trip, and I want to become the same sort of easygoing, gentle, generous personality. It’s inspiring because we see it everywhere, from the owner of the hotel, to people we meet randomly and offer to take us out, to people we meet at NGOs and government offices, we’re being treated exceptionally well, and there’s lots to learn from this style of hospitality.

After our lunch with the owner of the hotel on Wednesday, we all went to the Bandung Institute of TEchnology and had an amazing presentation about creativity in cities. The first speaker was the creator of an organization called Bandung Trails which offers heritage walks around different themes to both local Bandung residents and international visitors (for instance Dutch visitors who are interested in seeing where their grandparents lived). The organization offers both free activities and runs as a business, and has been in operation for the past nine years. At present, the founder Amor is also a masters student at ITB. The story of how his organization grew over nine years was inspiring, and it made me think about how there is a definite culture of entrepeneurism among young people in the small slice of Southeast Asia I’ve seen so far. In Singapore I stayed with one family where the  eldest daughter was my age roughly, and had her own fashion line in addition to finishing her studies. The clothing was gorgeous, she had done exhibitions of her different collections, and even while I was there people were calling and ordering clothes. The next evening I also stayed with the creator of the amazing Khana Commune, which is basically one of the coolest ways to dine in Singapore. Here in Indonesia, we’ve met youth studying at ITB starting their own leather bag companies, we met Amor who started Bandung Trails, and it’s hard to ignore the palpable sense of creativity and ingenuity among youth here.

In contrast, since this is the end of my masters degree, as the months toward end of the term came closer this year, you could sense the anxiety amongst all of us about what awaits us in the post university life. Would it be easy to find a planning job? Are there firms that need our skills? Would we be ok? These are the questions on all of our minds, and we’ve all read articles in newspapers such as the New York Times about how for people in their twenties in North America,  a degree is no longer  a ticket to stability like it was for previous generations. Being here though, that entire notion seems strange. Youth here seem to be working at companies and creating their own jobs, and not waiting for anyone to say here, we need you. I am perhaps generalizing, but you can really sense that youth here don’t get derailed by fear, they have goals and dreams and they are committed to making them come true. There is no reliance on a company or a job, and one’s education is simply a stepping stone to help you realise what you already want out of your life.

I live in Canada, and despite having so much in terms of resources at my disposal, I don’t think I have the same spirit. I wonder about my writing, analyze if goals are doable, and in the thinking process forget to even get started! So once again, there is so so much to absorb and take away from this trip, and hopefully these reflections will be translated into actual implementation as well.

So much more to tell you about the last couple of days, so hopefully I’ll write more again soon.

Awesome Event Alert! Human Rights, Religion and the Law

Check out this amazing event held at U of T this week. I’ll be there, taking notes and soaking in the amazing speakers. (For Barbara Hall alone, this event is worth it)

From the event page at :

TORONTO, ON – The wearing of face coverings, the question of whether “Good Friday” at Easter should still be a statutory holiday, and prayers in the school cafeteria over the lunch hour are all questions of religious accommodation in civil society. Beginning January 11, the University of Toronto and the Ontario Human Rights Commission are facilitating a two-day policy consultation on religion and the law. The public is invited to join the conversation to explore the boundaries of religious expression and practice in the public sphere:


WHAT:          Human Rights, Religion and the Law (Opening session)

WHEN:          Wednesday, January 11, 2012, 7:30 p.m.

WHO:             Barbara Hall, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission

Pamela Klassen, Director of the Religion in the Public Sphere program, University of Toronto

Winnifred Sullivan, Director of the Law, Religion, and Culture, State University of New York

David Seljak, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies, University of Waterloo

WHERE:       U of T Multi-Faith Centre, 569 Spadina Ave TO, ON M5S 2J7


WHAT:    Human Rights and Wrongs: Religion and Creed in the Public Sphere

WHEN:   Friday, January 13, 2012, 1:30 pm

WHO:     Richard Moon, Faculty of Law, University of Windsor, past President of the Canadian Law Society Association. Iain Benson, Senior Associate Counsel with the Litigationn

Practice Group and Senior Research Fellow with the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life, University of Alberta.

WHERE:       U of T Multi-Faith Centre, 569 Spadina Ave TO, ON M5S 2J7

Interested in diversity, city-building and faith? Lets chat at RoadMap 2030.

Will you be at this year’s RoadMap2030 conference? If so, I want to meet you. I’m a Masters of Science in Planning student at the University of Toronto specializing in social policy and planning, and my graduate research is an examination of conflicts about the building of mosques. (Think the Park51 project in New York City, but on a smaller scale)

To put it more broadly, I’m interested in how planning and faith intersect. I’m  also deeply interested in issues of diversity, city-building, youth engagement and media, and keen to learn lots over the next couple of days. So if you’re at RoadMap2030 and are interested in sharing thoughts, please do tweet me @shaguftapasta. I’d love to chat. (Or come up to me, I’ll be the one in the navy sparkly scarf). See you soon.