Conferences & Symposia

Intersections: Understanding Urbanism in the Global Age

Painting by Sean FloodPainting by Sean Flood

Urbanism is a global phenomenon, presenting us with a range of pressing issues to consider—economic, political, and material, but most of all human.

Our conference is designed to stimulate a broad-based discussion about “the urban” in the 21st century, a much more complicated concept than 19th- and 20th-century cities. This change has been much studied by social scientists, but we often overlook how these new urban centers are being experienced by their inhabitants. This Radcliffe Institute conference will take a multidisciplinary and international approach to explore the challenges and tensions that people in urban communities face today.

Free and open to the public.

Registration is now closed, but walk-in attendees are welcome.



9:15 a.m.


Lizabeth Cohen, Dean of the Radcliffe Institute and Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies, Harvard University

9:30 a.m.


Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House; Rona Jaffe Foundation Fellow at the New York Public Library Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers

10:30 a.m.


10:45 a.m.


This panel will explore how urban environments offer a dense and intense human experience, while also being a complex object of study generating vast quantities of data for analysis. Rich traditions of writing, photography, and film convey human responses to modern urban environments, while equally robust bodies of work preserve information about diverse urban populations and their situations. With new media and big data now in the picture, how can we bring together humanistic perspectives that explore the modern urban experience with the powerful tools and conceptual paradigms from computer science and the social sciences that are shaping contemporary interdisciplinary urban studies?

Heidi Ewing, filmmaker; co-director of Emmy Award-winning film, DETROPIA

Mark Shepard, Associate Professor, Departments of Architecture and Media Study, School of Architecture and Planning, University at Buffalo

Sooni Taraporevala, photographer; award-winning screenwriter (Mississippi MasalaSalaam Bombay!The Namesake) and director (Little Zizou)

Moderator: Julie A. Buckler, Director of the Humanities Program at the Radcliffe Institute; Co-Principal Investigator, Harvard-Mellon Urban Initiative; Samuel Hazzard Cross Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and of Comparative Literatures in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University

12:15 p.m.

Lunch and Exhibition Viewing

1:30 p.m.

Beyond the Nature/Technology Divide

This panel will look at the intertwined workings of nature and technology in urban infrastructure, green spaces, public art, and landscape design. (We will also consider the flora and fauna that flourish in urban environments.) Although nature and technology are often considered binaries or opposites, the relationship between the two in urban environments is not one of opposition or subjugation, but rather of interaction and cooperation. Returning and sustaining nature in the city is closely linked to and enabled by technology, but cities also face serious challenges from the natural world, with sea-level rise and other weather-related disasters, and a partnership of nature and technology can help us approach these issues.

Dilip da Cunha, Adjunct Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania

Anna Schuleit Haber RI '07, visual artist

Matthias Schuler, founder, Transsolar Klima Engineering, and Anja Thierfelder, architect

Moderator: Erik Ghenoiu, Research Manager, Harvard-Mellon Urban Initiative

3 p.m.


3:15 p.m.

Planned and Unplanned

It is often the case that official city plans are not realized in their proposed forms, but rather adapt to realities on the ground, including unexpected practices and patterns of human behavior. Urban environments are impossibly complex mega-systems, and mandated change inevitably produces unanticipated results. However, unplanned aspects of urban environments are sometimes among the most distinctive and creative responses to a set of urban challenges. We see the relationship between planned and unplanned (or, in the global south, formal/informal) processes in urban environments as dynamic and complementary, and closely allied. A plan may be executed (or not), but it can still enable a lot that is unplanned to happen. And successful unplanned activities, when allowed to occur—as in Berlin—can later lead to formalized plans.

Richard Burdett, Professor of Urban Studies and Director, LSE Cities, The London School of Economics and Political Science

Edgar Pieterse, South African Research Chair in Urban Policy and Director, African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town (South Africa)

Ana Elvira Vélez Villa, architect (Colombia)

Moderator: Eve Blau, Co-Principal Investigator, Harvard-Mellon Urban Initiative; Adjunct Professor of the History and Theory of Urban Form and Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design

4:45 p.m.

Closing Remarks

Julie A. Buckler