Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Professor parallels African and American urban development


By: Chloe Miller
Arts Editor 
     On Thursday, March 8, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of Urban International Studies Garth Myers delivered his inaugural lecture,  entitled, “Can Divided Studies Become Inclusive Cities?”  Myers has an extensive background in African Studies and used his field research in Zanzibar, Tanzania and Cape Town, South Africa to offer lessons in how U.S. cities, including Hartford, can become more unified.  In light of recent events on campus and raising concerns about Trinity’s relationship with its surrounding community, Myers’ lecture was exceptionally relevant in finding ways Hartford can become a more inclusive place.
     Myers began his lecture with an interesting premise: “What can American cities learn from African cities?” Typically, he stated, this premise is reversed, as many international urbanists adopt a “disaster relief” attitude when approaching Africa.  Myers, however, believes a more optimistic approach is useful.  He spoke about the various types of “divides” that an impoverished city—whether Zanzibar or Hartford—faces.  The United Nations published a “vision of inclusive cities” that focuses on the economic, spatial, social, and opportunity divides.  
     Economic divide is, of course, measured by income disparity—a measure called the income inequality coefficient.  While these measures are typically used in third-world cities, Myers pointed out that under the same criteria, the highest income inequality in the United States exists in Fairfield County, right here in Connecticut.  The average income in Hartford is also drastically lower than the surrounding suburbs.  More influential than the economic divide, though, are the spatial and opportunity divides.  These encompass things like the poverty trap, cyclical unemployment, and a lack of resources such as healthcare, education, and housing, and have a distinct impact on the success rate of peripheral groups within the city.  The same can be said of U.S. cities; Hartford’s public schools are among the lowest performing in the nation, and its unemployment rate among the highest.  
     Myers drew several parallels between the field research he had done in Africa and the American equivalent.  He explored many successful programs and initiatives in Africa that can be brought to the U.S. as well.  One particularly prominent suggestion was a program in Cape Town that focused on violence protection through urban upgrading: by restoring and improving some of the crime-rampant neighborhoods in Cape Town, administrators saw a 40 percent reduction in violent crime in the upgraded areas.  This method seems particularly applicable to Hartford, as we’ve seen crime rates rise and quality of living fall since the recession.  In fact, the establishment of the Learning Corridor on Broad Street is a concrete example of urban upgrading improving social problems.  
     Myers critiqued some theories of the UN’s Habitat Program and other NGOs in Africa.  For example, one organization advocated “a shared vision of the future” as the best was to make steps toward an inclusive city.  However, a divided city with many different groups is not conducive to one shared vision, so this seems unrealistic.  The five “levers and steps to inclusiveness” of the UN state things like “assessing the past and measuring progress,” “establishing new, more effective institutions,” and “improving the quality of life.” Myers quipped that these goals are a bit like the “blah blah blah” voice used for adults in Charlie Brown comics; they use bland language and simply overstate the obvious.  They do, in fact, have several concrete examples in “establishing institutions,” but Myers believes many of these policies simply end up strengthening government institutions and don’t facilitate effective changes for the urban poor. Myers made sure to say,  “None of these steps or levers are bad, don’t get me wrong.  My point is that they are naïve, they whitewash the very real politics of any strategies to make them happen.” 
     In relation to the situation here in Hartford, Myers made clear that he doesn’t fancy himself an expert on Hartford, and  was simply speculation on the connection.  As a whole, he pointed out, Hartford is much wealthier than the African cities he studies, but many parallels can still be drawn.  “But a crucial thread no matter what is ‘inclusivity’ and ‘relationality’ so that the poor communities in Hartford are involved from the beginning, rather that top-down of outsider driven strategies.”  While the situation here in Hartford may be totally different from that ofAfrica, there are still ways to observe what has worked and what can be done similarly here.
Myers’ lecture marked his inauguration as the Paul E. Raether distinguished chair position. The lecture was introduced by President James F.  Jones and attended by several members of the Board of Trustees, including Raether himself.  Myers joined the Trinity faculty last year, and teaches International Studies and Urban Studies classes, many with an African focus.  He’s proven to be a valuable addition to the Trinity community.

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