Interview: Peter Sigrist and Katia Savchuk, co-founders of polis


source

polis aptly describes itself as a collaborative blog on urbanism with a global focus, and features an impressive stable of American and international writers.

According to thepolisblog.org, “Katia Savchuk was born under Soviet rule in Kiev and moved to San Francisco on the day of the 1989 earthquake. She investigated residential mobility among housing voucher recipients to earn herself a BA in Social Studies from Harvard in 2007. Katia spent the last two years working as a documentation consultant for the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, a Mumbai-based NGO supporting urban poor communities in India to access secure shelter and participate in urban decision-making. She also co-organized Koliwada Urban Typhoon, a participatory design workshop held in March 2008 in Dharavi, Mumbai’s vast informal settlement. She currently works for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, an organization supporting community development in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

Peter Sigrist is a PhD student in City and Regional Planning at Cornell University. He is currently working on a historical study of public parks in Moscow. His interests include adaptive reuse, horticulture, art, and walking around in cities. He is author of the blog Civic Nature.”

I’ve mentioned before that though I didn’t discover polis until after beginning planologie, polis is in many ways a working model for what I hope planologie will become. Sitting down (virtually – we chatted online via Google WAVE) with Pete and Katia, the cofounders of polis, seemed like the logical thing to do.

planologie: How did polis come into being? What preceded it?

Peter: It grew out of Where, which was started by Brendan Crain. Brendan is from Chicago, fairly recently graduated from college. He decided to put together a team of bloggers in late 2008. The focus was urbanism. He would do all kind of posts, book reviews, and urban finds, with a lot of interesting photos. I really enjoyed his blog, so was happy to join Where.

Katia: When Brendan was looking for additional collaborators, Peter recommended me – we had “met” (over email and phone) while I was in Mumbai. He was working on a thesis that concerned an organization and informal settlement I was working with.

Peter: That’s right, Katia wrote a great editorial for a newspaper in Mumbai about the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan, which I was studying for my dissertation. And she was connected with Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava from airoots/eirut, who also provided a lot of useful information.

Katia: I co-organized Urban Typhoon Koliwada with Matias and Rahul. That was a participatory workshop in a traditional fishing village called Koliwada, which has now found itself within what is officially classified as the largest slum in Mumbai – Dharavi.


Dharavi, Mumbai (source)

planologie: And Where ended because Brendan stepped away?

Peter: Well, it’s still there and Brendan has recently started posting weekly links based on his wonderful tweets on cities (thewhereblog), but last August he found that he didn’t have time to run the collaborative part and had to focus on other things.

Katia: Right. I had really enjoyed having a place to collect and express my reflections on my time in Mumbai, which was where my “urban consciousness” really awakened. Before that, I had studied social science and focused on housing rights

Peter: I also really enjoyed blogging for Where and wanted to keep going.

planologie: So does polis carry on the work that was already in motion, or is its aim in any way different?

Peter: The aim is fairly similar it seems. But maybe it will grow into something different.

Katia: So far, it seems to be a bit different in tone, which reflects the backgrounds of the contributors. We have quite a few PhD candidates, so some posts are very theoretically informed. We also have practitioners in development, microfinance, architecture and technology, as well as artists. This gives it more variety, in terms of both subjects and lenses. I also liked the idea of a collaborative blog, and one with a global focus. I don’t think there is another blog like that.

Peter: The collaborators really give it its character.

Katia: polis has only been around for four months. We have started running interviews and guest posts, and we did a group post that involved everyone documenting an intersection in their city.

planologie: So it is becoming increasingly collaborative, in addition to collective?

Katia: We would like everyone to focus on themes and use the perspective and language that is their natural habitat. However, people also respond to each other’s ideas, through comments or by referencing their posts. We use one another’s posts as starting points for different takes on the same issue.

Peter: Yes, I find it interesting when people look at similar issues from different perspectives and backgrounds.

planologie: You both obviously feel compelled to do this sort of thing, to gather people, give them a platform…is there a specific goal to your efforts?

Peter: Good question. Just to provide an interesting forum. Do you have other thoughts on that, Katia?

Katia: That’s something I’ve been thinking about, actually. Primarily, to give the contributors, including ourselves…a chance to get our ideas, images, writing out there, instead of having it stay in folders in the computer or as notes on post-its, as they usually do.

Peter: And to share ideas and information with other people. Hopefully contribute somehow to solving problems.

Katia: However, for me the biggest gain has been building up my own knowledge. I didn’t study urban planning, and much of my exposure to it has been through work in community development and housing rights, in the US and India. I have learned so much since we started polis.


Mulford Gardens Housing Project, Yonkers, New York (source)

Peter: Yes, me too.

Katia: I think we don’t even know how much we have to teach each other until we get our thoughts and experiences out there. Also on a personal level, it’s not just a process of writing down your observations; the process of blogging allows you to work out your own thoughts, process your experiences, come to new conclusions.

planologie: Absolutely. I only joined the blogging game a couple months ago, and the learning curve is interesting…putting your thoughts out there for the world to criticize can only make you a better writer, a better thinker, a better communicator.

Katia: Yes. My mom asked me: are you guys just writing for each other? And you know what – checking Google Analytics, we have readers in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Japan, you name it. And that’s after 4 months and no particular marketing strategy.

Peter: It’s been great, too, connecting with other bloggers.

Katia: At first I didn’t know if anyone would read it, but it’s amazing to know that our writing is a source of information and food for thought for people in so many parts of the world. Potentially, it’s a place where people from all over the world can communicate about urban issues – people who actually live and work in the places discussed.

planologie: The medium is a great connector, and innovations like Google WAVE only increase our ability to connect and collaborate, but other than the exchange of ideas (and I don’t mean to devalue that exchange), what do you think will come of all this technical development?

Peter: I think it’s good for synthesizing information and ideas.

planologie: I guess what I’m getting at is whether you share, and whether you have noticed that other people share, a growing sense of urgency. Plenty of scientists already think we’ve passed irreversible tipping points, American infrastructure (from its roads and bridges to its health care to its education, etc) is crumbling…do you think that solutions might actually come out of blogging and other web efforts?

Peter: That’s an interesting question. I wonder if there’s a way to bring some of this idea sharing into a more practical realm. I hope so.

Katia: Exchange of ideas was one. Building knowledge is another. Connecting with people across disciplines, experiences, and cities is a third. Refining one’s own ideas…I think that the connections that come out of exchanging ideas can potentially lead to networks or partnerships on real-life projects. I don’t think that polis is going to change the world. But I do think it has the potential to connect people concerned about and working on similar issues.

Peter: Yes. Maybe it can lead to project collaborations at international or local scales.

planologie: Something really unique about polis, which you mentioned earlier, is that its team of writers comes from all over the globe. polis is very focused on global issues, so I wonder what your respective thoughts are on globalism as it is occuring, how it might change…the benefits and drawbacks. I see much to be gained and much that may be lost.

Peter: Yes, good point. Well, I would say the benefits revolve around bringing people from different backgrounds and perspectives together. The losses often include local practices/heritage/culture taken over by homogeneous businesses/ideas/ways of doing things. That’s pretty inarticulate, but I guess you know what I mean.

planologie: I like globalism’s ability to shed light on dark corners plagued by poverty, disease, corruption…I like that it can, possibly, provide a more level playing field. But global monoculture concerns me, the loss of place concerns me. Also, from an ecological standpoint, some of globalism’s economic benefits (such as widespread international trade) can be extremely destructive.

Katia: Based on my time in India, I saw the ways in which multinational firms and ideas dominate both the physical and economic landscape – not only that, but the realm of ideas as well. The vision that city leaders had for Mumbai was – in fact, literally – created by McKinsey consultants. Many would argue that that vision is aimed at accommodating global capital and removing the populations that stand in the way, to the extent that it is politically possible.


Mumbai 2020’s Version of Global Monoculture? (source)

planologie: Can you elaborate?

Katia: McKinsey drafted a report called Vision Mumbai together with Bombay First, a group representing business interests. The Government of Maharashtra adopted it. http://www.visionmumbai.org/aboutusdocs/McKinseyReport.pdf.

Katia: When you say loss of place I know you mean a unique sense of the local, but I am concerned about loss of place in terms of displacement of poor populations to make room for fancy airports, infrastructure projects – some of which are of course necessary, but others that are aimed to facilitate business interests or help the city compete in the global urban branding game.

planologie: I mean both…I don’t remember where I first heard it, but someone once cautioned that if you achieve all your dreams, then what? Let’s say that globalism effects a best-case scenario (economically speaking), and remarkable equity is achieved. Slums are eliminated, and the world truly becomes flat. Obviously slums are not the sort of thing anyone wants to preserve, and I don’t want to suggest anything of the sort, but I can picture the homogeneity that globalism could bring about, and I want nothing to do with that future. Now I’m the one being inarticulate…

Peter: No, I see what you mean. We want good living conditions in all parts of the world. I think the good qualities of informal settlements (such as thriving local economies in many cases, social networks, remarkable creativity and ingenuity) can serve as a foundation for improvements. I’m not suggesting that slums are a model, or that conditions don’t need to be improved, just that completely eliminating and replacing them with a top-down version of development isn’t the best approach.

planologie: I read recently that informal settlements in megacities actually contain more wealth (in total numbers, not per capita obviously) than the formal cities. And that beginning to extend legal recognition to these settlements would be a major step in the right direction.

[I “misremembered.” Anthony M. Tung, in Preserving the World’s Great Cities, quotes economist Hernando de Soto: “In Egypt, for instance, the wealth that the poor have accumulated is worth fifty-five times as much as the sum of all direct foreign investment ever recorded here, including the Suez Canal and the Aswan Dam.” Tung references the de Soto quote while explaining that hard-earned wealth in informal settlements cannot be activated as capital because it is technically illegal, and without the ability to leverage capital residents are unable to get ahead individually or participate in the larger economy. This impacts the relative strength of entire cities, as well.]

Katia: I don’t know about that, in light of the vast income gaps, but my sense is that there is a lot of productivity that is not acknowledged or rewarded in terms of the benefits of citizenship.

Katia: You are saying that development may mean homogeneity – development according to the Western, increasingly generically “global” model…

planologie: The British used to say, “Make the world England.” That thought, whether England, America, or otherwise, terrifies me.

Katia: London and Mumbai are “sister cities” ;)

planologie: Exactly. Bill McKibben’s arguments for more localized economies, or rather for a better balance between local and global, make a lot of sense to me.

Peter: Yes, Jane Jacobs also has some interesting ideas on this.

Peter: Ideally, we can become more interconnected economically, culturally, politically without losing things that work well at the local level.

Katia: The whole formal economy depends on the informal labor, but when convenient those businesses and homes can be wiped out. There is also no financial support – like credit – on par with that available to formal companies. It is convenient to portray the line between informal/illegal and formal as being firm, but one depends on the other.

Peter: Yes, good point.

planologie: How did your on-the-ground experience in India aid your understanding of the key issues there? What did you learn from being there that textbooks can’t communicate?

Katia: That’s a good question. I don’t know where to start. One thing that became very evident to me was how little the capacity of poor people in developing countries is understood and valued. While I was with the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, I traveled to the World Urban Forum in China, where they – along with their partner organizations in Slum Dwellers International – announced the launch of the Urban Poor Fund International. It was amazing to me that 2008 was the first time that poor people could actually make decisions about how to spend development aid. Poor people are not trusted to actually take charge of processes in ways that allow them to make meaningful decisions and learn from their mistakes, even though everyone speaks of empowerment. If you go into a slum, you will see the ingenious solutions that residents come up with using minimal resources in the most difficult circumstances.

planologie: Trust seems to be a central issue. Both in the cases of the wealthy not trusting the poor, and of the academy not trusting the general populous. It makes sense that experts should take the lead, but of course the people who will be affected by change should certainly have some authority.

Peter: I agree. The more people who experience poverty, disease, and disempowerment on a daily basis are able to access the resources to make improvements, I think the better off we’ll be on so many different levels. They are the experts in many ways. People with other forms of expertise can also listen to them and find useful ways to contribute.

Katia: I really noticed this valorization of the expert and the tension between the outside expert and local population. It is in vogue to hire outside consultants to tell governments how to plan their cities, but people who deal with the repercussions of poor urban planning and often make up the majority of the population are left out of the conversation.

planologie: I wonder if the enduring impact of globalization will be in the exchange of knowledge, of awareness, much more so than the exchange of goods.

Peter: Yes, the instant exchange of knowledge is so full of potential.

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4 Responses to Interview: Peter Sigrist and Katia Savchuk, co-founders of polis

  1. Thank you for talking with us, Josh! The whole group — Fernando Burga, George Carothers, Min Li Chan, Natalia Echeverri, Anna Fogel, Melissa Garcia Lamarca, Ali Madad, Vivien Park, Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca, Alex Schafran, and Andrew Wade — really make polis possible. More on their backgrounds and interests, plus their archived posts, can be found here. It’s an honor for us to appear on Planologie.

  2. Hector Fernando Burga says:

    Katia and Peter are doing an amazing job at getting ideas out there by young writers who work in the field and need to think, act and develop their voices beyond the confines of academic institutions. They are inspiring. I have great respect for them and look forward in extending the network of ideas into new directions. Planologie, thanks for doing this interview.

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