Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Claire's CapAsia Experience

Growing up, I wanted to be an artist, an oceanographer, and even an astrophysicist. It turned out, though, that these were brief phases, as I painted glamorous images of each profession and ultimately discovered that my interests did not quite align with any of them. I finally decided on architecture, at Ball State University, where I quickly learned that my interests and passions were most closely aligned with planning and development. Planning, I realized, could allow me to work with critical urban issues such as poverty and housing, while still including design.

My first two years in the planning studio were both marvelous and disappointing. I was captivated by the complexity of the city and the forces that determine the development, growth, and shape of all urban existence. The problem, though, was that the scope of many studio projects often touched surface issues only. It was finally after my first economics course that I began to understand the complexity of the city and the dynamic systems that are much more influential than any plans I had designed. I soon declared a second major in economics, encountering tools and themes that illuminated my studio projects and explained growth and development patterns in cities. Most important, in order for me to become a visionary leader who could view a community comprehensively, I knew that I would need to understand both the science and analysis of economics as well as the social and urban considerations of planning.

Such ideals finally became real for me when I left Indiana for a semester in Southeast Asia and soon found myself in Chharanagar, a vibrant neighborhood on the fringe of Ahmedabad, India. Although I had spent a week on a service trip in Haiti, this was my first long-term experience in a developing nation. With my fellow students I entered the oppressed, though hopeful, community in order to understand the goals and priorities of the people, and utilize my skills as a future planner to collaboratively help them achieve their community goals. Because typical research methods were not available, I had to draw upon the primary resource available to me: the people. I spent my afternoons exploring Chharanagar, talking to mothers on porches, sipping tea with families inside the cool homes, taking notes about everyday life, sketching structures, and manually constructing a map of the community. Through such interaction, I discovered countless details, from caste oppression to a remarkable pursuit of justice through the medium of theatre that cannot be drawn on a map or displayed by numbers.

As I studied Chharanagar, I also carried out an independent study in urban economics. The course changed the entire way that I viewed both economics and planning, enabling me to see the relationship between the two. When I looked back at my past community development projects, I saw that the proposals lacked depth, feasibility, and people as the top priority. The lens through which I viewed my world shifted drastically, and I refocused my undergraduate thesis on low-income affordable housing to reflect these new insights.

Before I even had a chance to fully digest my experience in Ahmedabad, I was living on the edge of Kathmandu with Timila, an architecture student at Nepal Engineering College, and her lively and hospitable family. For two weeks, I was incorporated into nearly every aspect of their lives. I walked to and from school every day with Timila, took part in the family’s celebration of Holi, the festival of colors, and came home to a nightly meal of dal bhat. Although my stay with Timila was the most challenging part of the trip, it was ultimately the most rewarding and enjoyable as I was immersed in the vibrant, everyday life of a young Nepalese woman my age.

After four months in Southeast Asia, my entire viewpoint had been shaken, electrified, and entirely revolutionized. With an incredible passion for the synthesis of economics and urban planning, a substantially expanded worldview, and a far greater understanding of the planning process, I was quite far from the romantic planner that I had once been. Today my goal is to bridge the gap between social urban planning and economic development as a leader in a not-for-profit organization or in government, through a redevelopment authority. I hope to use economic and data-driven methods, in conjunction with community engagement, to regenerate declining urban areas and revitalize local economies. Ultimately, I want to be a planner and economist who makes effective decisions to improve the urban fabric and the quality of life within it.

Claire Thomison
CapAsia VI Participant