Welcome to CED Assistant Professor Balakrishnan! We are so excited to have you join the CED community.
Q: What drew you to CED?
A: I’m excited to be joining CED and DCRP which have long been at the forefront of influential planning debates—on cities and globalization, urban informality, and participatory planning—that have shaped both the world of ideas and practice. At a time when the pandemic is exposing and exacerbating existing inequalities, I’m particularly drawn to DCRP’s intellectual and political commitment to progressive and radical planning.
I’m reading a wonderful chapter written by Jamie Peck and Trevor Barnes on Berkeley in the late 1970s and early 1980s; that period was a turbulent one, leading up to the Reagan era and the rise of the high-tech industry in the Bay Area, and Peck and Barnes map out for us how DCRP was at the intersection of interdisciplinary explorations on leftist praxis. We are now in the midst of another turbulent period, and I’m eager to join colleagues and students who are part of a collective public enterprise on rethinking planning theory and practice in and for these times.
Q: What excites you the most about your new position?
A: My research and teaching will revolve around various aspects of “global urban inequalities,” including new spatial patterns of urbanization, land-use changes, and the planning institutions that are complicit in, and that challenge, the new forms of inequalities produced by these urban and land transformations. This is a joint appointment with Global Metropolitan Studies (GMS), and I’m also keenly looking forward to interdisciplinary engagements with GMS faculty and students on our shared research and teaching agenda around cities and urbanization.
Q: What are the key differences you see in planning for the Bay Area versus other places you have worked? How will your experience working in other places inform students about planning for the Bay Area?
A: I grew up in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), India, and I spent most of my graduate student and assistant professor years in Cambridge, MA. Now with the move to Berkeley, I realize that all of these city-regions—Bengaluru, Boston, the Bay Area—are tech agglomerations. Having a geo-comparative framing for planning is very important, so the U.S is not viewed through a lens of exceptionalism, but these “innovation” regions, with their rising inequalities of land and housing prices and labor restructuring, are situated within wider processes of post-1970s capitalist globalization. It is helpful for planners to understand why Route 128 in the Boston region declined in the 1990s but Silicon Valley boomed (AnnaLee Saxenian has written on this), and also how specific histories of military spending and state-led industrialization in each of these contexts now produce specific power configurations that drive these agglomerations and their related inequalities.
Q: How has growing up in India influenced your work and academic focus?
A: I remember visiting public housing for the first time as a graduate student at MIT in Boston, and I was struck by how different urban spatial segregation looked in Bengaluru as compared to Boston. In Bengaluru, the middle-class neighborhood that I grew up in was cheek-by-jowl with an informal settlement. Viewing U.S public housing through the lens of informal settlements makes unfamiliar the very settled idea of private property rights in the U.S. Also, it’s impossible to not pass an informal settlement when you live in an Indian city; again, it came as a shock that one can live for years in Boston without having to pass through key neighborhoods that have been constitutive of Boston’s growth and history, including Roxbury (an epicenter of radical black politics). The point is not that Indian cities are more egalitarian than U.S ones (such spatial proximity ensures that labor from informal settlements can work in middle-class homes), but it has been important to view similar urban phenomena—the production of space, urban spatial segregation, the housing question—across two contexts that I know well, the U.S and India. It is this mode of comparison that Teresa Caldeira aptly and evocatively calls, in the context of her own work, “anthropology with an accent,” as it allows us to both globalize and provincialize processes of urbanization.
Q: Why did you choose urban planning as a field?
A: My first job after my undergraduate degree in architecture was to work as an urban designer on ‘new town’ master plans in the U.A.E. During visits to the U.A.E, I came face-to-face with the social life of the master plan, i.e. migrant construction workers, many of whom were South Asian, and who were working under abject conditions of labor and human rights violations. It was this experience that largely propelled me to apply for a masters and then a PhD in urban planning, as I wanted a stronger grasp on the wider institutional, legal, and political-economic contexts within which city-building takes place.
Q: How has your professional work as an urban planner and as a consultant influenced your work as an academic as well as your teaching?
A: I have been a consultant to the UN-HABITAT, Nairobi; my research on land and urbanization in India has involved deep engagement with both the bureaucracy and social movements. These experiences have been invaluable both for research and teaching because they give up a ground-up view of the complexities of working within large organizations, be they bureaucracies or social movements.
Q: Can you tell us more about some of your urban land transformation projects and how it would fit in with MCP curriculum?
A: My doctoral dissertation, which just got published as a book (Shareholder Cities, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), looks at the rapid and frenzied conversation of agricultural land in post-liberalization India to new urban enclaves. My new research compares a very mundane land-use instrument—the Floor Space Index (FSI) and its related Transfer of Development Rights (TDR)—in Mumbai and Sao Paulo, and it uses FSI and TDR as a window to explore commodification of air and “vertical space.” In both of these works, a central focus is on who gets access to land, through what processes, and what the exclusions and expulsions engendered by these land-use changes. At DCRP, I will be teaching a course on “the spatial politics of land,” which will interrogate the deeply conflictual and political nature of land-use planning, and on how planners can ensure fair and equitable access to land. DCRP already has faculty who focus on the housing crisis in the Bay Area and beyond, and I hope my course will add another critical spatial lens to the housing, land, and property focus in the MCP curriculum.
Q: What professor and/or class in your undergraduate or graduate education did you find the most impactful and why?
A: During my masters’ degree in city planning at MIT, I was fortunate to have studied and taken classes with Prof. Judith Tendler. Judith’s courses on “organizations” left a deep imprint and curiosity to understand how planning institutions work: where does power reside, how are organizations held accountable by publics, how can planners make progressive and radical change both from within formal planning institutions and from outside. Judith’s book, Good Government in the Tropics, was published in 1997, when neoliberal dogma asserted that governments are inefficient, corrupt, rent-seeking, and particularly so in the global south. The timing of the book was important because Judith was strongly challenging market fundamentalist ideas on the retreat of the state, and arguing instead for an accountable state that acts in the interests of the poor. In my research, I have been particularly interested in understanding how insurgent planning can happen from within the state, and how planners can be guerrillas from within the bureaucracy.
A key intellectual influence of course is my former doctoral advisor, Prof. Susan Fainstein. Susan wrote a seminal book for planners, called The Just City, and in my first semester of doctoral studies, I took an independent study with Susan on “the just city.” It was a deep dive exploration into theories of justice, but our discussions were animated by Susan’s insistence on translating theories of justice into planning practice. Rather than abstract utopias, Susan was particularly interested in actually existing cases of social justice, of understanding how certain cities, planning agencies, social movements could achieve socially just outcomes within capitalist societies. If there’s one thing I hope I’ve taken from Susan, it’s to combine theory with practice, and to impress upon planning students the importance of theory for planning action.
Q: What makes you a good resource for student research?
A: Both my mentors, Susan and Judith, were exemplary in their research engagement with students: as a masters and doctoral student, I would go to them with my stacks and stacks of research interviews, planning documents, and other data sources, and they would carefully, curiously unpack these materials with me in patient discussion. Both of them were also exceptional in picking up on minute details which I might have overlooked, and then using these fine granular details to construct wider analyses and generalizations. This is what I find most exciting about working with masters and doctoral students, the process of assembling the pieces of the research puzzle by connecting empirical details with larger theory.
Also, I look forward to engaging students in my ongoing research. In current research on “caste capitalism and new geographies of inequality in India,” my colleague, Arindam Dutta (MIT), and I have been mapping how colonial-era infrastructural institutions, mediated by caste interests, shape contemporary processes of postcolonial urbanization in India. This research, which is now two years in the making, has involved RAs from both MIT and Harvard as part of our research team, and it has been generative working with students who bring their own GIS expertise and other insights into the work.
Q: How would you describe your teaching style and philosophy?
A: I am committed to a pedagogy that forces us to critically engage with city and regional planning from the margins. In the courses that I have taught at the GSD on the spatial politics of land and global urban transformations, the readings prioritize the views of immigrants, refugees, peasants, indigenous societies, and other groups that do not always occupy the most powerful decision-making positions within our societies. I am interested in exploring with students how planners and planning institutions can work with, and amplify the voices of, constituents who are often not at the negotiating table when urban decisions are being made. Though committed to a critical pedagogy, I also believe it is necessary for the class to be exposed to a wide range of perspectives on the same issue. Towards this end, I take care to curate my syllabus in such a way that each week’s readings combine views both from the mainstream and from the margins. Such an analysis from various positionalities and perspectives enables students to grasp the normative underpinnings of even the most seemingly “apolitical” planning practice or idea.
Q: What are your greatest strengths as an instructor?
A: To me, one of the most exciting aspects of teaching in a graduate planning program is the chance to interact with students from varied disciplinary backgrounds. My own educational background with undergraduate degrees in architecture and design, then graduate degrees in urban planning with a focus in development studies, followed by a year of postdoctoral studies at a law school, has impressed upon me the importance of interdisciplinary methods for approaching urbanization and land-use. While rooted in planning methods, I draw upon the disciplines of design, development studies, and the law to engage with students from varied backgrounds and to experiment with new methods, including spatial methods, that situate city and regional planning at the intersection of these various fields.
Q: What do you like best about teaching graduate courses?
A: Some of my most nourishing teaching experiences have been in graduate seminars, where students bring their own rich work experiences, their politics, and their passions into our class discussions. Since the courses I teach are global and comparative, I have often had graduate students deeply enrich the discussion by pointing to readings in different languages that are often silenced from our canons due to the hegemony of English.
Q: How do you feel about teaching undergraduate courses? Will your approach differ from how you teach graduate courses? How?
A: The core pedagogical commitments remain the same across undergrad and grad courses: of unpacking the normative assumptions beneath even the most seemingly “apolitical” planning idea, of globalizing the canon of urban studies and planning. I’m excited that I’ll be teaching an undergraduate course (tentatively titled “urbanization in the global south”): there is a freshness and openness to undergrads, and they’re also less jaded than many of us are!
Q: What is your approach to teaching about the Global South?
A: The “global south” has its genealogy in the Third World political project, the non-aligned movement, Pan-Africanism, and other movements that emerged out of the newly independent postcolonial countries in the 1950s and 60s. We live in a different global order now than in the 1960s, but the “global south” continues to be a crucial analytical and political project for planners because it enables us to make connections across places and peoples, particularly peripheralized and invisibilized places and peoples, in varied disparate institutional contexts. In teaching courses such as global urban inequalities, I would like for us to juxtapose, for instance, rising land prices and displacement in Harlem, NY with Dharavi, Mumbai, or prison labor in the U.S with migrant informal labor in South Asia (unfortunately but unsurprisingly, it is these labor groups that most exploited during the current pandemic), and ask what new planning ideas and political practices emerge from these global urban comparisons.
Q: Describe your ideal studio course. What strategies and/or materials would you teach?
A: Studios are helpful sites for translating knowledge into action. The political economy of studios, though, is tricky. On the one hand, there is a pedagogical focus on student learning, and on the other, there is a relationship with real-life communities, and there is a tension between these pedagogical and community aims. More ethically grounded studios are those where there is a commitment to a long-term institutional partnership between the studio and the community, and reflection and reflexivity on the terms of these engagements.
Q: What do you hope students will take away from your courses?
A: To take planning histories and planning institutions seriously, and to think and practice for and from the margins.
Q: What advice do you have for students in pursuing a planning degree?
A: Here, I’ll echo my friend and colleague, Gabriella Carolini, when she says, “Go south, planner, go south!” What this means, and how we do it, is something I look forward to discussing at Berkeley!
Janet Le, MCP '21, and Rachel Schten, Urban Studies '22.