Hello and happy halfway point of the Urban Studies Fellowship period!
The last two weeks I’ve been sinking deep into the nitty gritty of a few design projects as well as bike building and other kinds of bamboo building, so much so that when it came time to write this post I felt like I suddenly woke up in a new reality, one that prodded me loudly and asked, “Wait, what have you done that is worth sharing on an Urban Studies blog? Why are you doing what you’re doing, again?” Very good question to be asking often, it turns out, because as with any task it becomes easy to lose sight of bigger pictures when you get immersed in your work.
This question is familiar to me from being in school. I had a late introduction to Urban Studies at the end of my sophomore year, at which point I was a Mechanical Engineering major, and since then I have been attempting to combine the two majors in an individually designed major in engineering. There is a constant need to justify the existence of this major to administrators, in other words to find and articulate the relevance of each discipline to the other. In the past year, I’ve not found so many instances of technical knowledge and practice from engineering classes translating in any significant way to the questions we ask in Urban Studies classes, but I have found so-called Urban Studies or social sciences questions important in interrogating the kind of engineering work that I, my peers, professors, and others in the area are engaging in, namely: What really is the agenda of this project? Who does it benefit, and who does it exclude? Should it be done in the first place? As a side note, the leaders of BBB come from Anthropology and English backgrounds and are constantly asking these questions of their work. Furthermore, they don’t consider any of the work they do as “engineering,” even though it would fit that label by some standard definitions of the discipline (as opposed to the profession.) I find the labels we use for technical design and manufacture work to be interesting (engineering vs maker vs DIY) in the context of this quote by Donna Riley from her series of lectures called “Engineering and Social Justice”:
“The profession of engineering in the United States has historically served the status quo, feeding an ever-expanding materialistic and militaristic culture, remaining relatively unresponsive to public concerns, and without significant pressure for change from within. This book calls upon engineers to cultivate a passion for social justice and peace and to develop the skill and knowledge set needed to take practical action for change within the profession. Because many engineers do not receive education and training that support the kinds of critical thinking, reflective decision-making, and effective action necessary to achieve social change, engineers concerned with social justice can feel powerless and isolated as they remain complicit…”
Why would this be the status quo? I see value in comparing the engineering education process at BBB versus traditional engineering education in schools. (By engineering I’m specifically referring to mechanical, to avoid overgeneralizing.) In schools you learn the core curriculum first — one that establishes a base set of standardized knowledge that can lead to a certification, and one that Riley argues originated in and continues to be funded by the military and private defense contractors — and then you work on “real-life” projects, which often does mean a majority of job opportunities at defense contractors, if college job fairs are any indication. Once funneled into these systems of management, Riley argues, it is near impossible to question the nature of the work you are doing.
I see an opposite model at play at BBB, which essentially started with one person who wanted to teach others to build bamboo bikes so that they would love and feel ownership of their chosen form of urban transportation, and then built the necessary engineering skills around that goal. To me, it is significant that the organization makes a specific engineering education accessible to anyone who walks into the door, instead of keeping it gated in what is often seen as an elite field of knowledge. (Some might argue, What you’re doing isn’t engineering, it’s Making. And some magazines say about BBB, “It’s not exactly a Maker Space.” There’s contention over these terms, the low-down for me is that at BBB you design, you CAD, you manufacture, and you constantly refine the inefficiencies in the manufacturing process for multiple people. You need to use an intuitive rather than textbook understanding of materials, stress, and failure. So to me, for all intensive purposes, BBB is a kind of engineering education workshop.) Secondly, it truly is a site in which what we build is constantly being interrogated: who is it for? Are these the people we want to reach? If the answers to these questions don’t align with the mission statement, then the project is rejected. Much of this ability to question and be flexible obviously comes from the small size and structure of the organization, but it’s still been a valuable lesson in bringing some of Riley’s ideas about transforming engineering pedagogy to life, and much mirrors what I’ve seen done in Urban Studies classes.
More questions that have come out of this reading: How does the concept of social justice change in a Chinese versus U.S. context? What does urban mobility mean here versus the U.S.? I come across these questions as there is bountiful literature and language surrounding social justice, transportation justice, and urban mobility in the U.S., mostly concerned with centering the needs of those who have been most marginalized by the racially codified planning histories of U.S. cities. As Chinese cities formed out of very different planning policies and histories, there seems to be a much different language in the (academic) literature around just transport and mobility, namely that the words used are never “social justice” but “sustainability” and “social equity.” What does this difference tell us about what the important questions are to ask of Chinese cities’ mobility futures (and histories)? What is the starting point to identify these questions? Some food for thought, and if you have feedback, I’d love to hear it!