SGPIA student Melissa De La Cruz in Quito, Ecuador for the Habitat III Conference in October 206
SGPIA student Melissa De La Cruz in Quito, Ecuador for the Habitat III Conference in October 2016

Melissa De La Cruz is in her final year of the SGPIA program, concentrating in cities and urban justice. She was one of the 15 students from 12 different countries included in the delegation representing The New School (TNS) at Habitat III – the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. She has recently returned from the conference, which was held in Quito, Ecuador. She shared her experiences in an interview, detailed below: 

This interview has been edited for clarity & brevity. 

Can you share some of your background? 

Back home in the Philippines, I spent most of my time organizing youth groups and starting small-time research initiatives within those organizations while I finished a BA in Political Science majoring in International Relations and Economics. After graduation, I worked as a liaison to the Vice Mayor of Cebu City, before joining SGPIA in the Fall of 2015. 

How did you get interested in urban development research? 

I was first introduced to urban development work prior to starting the SGPIA program. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the topic of International Sister-cities in Southeast Asia which exposed me to the investigation of global cities and their relationships with one another. 

I gained more practical experience during my tenure at the Vice Mayor’s office. Fellow Mayors from around the world would visit  and share best practices with our City Council. These visits got me thinking about the agency and independence that cities could have in relation to one another, instead of relying solely on the national politics. I was even more intrigued that there are no rules that govern inter-city politics.

You work for Global Urban Futures (GUF). What was your involvement leading up to Habitat III in Quito?

(SGPIA Founding Professor) Michael Cohen is my academic advisor and he asked me to come on board in early November 2015 to assist with more than 100 data sets for the Habitat Commitment Index (HCI), as well as helping to set up the GUF website. 

My role has definitely shifted as the research project has progressed. I spent a majority of my spring semester identifying, cleaning up and testing the different data sets. During that time, I had the opportunity to work closely with Caroline Moser on gender, which was the last of the 6 dimensions to be added to the HCI. Together with (SGPIA students) Younghyun Kim and Justin Roberts, we scanned through more than 40 gender disaggregated data sets. 

Over the summer, I contributed to two major outputs for the GUF: First, I worked closely with (Parsons Professor and Milano PhD student ) Cristina Handal and (Parsons Alum) Nadine Rachid on the Habitat Commitment Project booklet. This was a compilation of almost a year of research, together with visualizations and regional analyses contributed to by different members of the GUF team. I also worked with (SGPIA Alum) Tyler Bird of CartoDB to create an interactive map for the GUF website. The map is a visual representation of the data sets that compose the index. Prior to the last Habitat III Preparatory Committee meeting in Surabaya, Indonesia, GUF hosted a full day conference, where part of the presentations included the findings and analysis in the booklet and the map that I had worked on over the summer. 

This Fall semester, I divided my time between producing GUF material for Habitat III and navigating the travel logistics for the large New School delegation to Quito. This included creating an updated version of the HCI Booklet (including a new Spanish translation), seven new Policy Briefs and a compliation of all the GUF publications for dissemination by flash drive at the conference.

What were your impressions of Quito?

It was my first time in Quito and South America. The city reminded me of home (Philippines) which, perhaps, should not be surprising given that both countries were colonized by Spain. I thought it was interesting, however, that Ecuador gained independence almost 100 years before the Philippines and yet they preserved much of the original design of the city. (Perhaps it is because the big cities in the Philippines were decimated by the Japanese in the Second World War, thus much of the old city was destroyed. Now, the Spanish-inspired plazas are only seen in the old towns located outside the city limits.) 

Honestly, Quito was one of the most chaotic cities that I have ever visited. The chaos came in many forms but we experienced it most on a free day, when we took a local bus outside the city limits of Quito. The bus raced through the city with wide open doors to allow passengers to move in and out quickly, picking up and dropping off a mix of people from dvd sellers, to bakers, to musicians. We made it to a very different part of Quito, away from the security of the Habitat III Conference area. Buildings and street signs were replaced by a mix of denuded mountaintops, bustling market scenes and gated communities.

What was your experience of Habitat III?

I felt incredibly privileged to be part of TNS delegation to Quito. We were 15 students and comprised 12 nationalities. After spending months at the office trying to complete this research in time, it was a treat to finally be there, have sit-down dinners and try the different cuisines as a team.

Together with the Admissions team at The New School, we set up a booth at the Habitat III Exhibition area which served as a place for the members of the delegation to present their individual research projects. For me, this was probably one of the highlights of the trip because, through the presentations, I discovered the individual research interests of my colleagues. 

How did the conference differ from your expectations?

Habitat III became one giant networking event. This was a good thing, but it was not what I expected. I was hoping for a more substantive conversation within the main event area on the question of how we can achieve the New Urban Agenda

To be quite honest, the events at the main area were pretty dull and it was definitely not the conversation I would have expected, given the opportunity to collaborate with so many people from around the world. Most institutions were busy competing with each other’s data sets. In addition, to the dismay of most of the TNS delegation, the exhibition space (where the TNS booth was) and the main event were separated and movement between both areas was restricted. I thought that this would be organized very differently, especially since many of the stakeholders of the Habitat process had booths stationed in the exhibition area.

What were your thoughts about the conversations in the main conference and the alternative conference

Unfortunately, I did not attend any events at the alternative conference as the conversation was in Spanish and my very basic Spanish would not have been able to keep up.

What did you learn at Quito that you could not learn in the classroom? 

There are two things that I got out of this experience: Firstly, intersectional work is vital if we are to solve the problems that the world is facing today. We cannot simply be stuck in our fields of specialization if we want to solve inequality, safety and gender issues in the next 50 years. Second, during the research process, I learned about the politics of change and how difficult it is to go against the status quo. It is often said that the work involved in academia and in practice are different, but I don’t think it has to be. 

What’s next? 

The GUF continues to host the Urban Economics Seminar, where we invite speakers from different institutions to talk about their work and research in urban settings. By the new year, we hope to begin work on the next phase of the research project investigating Urban Practice in Latin America.

Part of the student and faculty delegation representing The New School's Global Urban Future Project at the Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016
Part of the student and faculty delegation representing The New School’s Global Urban Future Project at their exhibition booth for the Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016

For more information about Global Urban Futures and their work, visit their website or follow @GUFPMilano on Twitter. 

To keep up to date with SGPIA student, alum and faculty work, follow @NewSchool_IA on Twitter.