The RSA Travel Grant award enabled my participation at the 2015 Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) that took place in the city of Chicago. The annual meeting of the AAG is firmly established as one of the major international conferences for those doing research in the field of urban and regional studies. It also offers a valuable experience for PhD and early career researchers to present their work to a qualified audience, catch-up with cutting edge research and to develop networks with others in the field.
My motivation to attend the 2015 AAG was two-fold. First, I was interested to co-organise a session aimed at examining how current debates of circulating knowledge and relational development have a long and critical tradition in the Global South region. Second, I wanted to present some of the theoretical and empirical findings of my ongoing PhD research on the contemporary urban politics and development of the city of Rio de Janeiro.
A call for papers was put out in 2014 for the session ‘Grounding Knowledge, Assembling Policies – urban development and the Global South’, which generated great interest and the submission of more than 20 abstracts. After deciding on the format of four presentations followed by discussion, twelve papers were selected and three well-established scholars were invited to discuss them. Given the different topics covered each of the three-part session examined one dimension of the theme.
The first session considered urban and regional development in a historical perspective. It was opened by prof. Carlos Vainer who helped to set the context for the presentations that followed. Reminding us of the pre-Columbian cities in the Americas and how subsequent waves of foreign missions shaped their trajectories, their population and imaginaries, he urged us to not replace the euro-centrism of urban theory by a peripheral arrogance but to foster a more cosmopolitan dialogue, established in clear principles of positionality. The next three presentations examined the trajectories of places in Pakistan, Turkey and Iran and how each was shaped by their relations with elsewhere, from the colonial experience to modernist ideals and the geopolitics of the Cold War. Prof. Ola Söderström led the discussion arguing for the need of deep historical studies and to consider creative and progressive outcomes from relationships, as he was able to find in his work in the diminishing powers of the mafia in the Italian city of Palermo.
The second session was keen to examine current debates in the policy mobilities literature in the experience of cities of the Global South, with presenters focusing on policies implemented in Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro and Lusaka. The case studies portrayed how messy and complex cities networks are, a point taken by the discussant, Prof. Jennifer Robinson, commenting on the need to look at a diverse range of actors and their power relations in order to produce rich, extensive and even angry analyses.
The third and final session considered the materialization of circulating knowledge in new infrastructures with presenters discussing their work in water management in Guinea-Bissau, slum-upgrading in Sao Paulo, infrastructure financing in West Africa and transport networks in the US and Colombia, with comments by Dr Astrid Wood.
The positive feedback from participants and attendants suggested the currency of the theme and the need to be addressed further in the literature. A range of ideas were exchanged by participants spilling into group lunch and post-event drinks.
I am very grateful for the RSA Travel Award for funding my attendance to the event and for the opportunity to discuss my research and to link up with like-minded colleagues. I helped to raise awareness of the activities of the RSA by including institutional slides at the beginning of my presentation and highlighting their support to early career researchers. Participants were encouraged to browse the promotional material available in the room and were informed of the recent opening of the South American branch.