‘The Idea That A (urban) Planner Is A Genius With Grand Ideas Is Bogus’

Dr Samina Raja plans cities, towns, and regions to promote health and food equity. An award-winning professor and founder of a globally recognized Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities laboratory, operating from the University of Buffalo, she and her team conduct research on how to develop equitable, sustainable, and healthy cities. Her research has been used to advise local and national governments within and outside the US, and international organizations like the UN’s FAO. In a freewheeling interview with Masood Hussain, she offers her ideas about Kashmir of her imagination

KASHMIR LIFE (KL): Food security is a major concern in developing countries. What are its manifestations and current global status?

DR SAMINA RAJA (DSR): Food insecurity has varied definitions but is often defined as the chronic lack of access to food. Food insecurity is different from hunger. Hunger is a physical sensation tied to undernourishment while food insecurity is about chronic deprivation of food over time. In 2021, more than 800 million people were affected by hunger, and around 2.3 billion people globally were food insecure. Though food insecurity is a problem globally, it is more prevalent in the developing world. For example, the prevalence of undernourishment is 9.8 per cent globally, while in South Asia it is nearly 16.9 per cent. It is ironic that farmers from developing countries who grow vegetables and fruits for the world often face food deprivation. The persistence of food insecurity across the globe is tied to the lack of food sovereignty or the lack of farmers’ control over the means of food production.

KL: Guide us through your journey from Srinagar to the State University of New York, University at Buffalo.

DSR: I am a trans-disciplinary scholar and a professor at the State University of New York, University at Buffalo. I was trained as a civil engineer as well as an urban planner. I completed an undergraduate degree in civil engineering from Jamia Millia Islamia, a Master’s (in Housing) from the School of Architecture and Planning (New Delhi), and a PhD in urban planning (with a focus on fiscal impacts of land development). My career trajectory blended science, technology, engineering and urban planning. As a civil engineer, I was trained to build but not necessarily trained to think about why we build. Motivated by concerns about the impact of building on human health and health equity, I decided to pursue advanced training so I could use my engineering and urban planning skills in the service of health equity. Health equity is a condition in which all people in a society can lead healthy and full lives, including those with the fewest resources. This interest in equity led me to pursue a PhD in urban planning at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US.

I recall the first class I completed during my PhD programme was about ethics, which, despite being an important aspect for all disciplines, is not widely discussed. The course focused on fundamental questions tied to equity, especially about why, and for whom, one should plan or build. The goals of the course were aligned with my values and satisfied my curiosity. As a PhD student, I was able to connect a values-based education to technical questions. Ultimately, my PhD focused on how urban planners measure the fiscal impacts of land development and the implications of such measurements for the well-being of present and future generations.

Prof Samina Raja heads the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities laboratory in the University of Buffalo, New York. Photograph by Alexender J Becker

In western urban planning, there is a concept called the ‘highest and best use of land’. Unfortunately, this concept has also been exported to Kashmir and South Asia.  There is a heuristic notion that if, for example, farmland is converted into a commercial building, some see the conversion as a measure of development. In the US, cities pursue such development because it is presumed to generate money. This presumption is based on widespread, but outdated, measurement techniques that urban planners use to judge whether land development is “good” or “bad”. In my doctoral research, I measured the accuracy of these techniques using statistical models. I found that the common techniques that planners use to measure the fiscal impacts of development are flawed. In the subsequent body of scholarship for the last 20 years, I have found that misguided land use planning and development can be harmful to public well-being. To translate this simply: if you see a patch of farmland, or say, a paddy field, converted into a mansion and you think it’s a sign of progress, it turns out that it’s not. It’s complicated.

KL: Unlike our universities, PhD in the west is a systemic and systematic investment in an individual. Did your dissertation change anything?

DSR: In the long run, yes. Not immediately though. Translating research into action takes time. My dissertation generated more questions (about existing urban planning procedures) than offered immediate solutions. This, in my judgment, was the key to my long-term research success. One of the key questions that it generated was to push me (and planners) to rethink the utility of the so-called “land use hierarchy,” and it forced me to re-imagine ‘how to plan?’ It set me on a trajectory to develop tools and resources for local governments throughout the United States through a sub-field called food systems planning.  Food systems planning questions the traditional way in which urban planning has occurred for decades across the globe. My research lab is the first one in the world that used urban planning to improve food systems (there are other labs now as well). So, I was able to take my learning from my dissertation and develop new – healthier ways – of planning cities. We develop technical assistance models and training for a variety of audiences including researchers, city governments, and international organizations. I have been doing research for more than 20 years but I couldn’t tell you the immediate impact of my dissertation. Cumulatively, my research has generated tools that have helped cities, towns, and other types of communities plan in more equitable, sustainable, and healthy ways.

KL: What has been the contribution of your lab?

DSR: As I noted earlier, our research team is one of the earliest in the world to study and develop urban planning strategies for building equitable, healthy, and sustainable food systems and communities. We are an interdisciplinary team so we use quantitative methods as well as qualitative methods to understand the impact of the built environment on human health (at any given time our collaborators include geographers, physicians, public health experts, urban planners, policy scholars, and computer science experts). With Geographic Information Systems (GIS), surveying, and other technologies, we monitor the impact of urban planning on human health. We have published work that shows disparities in the built environment, as well as the impact of the design and quality of one’s neighbourhood on the incidence of chronic diseases.

Our lab is well known for translating research into policy guidance, training, and action on the ground. To give some examples, in the US, I led the writing of the Planners Guide to Community and Regional Planning for the American Planning Association, the largest professional association of urban planners in the US (2008). Because local governments in the US needed training to enact plans that promote healthy and equitable food systems (only 1 per cent of local governments in the US reported being equipped to engage in food systems planning), in 2012, my team launched the Growing Food Connections, a national initiative that provides guidance to US local governments on food systems planning. This initiative, which received US $3.96 million from the US government, is a game changer because it provides easy access to information to local governments across the United States. Planning to protect food systems and health is a new sub-field even in the US and globally. So, my lab’s contribution has been to change the field of urban planning in the United States.

Similarly, our work has also expanded globally. My team has authored guidance on local government planning for food systems for the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations. Our lab routinely aids local governments across the United States to better understand the impact of plans on food systems and human health (in Kashmir these are called Master Plans).

KL: What have been the major findings of your investigations or academic probes?

DSR: We have a lot of different studies, so it is difficult to summarize 20 years’ worth of work. That said, I will summarize the major findings by saying that urban planning without considering the health and food system is perilous to the health and well-being of current and future generations. Here are some examples: Scientific results show that urban planning patterns (USA) undermine the health and well-being of marginalized people, especially the Black, immigrant, and indigenous peoples (we have many different studies showing this). Poor urban planning has especially harmed human health by encouraging automobile-centric land use patterns (e.g., four-lane highways are privileged over farmland). On aggregate, such land use patterns discourage physical activity (walking) and limit communities’ ability to grow their own food. The US has high rates of chronic disease – much of these can be attributed to such environmental changes.

New models of planning from our studies suggest that planning for healthy, equitable, and sustainable cities will benefit from protecting the food system. We have found that science can learn from the experiences of farmers on how to plan and design communities. So, in one of the UN-supported projects we tracked farmers’ experiences in different parts of the world (Jamaica, Ghana, and India) to understand the impact of urban planning. The findings of the study are straightforward and will not surprise anybody. Today, globally, urban planning decisions are being implemented to undermine food sovereignty and food security. They are especially undermining farmland preservation and farming.

This is also true in Kashmir as land use change is harming smallholder farmers. On the flip side we have noticed that in some places, in fact also in Srinagar, even though urban planning land use decisions are negatively impacting farmers, small-scale farmers are trying to resist bad urban planning decisions. Farmers are, in many ways, at the frontline of protecting the health of their community. For example, nutrition rates and food security rates in the Srinagar district are better than in many parts of South Asia including the Indian subcontinent. One plausible reason is that historically Kashmiris have had egalitarian land ownership patterns, where people make use of their land holdings to grow vegetables for themselves and others. Protecting land and using it to grow food for oneself is a health-enabling practice. So even though negative urban planning decisions are impacting people’s health, farmers are protecting the health of people. I think Kashmiris must understand that you must protect their local food supply chain; you can eat, buy and consume Kashmiri food that is not processed. That means food on your dastarkhaan needs to come from a nearby farm or vaer. Eating haakh (Collard Greens) is better than eating any other packaged food that travels from distant places. So, if the food comes wrapped in packages cut it out of your diet, and if it comes from the soil eat it! I would say that we are learning through our studies that many traditional Kashmiri ideas were far healthier than some of the so-called modern ways.

KL: If you are told to reconstruct Srinagar tomorrow, what will you do?

DSR: My answer will likely surprise some people in Kashmir, especially given how I observe planning to unfold in Kashmir.  The first thing I would do is sit down with people to understand their aspirations for Srinagar. The idea that a planner is a genius with grand ideas is bogus. I am sorry to put it just plainly. The idea of an urban planner or a government deciding what is good for a city is an exported model from the West. The best ideas come from the community. In the case of Srinagar, if I could, I would sit with farmers in Srinagar and ask them how they would protect the future of their neighbourhood, and how they would develop the area so that it is protected for them and their community. Then, this process would generate context-sensitive ideas for how to plan for healthy land use (this is a process that my team has used in other parts so the world, for example).

So, planning is not only a scientific-technical exercise. It is an exercise to understand the problem at hand and return power to the people. I can give examples of prescriptions and models that work elsewhere but the first answer is: all planning must begin with inclusive and equitable processes that privilege people with the least amount of power. In Srinagar, these people are farmers. We depend on the farmers, but we are not listening to them.

It must be said that Srinagar has quite a brilliant policy framework (in its master plan). I have reviewed it very closely and I followed the process as well. It recognizes the unique ecology of the city, and its unique heritage, and lays out a framework that is comparable to many plans globally. However, the policy framework and the implementation guidelines are inconsistent. That said, here are some practical steps to consider: protect the land from conversion and development. In Kashmir, we are blessed with fertile lands and water bodies, but we are putting driveways, roads, highways, flyovers, and malls on them (I have seen a hotel construction in a flood channel of all the places). All of this so-called development is bad for human health (and the environment). Globally cities are adding green infrastructure such as bioswales, community gardens, urban farms, edible landscapes, etc., but unfortunately, Srinagar is destroying its existing natural green infrastructure (In city of Montreal, Canada they are literally dismantling flyovers but in Srinagar, we are building them).

Some may say Srinagar needs flyovers for reduced traffic congestion and mobility. I would agree that we need reduced congestion and mobility – but evidence from around the world shows that roads and flyovers (and cars) are not the way to improve mobility (proximity to highways is linked to a higher incidence of asthma, for example). There should be investments in ecologically sensitive and healthy forms of travel, including pedestrian, bicycle, bus, and trolley-based travel infrastructure. If you visit older European cities or even Global South cities, we see the use of electric trolleys–that may be a good substitute here.

Until urban planning looks different in Kashmir, Kashmiris can also take matters into their hand: consider not building cement/concrete driveways within your homes – opt for surfaces that allow water to percolate into the ground; bicycle or walk rather than drive a car (if you can), and, grow and eat your own local food.

KL: We live in an era where we are capable of altering the genes of life forms. Genetically Modified food is one such example. Where do you place yourself on the ethical debate of using GM foods?

DSR: One of the things about scientists and researchers is that they don’t answer questions that are outside of their domain. So, I will politely say that I am not going to answer that question, but I will tell you who can. A brilliant and amazing colleague at SKUAST named Dr Khalid Masood with who I have worked can answer this question. He could probably do genetic modifications in his sleep! You should ask him. I remember when I visited his research lab, there was a poster over the door, which said, and I quote, “Yes we can clone dinosaurs but is it a good idea?” That said, I will redirect your question to ask why aren’t we using our scientific skills to protect those plants and foods that are indigenous and good for us, for example, haakh (collard greens). With a number of colleagues in Kashmir including Athar Parvaiz, Khalid Masoodi, Shakeel Romshoo, and others, we are trying to document the power of haakh for human health as well as environmental health. Briefly, haakh is from the Brassica family. It is nutritious, it is cheap, it is culturally celebrated, and it is available locally. For goodness sake, tell me why do we need genetically modified food when we have this amazing vegetable. I encourage people to follow Dr Khalid Masoodi’s work who will hopefully share his result on haakh in the near future.

(Humaira Nabi processed the interview)


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