Former Co-op turned Research Associate Warren Hagist reflects on his experience at I2UD as he embarks upon his graduate studies at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
The Institute for International Urban Development was the greatest influence on my education and career in the field of international development. Although I was very interested in the field as a freshman at Northeastern University, it was not until my co-op at I2UD that I was able to see how to translate my classroom learning into a career set of skills through urban planning.
My first assignment as a co-op (aside from brewing the daily coffee) was to assist in the research for the State of the Arab Cities 2012. It was January 2011, and no sooner had research begun than the upheaval and regime change across the region began. It was fascinating to see how cities were at the center of the protests, and indeed how the demographic, economic, social, and environmental trends that were being profiled in the State of the Arab Cities report were the drivers of unrest. I was also given a real look into how the aid industry – and it truly is an industry – works, built not so much on competition between the most-able and proven service providers but on personal contacts and political considerations. I admired the work ethic of I2UD’s professionals as they worked for content, not billable hours.
The experience as a co-op changed which classes I chose for the rest of my studies, as I chose more pragmatic courses such as land-use planning and ArcGIS. I felt very lucky to come back to I2UD after graduating. I was excited to be a part of the team at a small office, knowing that my contributions truly made a difference to operations and quality of work. I learned too much to summarize, but suffice it to say that I2UD gave me the best introduction and formation in the urban planning profession I could have hoped for. The multi-disciplinary nature of the work meant that for any given project, I’d be working on research, graphics, map-making, and report writing. I had the opportunity to work with professionals from around the world: some days we worked on projects on four different continents. Throughout, I was inspired by the direction Frank, Mona, and John took us: rather than producing formulaic work, we responded to the needs and conditions of the urban poor and vulnerable. Our work was always adapting to realities on the ground. For instance, we recognized that climate change and its associated extreme weather patterns is already affecting the lives of people in environmentally sensitive areas, with the greatest burden falling on the poor. We began to ensure that our projects and research included a climate component – not with an isolated paragraph or two, but by really weaving climate-conscious thinking into how we approach problems.
I was surrounded by an amazing breadth and depth of knowledge and experience at I2UD: from understanding the dynamics of politics and urbanization in the Middle East; to knowing how to incorporate social inclusion into planning from Belize to the Balkans; to facilitating change and consensus through smart map design; to ensuring that a project meets the needs of men and women alike. I learned how complex even the simplest-seeming problems in urban planning can be. However, it is in addressing this complexity that a truly useful, transformative project can take root, without simultaneously sowing the seeds for future problems.