"Students in the Spotlight" is a conversation series with members of the SofC Urban Leadership Fellowship and Academy program
What are your research and engagement interests?
My dissertation addresses the relationship between changes in the built environment of cities and the development of social solidarity in Toronto, Lima, and Bogota. I study the impact of certain urban elements—street layout, local amenities (e.g., libraries), restrictive infrastructure (e.g., gates), and geographically targeted social policy—on peoples’ engagement with their communities. I believe cities can both foster and hinder people’s opportunities to develop social connections, particularly beyond their closest circles. But, who decides how cities change? Multiple actors are involved, ranging from developers and business owners to the policymakers that target certain neighbourhoods for social interventions, and the communities that decide to fence off segments of the city. I aim for my research to serve as evidence for better informed urban policy.
What has motivated your interests and journey? How do you hope to make a difference?
I grew up in multiple cities in Peru and have been living in Toronto for almost six years. I’ve always been fascinated about two aspects of urban living that seem contradictory. On the one hand, large cities foster anonymity and individualism. On the other, even in massive cities like Lima or Toronto people find ways to foster sentiments of community usually at the neighbourhood level. For example, I lived with my grandparents for a few years in one of Lima’s oldest working-class districts. My grandparents interacted a lot with their neighbours, either in the corner store, the bakery two blocks down, or standing by the newspaper kiosk. A few of their friends and neighbours would also stop by their door to check on them and exchange a few words. At the same time, social trust is very low in Lima. This is expressed in negative attitudes towards “strangers,” including people living just a few blocks east of my grandparent’s neighbourhood and, more recently, Venezuelan immigrants. Both inclinations—communitarian and individualistic—coexist and shape how we think and act upon the neighbourhoods we live in. But these aspects are not just social; they are rooted in the physical nature of cities and the policies implemented on them. For instance, would we call a city safe if hundreds of their streets are closed off by fences or gates? How would our perception of a neighbourhood change if the government categorizes it as “in need”? I wish to make an impact by bringing people’s complex interactions with their surroundings to the attention of policymakers and other actors.
What’s the latest project you have been working on that you would like to share with the SofC audiences?
The project I’m working with the support of the School of Cities is a chapter of my dissertation about social trust in Toronto. I’m excited to get the manuscript out for review in the next few weeks and disseminate some of my main takeaways in an op-ed soon after. The main argument I’m trying to make is that the opportunities people have for casual encounters in the street matter when it comes to developing trust towards others, particularly strangers. I think it’s a powerful idea because it makes you consider how much of our environment actually allows us to interact with people different from us.
As a student, researcher and or activist, what have you learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and its global impact? How do you envision post-pandemic recovery? What do you hope for?
The pandemic has taught us many things, especially for those of us interested in cities. One of the most amazing things has been the outpour of local solidarity around the world. In Toronto, I saw this closely through The People’s Pantry and other initiatives supporting families facing food insecurity. In Lima, and other places around the world, women have taken the lead in organizing emergency community kitchens. The challenge for the post-pandemic recovery, in my view, is to learn from these experiences, to better prepare us for other crises. Here, urban planners, local authorities, and developers will play a key role. For instance, how can we balance tight-knit communities with the increasing need for open spaces? How can governments further support the grassroot initiatives that emerged during the pandemic? And, finally, how could policies help the hardest-hit neighbourhoods without further stigmatizing them?
Please share with us your experiences at the SofC. How do you think being a member of the SofC Urban Leadership Fellowship and Academy Program has contributed to your scholarship and added to your experience as a student?
I’ve been a fan of the School of Cities since it was created. I’m both a Student Fellow and part of a School of Cities’ research group called the Urban Genome Project. In both instances, I have benefited from the truly interdisciplinary nature of the school. As academics, we are trained to write to academic audiences in our fields. While that is an important skill, at the School of Cities I have become more conscious of the importance of thinking about the dissemination of our research. The School’s members are committed to community outreach and policy impact. I’m very thankful to be part of the School of Cities.
Any final words or message?
I would encourage undergrad and graduate students to apply for the School of Cities Urban Leadership Fellowship and Academy next cycle. The support and environment are amazing. Besides, it offers a great opportunity to meet likeminded people outside our academic units.
Fernando is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology, University of Toronto, where he also obtained an M.A. degree. His dissertation addresses the relationship between the built infrastructure of cities and social capital in three different contexts: Canada, Peru, and Colombia. Fernando is a member of the Urban Genome Project, where he conducts interdisciplinary research on urban social policy and neighbourhood change. Before joining UofT, he worked for the Peruvian Ombudsman’s Office and the Peruvian Ministry of Culture developing policy-oriented data on political engagement, local communities, and indigenous peoples. Fernando’s main interests are urban and political sociology, social policy, and quantitative and computational methods. On his spare time, he enjoys cycling, swimming, and engaging in student activism.