Prof. Gabriella Carolini: Public(s) Service

My experiences with public service have not been so much about particular events or series therein, but about the value structure and objectives driving my professional life and more. Within the urban planning community, we are often reminded that the word "public" even is not so much conceived as a singular as it is a plural. Working in the "public interest" necessitates this understanding of the diversity of “publics” and the importance of recognizing how our studies, plans, and interventions interact with, shape, and are shaped by different stakeholders’ priorities in the public sphere. For me, public service is thus about engaging with these viewpoints, advocating for marginalized voices in the pushes and pulls between unequally powered lobbies, and understanding that time is not mine to keep or measure but rather to both pace and race with. In short, for me public service is about balancing patience and urgency in working to improve and ensure decent living conditions for all in our neighborhoods. My recent work with a group of MIT graduate students from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) in Mozambique – with the important support of the PSC – illustrates why.

Over the month of August, the MIT DUSP team and I lived and worked in a peri-urban district of the Mozambican capital city of Maputo, a part of the city where piped water and electricity networks scarcely reach and where sewage lines and paved roads have yet to make an entry (though this is slated for change if big plans for a public-private redevelopment project come to fruition). Here, our team – whose project centered on advocacy planning with neighborhood youth and local university partners from the University of Eduardo Mondlane within the water and sanitation sectors – became all too aware of the challenges of working to balance patience and urgency in gathering and activating basic data on neighborhood population growth as well as water, sanitation, and community health needs and assets. Living “peri-urban,” as our team found out, is very different from reading about “peri-urban.” When you must walk an hour or two just to get to the nearest “public” transportation point, “public” latrine/toilet, or “public” marketplace – even when technically still in the capital city – one’s appreciation for the accessibility, adequacy, affordability, and awareness of public services is heightened. The limitations presented by distance, however, are just the obvious part of understanding quality of life challenges in this marginalized and isolated part of Maputo. Indeed, this part of the city is about to experience very rapid in-situ urbanization, where rather than building out better transportation access to the city center, all the services we felt lacking over the past month are planned to be more widely distributed and “arrive” within the next two years. Does this mean then that public services will improve?

I venture to say my students would know better than to answer with a simple yes. They would ask for whom the services are meant to improve; they would ask about which particular services would arrive first and why; they would ask about how investment priorities were determined, how they would be financed, and how that financing would impact future generations; they would ask about the sustainability – in environmental, economic, and equity terms – of the different services and developments envisioned. Will roads be first paved or water networks extended? Will the extension of the piped water system be one which includes low-cost connection and use options for current communities living in the in-situ urbanization development horizon? How will sanitation systems and drainage be addressed? How will development plans impact water levels and neighborhoods from which the water is being pumped? Who gets to control where precisely in the neighborhood different services are extended to, and importantly, whose land and interests are impacted? These are all the kinds of questions that students of planning have become familiar with. However, recalling them in actual professional practice ‘in the field’ requires reflective practice that is not always comfortable, especially in a context of scarcity. Learning to balance the need for patience in development – for asking the important questions – with the urgent need for extending basic services – is all central to a being a planner (and planning educator) working in the public service. It is also why having a Center purely dedicated to public service at a place like MIT represents a formidable opportunity for inspiring in our community the kind of extraordinary, thoughtful, and astute engagement required by the public(s). 

Gabriella Y. Carolini, PhD
Ford Career Development Assistant Professor of Urban Studies and Planning
Department of Urban Studies and Planning