By Wendy Carlson
Bruno Carvalho ’00 is a professor of romance languages and literature and co-director of the Harvard Mellon Urban Initiative. He became interested in studying cities as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, and his current work lies at the intersection of urban and environmental design. He has written op-eds for The New York Times on the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, and he is currently working on a book on how people have imagined urban futures since the 1790s.
We recently sat down for a Q&A with this fascinating alumnus of Hotchkiss.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN URBANIZATION?
As a kid, cities taught me how life exceeds the sum of its parts. They were places of possibilities. Each street corner could reserve a surprise. And chance encounters could offer lessons in how the world is bigger and more complex than it might seem. Growing up in Brazil, stark urban inequalities made clear that the versions of reality that I got from religion, school, or family, often left a lot out. Years later, at Hotchkiss, I’d arrive in the early morning at JFK airport and walk around Manhattan all day waiting for the evening bus to Lakeville. Spending time with classmates from very different parts of New York also exposed me to how the same city could contain a huge range of backgrounds and aspirations. Over time, as I began to make a profession out of trying to understand social and cultural dynamics. Studying urbanization became a natural progression.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR BOOK YOUR AND HOW YOUR CURRENT ACADEMIC WORK RELATES TO IT.
People did not walk around medieval Paris or the Amazonian forest imagining that their surroundings might look unrecognizable to the next generation. In modernity, that changed. The expectation that the future will be radically different from the past emerged as a defining trait of urban life. The book is called The Invention of the Future: A Transatlantic History of Urbanization. It’s about cities as expressions of the notion that humans can reshape the planet as well as their own destinies. It tells the story of the evolving aspirations of urban planners and of the people that made cities, often seeking to escape roles assigned to them based on gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, and class. It asks questions like: How did people imagine urban futures? How do they see their own futures in cities? How did their expectations shape developments, even when they were frustrated?
WHAT IS THE HARVARD MELLON URBAN INITIATIVE, AND HOW DOES IT TIE INTO THE AREAS OF ACADEMIA IN WHICH YOU WORK?
We are trying to build an urban studies program at Harvard. Cities and a liberal arts education at their best universities share certain characteristics: they allow for multiple ways of being and belonging to thrive; they push people to step outside of themselves and contemplate multiple perspectives. Urban studies can provide common denominators in our increasingly siloed schools. An ethnographer and a computer scientist might debate the potentials and blind spots of big data or GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping. Understanding cities requires many disciplinary approaches, and urban studies can bring very different students and researchers to the same table.
CAN YOU TELL US SOME OF THE WAYS THAT PEOPLE IN THE PAST IMAGINED CITIES OF THE FUTURE?
People tend to envision innovations in a steep ascending line, though they often plateau after taking off. So, for example, after cars came about, flying vehicles seemed right around the corner. At the same time, many of our current problems result from the unintended consequences of technologies once hailed as solutions, like the car.
On the flip side, many of those that confidently predicted fantastic inventions would be shocked at actual social changes—in gender relations, for example. Overall, our foretelling record is mostly unimpressive, but my book shows how predictions can be a powerful political tool. There are also many instances of authoritarian plans that sought to segregate and exclude. Many worked, but only partially. Against the odds, those deemed undesirable or inferior often appropriated spaces not meant for them. So, rather than succumbing to doomsterism or techno-boosterism, we should renew our capacity to envision and pursue large-scale transformations.
COVID-19 UNEXPECTEDLY CHANGED OUR CITIES; GIVEN THOSE CHANGES, HOW DO YOU ENVISION OUR CITIES OF THE FUTURE?
One lesson from my research is that we can only predict the past. In retrospect, it
is clear that reasonable expectations have tended to underestimate the range of potential outcomes. Of course, much of what happens now will depend on what we do. My own hope is that we invest in more compact and democratic cities. Dense cities are much more environmentally viable than sprawling suburbs; so paradoxically, anti- urban pastoral fantasies can be ecologically harmful.
There will be many readjustments, and certain sectors like commercial real estate might suffer, but cities will keep attracting people. Of course, relatively few jobs can be done remotely. Even in those cases, the pandemic has taught us about both the possibilities and the perils of remote work. It can be less rewarding, more exhausting. And we can’t discount what sociologists call “weak ties” which are those in-person settings that foster chance encounters and unexpected interactions between acquaintances or colleagues. These can sometimes lead to meaningful relationships and outcomes.
HOW CAN CITIES OF THE PAST INFORM CITIES OF THE FUTURE?
As the famous Faulkner line goes: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Today’s wealth gaps are direct consequences of racist housing and lending policies, for example. I also think the study of the past can be humbling. Urbanization can never be reduced to a set of variables. A mostly urban world will continue to confound our ability to understand and foretell. This study of how we got here serves as a reminder for us to accept the limits of what can be known about the future. At the same time, study of the past can help to loosen up the perception of apocalyptic scenarios as inevitable and renew a sense of possibility. We’ll need serious changes to tackle climate change. The good news is that unimaginable transformations have happened throughout the history of urbanization.
HOW DOES YOUR INTEREST IN THE RAINFOREST INTERSECT WITH YOUR INTEREST IN URBANIZATION?
Most of the Amazonian population is urban. And cities don’t end at their boundaries, once we consider systems of energy, capital, culture, and so on. Deforestation is linked to political pressures and investments centered in cities. It can also have consequences for metropolitan areas, leading to changes in rain patterns and water scarcity, for example.
BY THE WAY, WHERE DO YOU LIVE? HOW DOES THAT FIT INTO THE CONTEXT OF YOUR VISION OF URBANIZATION?
I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The city is improving its bike networks, which is a crucial measure to reduce emissions and increase safety, health, and fun. It’s a great place to live. I only wish we built more housing, so more people could afford to live here.
Editor's note: Carvalho is the featured all-school speaker during Hispanic Heritage Month in October 2022. While on campus, he will visit classes, have meals with students and faculty, and offer a seminar for faculty from Hotchkiss and our neighboring schools in the Center for Global Understanding and Independent Thinking (CGUIT).