Field Trip to a Rust-Belt City: Utica

group of people posing with a statue

photo / Gianni Valenti

by Gianni Valenti B.S. URS ’22

Before making the three-hour trek from Ithaca to Utica, NY, I had many assumptions about what this trip could possibly have in store; the City of Utica simultaneously surpassed and dispelled all I had believed. Planned and hosted by the Organization of Urban and Regional Studies student group (OURS), the journey itself was one well worth the time and energy because, as a sophomore, I was not only able to further bond with my cohort, but also to get to know the new freshman class and enjoy their company as we dissected the urban fabric of this unique place.

The first stop on our excursion was the Community Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides funds for social investment and urban development. There we had the chance to take a look at a masterplan for downtown Utica that the Foundation funded. This plan detailed the unique issues of planning in a rust-belt city and how Utica is trying to rebrand its urban core. I was not only surprised with the ambition of the plan, but also intrigued by the ways in which the Community Foundation wants to advertise the future of the city. The crown jewel of Utica is The Aud, a mixed-use auditorium that not only stands as a symbol of civic pride, but is also somewhat of a beacon of hope for the city’s future. This contrasts with a great tension in the city – the hospital. During our meeting with the Community Foundation, we got a glimpse at the conversation surrounding the new hospital complex planned for downtown.

Traveling between destinations, we drove through various different zones of the city, getting a taste for the new, old, and in-between parts of Utica. Reaching downtown, we finally saw the site for the new hospital. With all the original warehouses and industrial buildings still intact, the streets and sidewalks were fenced off chain-link, covered with signs showing renderings of the new hospital. The group came face-to-face with a physical manifestation of the briefing we had received about the hospital controversy when we spotted a row of buildings with a banner reading “NO HOSPITAL DOWNTOWN” strung across their fronts. With this in mind, we continued on to our second stop.

We next visited The Aud, the official name for which is the Adirondack Bank Center at the Utica Memorial Auditorium. The Aud is more than just an entertainment venue – it is the most visited site in the city and contributes to an overwhelming feeling of civic pride. During our visit, we were guided by three personnel from The Aud’s financial and management departments and their enthusiasm for the building spoke volumes about how important this site is to Utica’s decisions in planning. Many of us came away from that visit with our eyes opened to a new form of civic engagement and placemaking surrounding sports and entertainment. I know I usually think of social gathering spaces centering more on parks and public works, but this private enterprise serves the roles of all of these spaces and more in Utica.

Our last visit was to The Center, a refugee resettlement and aid center located in Utica’s downtown. Personally, this was my favorite part of the trip because the topic of refugees and immigration is not only increasingly important in modern planning, but is also something none of my classes have touched on in a modern sense. At The Center, we were able to discuss with organization leaders just how important the refugee community is to Utica’s urban fabric and future development. Resettling between 400 and 600 refugees in the city a year, this organization assists almost all of the total immigrants to Utica. We had an active discussion regarding how to plan for these populations and meet their needs as they move to America, and specifically how Utica accommodates them. While the conversation was inspirational in terms of planning for diverse populations, it was kind of depressing when looking at Utica’s future as the current presidential administration continues to block refugees coming into the country.

Undergraduate Honors Thesis: Community Based Organizations and the Development of Political Influence in Immigrant Communities

statue of liberty

Statue of Liberty in New York City, NY

By Luke Bianco, ’19


This thesis sought to identify the role of community-based organizations (CBOs) in the development of political influence of U.S. immigrant communities. To answer this question, this work chronicled the development of the Cuban-American immigrant community in Miami and the Vietnamese-American immigrant community in California throughout the late 20th century. These groups offer a unique case study into the development of post-1965 immigrant communities and provide key insights to better understand the role of local institutions in the development of their political roots in the country. These insights were then directly applied to modern CBOs through the analysis of a series of qualitative interviews to determine these institutions’ roles today. Bianco argues that strong community institutions are integral to the successful defense of immigrant communities against social and political marginalization and the development of immigrant political influence.

The full thesis will be available from the Cornell University Library in spring 2020.

Course: CRP 4920 Undergraduate Honors Thesis Research

Instructor: Nicholas J. Klein

Undergraduate Honors Thesis: Resistance and Engagement in the Smart City: A Case Study in Community Participation Initiatives in Boston and Toronto

Bubble diagram

Figure 1: Network graph depicting tweets mentioning #bos311.

By Isabel Ling ’19


As more multinational companies attempt to institute large-scale urban smart cities projects, they face an increasing amount of resistance from local communities and organizations. This resistance stems from a lack of transparency on the part of private companies and local governments, a disregard for privacy and digital consent in the dialogue surrounding the projects, and a differing definition of what good communities and livable cities look like.

In this paper, Ling explores the patterns of resistance to smart city initiatives and the community organizations and movements that have sprung up in retaliation to the implementation of smart city initiatives in cities across the world. She compares the differing perceptions of private stakeholders, local governments, and community activists on community engagement and its role in the creation of a smart city, gaining insight through interviews, an analysis of online forums, and case studies. She analyzes the community participation efforts that smart city initiatives attempt to foster through new technologies. Ling also identifies narratives around resistance to smart cities and gains a better understanding of the barriers to integration for urban technologies.

The full thesis will be available from the Cornell University Library in spring 2020.

Course: CRP 4920 Undergraduate Honors Thesis Research

Instructor: Jennifer Minner



Undergraduate Honors Thesis: Why is the Bus Stuck? Using Archived Automated Vehicle Location Data for the Estimation and Categorization of Bus Transit Delay

Stop Window Line Graph

Figure 4: Stop windows are largely consistent across trip runs and can be used to define units of analysis.

By Ehab Ebeid ’19


In this project, Ebeid implemented software that transportation planners can use to understand the sources of bus transit delay at the bus stop and the interstop segment levels. As a case study, he used a recent second-by-second bus automated vehicle location (AVL) dataset by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). The resulting tool is designed to run in little time, requires little technical expertise to interpret, and is usable by different agencies, given that the underlying data is formatted in a similar way.

The project is additionally concerned with what AVL data resolution is appropriate for different applications. Though better transit feeds require granular temporal resolutions, a second-by-second dataset does not provide a more precise estimation of interstop durations and speeds. For estimating delay observed within stop windows — notably, dwell time — a system that promptly reports a change in the bus state is more important than producing frequent GPS readings.

The full thesis will be available from the Cornell University Library in spring 2020.

Course: CRP 4920 Undergraduate Honors Thesis Research

Instructor: Nicholas J. Klein


Students Discuss Climate Change Impacts at ICSD

dinner table group photo

Gerard Finin and his students meet with Tongan guests following the ICSD. photo / Gerard Finin

Visiting Lecturer Gerard Finin (M.R.P. ’86, Ph.D. CRP ’91) and students of the multi-disciplinary special topics course Global Climate Change Science and Policy traveled to New York City to participate in the International Conference on Sustainable Development (ICSD). In its seventh year, the conference was hosted by The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

The ICSD was part of the week-long Climate Week NYC 2019 event, which provided a forum for non-profit organizations, various levels of governments, and businesses to share practical solutions and goals for climate adaptation and mitigation.

At a dinner meeting following the conference, Finin and the students met with guests from the Kingdom of Tonga, which included: Hon. Mahe Tupouniua, Secretary of Foreign Affairs; Dr. T. Suka Mangisi, Deputy Chief of Mission for the Permanent Mission of Tonga to the United Nations; Rose Kautoke, Assistant Crown Counsel; and Siosiua Utoi’kamanu, Kingdom of Tonga Representative.

Students discussed the strategies for the Small Island Developing States (SIDS). The guests from Tonga and the class shared their thoughts on the challenges SIDS face when trying to accelerate climate adaptation and mitigation practices both domestically and at the international level.

“Although SIDS have historically been relatively small contributors of global carbon emissions, they have been the most vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change – from degradation and loss of fisheries to devastating cyclones,” shared Louis Chua (M.S. R.S. ’20) following the dinner.

Later in the semester, a student team led by Finin in the course will focus on the Kingdom of Tonga. They will be developing strategies and consulting for the kingdom, leading up to the COP25 conference, which will be held in Santiago, Chile later this year.

Global Climate Change Science and Policy is a multi-department seminar supported by Engaged Cornell. In addition to Finin, the course is taught by faculty from other colleges within the university, including Assistant Professor Linda Shi of City and Regional Planning.

Past courses and workshops of Finin’s have worked with constituents of Tonga to study the climate change impact on the kingdom. This past spring, Finin took his International Planning and Development Workshop to Tonga where they saw firsthand the impact of global warming on their livelihood. Students witnessed the coastal erosion conditions and water infrastructure, which were just a few challenges among many that communities face as a result of climate change.

Efforts to Alleviate Poverty in a Zambian Slum

Team group photo.

Site team with members of the federation. Anushi Garg MRP ’20 on far left

By Anushi Garg, M.R.P. ’20

During July and August, I interned with the People’s Process on Poverty and Housing in Zambia (PPHPZ), a small scale non-profit located in Lusaka, Zambia that supports the work of the Zambia Homeless and Poor People’s Federation (ZHPPF), a grassroots movement of informal settlement dwellers. ZHPPF is also an affiliate of the international federation Slum Dwellers International (SDI) which is present in 34 countries. PPHPZ provides technical and financial support to the federation and facilitates linkages to the government, funding partners, academia, and like-minded civil society organizations.

My work there involved two main projects; the first was a sanitation project based in Kanyama Ward 10, the biggest slum in Lusaka, inhabited by 29,000 families. The project was in collaboration with Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company (LWSC) who were technical partners and Water Aid-Zambia (WAZ) funding partners. Our team’s role was mobilizing the community, educating them about project benefits and getting people to sign up for toilets. Families were to pay for the toilets themselves, the cost for which was subsidized by WAZ. My role in the project involved regular field visits with the team to understand the crucial role of PPHPZ and the challenges faced by both the team and communities.

workers setting materials

Low-cost housing development project

The second project I worked on was a low-cost housing project. With the aim of building 250 low-cost housing units a year on a greenfield site, the houses built were to be small scale and cheap to construct. I was responsible for making the final designs for these houses, in accordance with the given limitations. The land was owned by the federation and not a gift by the government, thus allowing the poor more ownership and voice in the process. The target population was a large group of tenants who live in extremely poor and vulnerable conditions in the ghettos of Lusaka. I also provided graphical and communication support for the project.

Apart from these two main projects, I was involved in several smaller tasks during my internship. The office is involved in a working group about a relatively new concept of community philanthropy. I got a chance to attend a few of their network meetings in which they discussed how to expand the concept, which has the potential to become an interesting one for urban development in the global south. I had a chance to contribute in the form of ideas during the development of models, community mobilizing, and road shows. The office had a lot of different work going on beyond straightforward planning, which taught me about the interdisciplinary nature of work required of development planners.

team meeting in office

Team meeting at the office

The experience was especially unique because of my regular interactions with the federation members, who are primarily women who grew up in the slums in a city where over 60 percent of the population resides in slums. They have the best knowledge about the issues faced by their people, and this ensures that the projects reach the neediest families. Savings are a major component of the identity of the federation, and all members are part of saving schemes. One community can have one or many saving schemes, directed at different purposes such as education, daily savings, health, livelihood, etc. The overall idea behind this is that the community must be able to help itself, independent of any donor or entity.
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