Interview with Andre Sorensen

How did you get interested in City Studies/Human Geography?
I became interested in urban issues when I was working in publishing and civic movements in Toronto during the 1980s. I followed current planning issues very closely, including the debates about Harborfront, the railway lands redevelopment, public housing, and public transit, and realized how important city governments are, in refereeing major conflicts over big investments, and making decisions that shape urban liveability and environment. So, I decided to go back to school, and did a Masters and Phd at the London School of Economics, in the Urban and Regional Planning Studies and Geography programs. Going back to school in my early 30s was one of the best decisions I ever made.

What are you working on right now?
My research focuses primarily on international urban comparisons. I grew up in Canada, did my PhD in London, and wrote my thesis on land development in the Tokyo suburbs. My interest in Japan was partly by chance, as my supervisor Michael Hebbert had just published some fascinating research on urban sprawl in Japan, and my wife was doing her own Phd on Japanese social policy, so it seemed logical to do something on Japanese cities.

In the 1990s Japan was still the second largest economy in the world, but there was very little English language research on Japanese urbanization, urban planning and urban governance. As the first ‘developmental state’ Japan’s experience of rapid growth and urbanization has been very influential in the rest of East and Southeast Asia, with lessons both about what to do and what not to do.
For me the Japanese example is important as a case where very different urban logics, institutions, and governance systems have endured through the process of modernization. Japan was one of the few countries never colonized by the Western powers, and retained its own legal systems, concepts of land and property ownership, and of urban life. This provides particularly rich opportunities for comparison, and for seeing our own taken-for-granted assumptions from a different perspective. It is almost automatic for us to assume that the way cities work is kind of inevitable, we normalize practices that are in fact the result of ongoing conflicts and compromises among powerful actors.
Comparison allows us to step back and interrogate urban institutions from the perspective that other cities are possible, other arrangements, assumptions, and rules can (and have) produced very different outcomes. My current work focuses on developing theoretical approaches for urban comparison, focusing on the role of institutions in regulating urban change.

What do you bring to the undergraduate class room?
I think that the main thing that I bring to the classroom is a profound interest and enthusiasm about city studies and urban geography. Cities fascinate me because there are such enormous differences between them. Urban governance systems vary greatly, particularly between cities in different countries, but also within countries. That suggests that meaningful policy choices can be, and are being made. Cities have significant powers to regulate capital investment in property, to provide public goods and services, and to structure market processes within their jurisdiction. These powers are contested and dynamic because they matter.
Urban governance processes also have significant potential to create much better outcomes for residents because they are not only zero sum games in which one individual’s win is another’s loss (although that dynamic is also common). But there are also many cases in which major gains for most or all of those involved have been achieved.
With the increasing complexity of environmental and social issues, and increasing density of cities, the importance of urban policy is magnified, and the consequences of success or failure are enormous.
This is a crucial moment to create better, more inclusive, more liveable, and much more energy efficient, and environmentally sustainable cities, partly because of rapid global urbanization, partly because of the vast investment currently taking place, and partly because of the growing threat of climate change.
Cities have the potential to be a part of the solution, but that will take careful policy-making, active citizen engagement, and much more inclusive democratic governance. All of those depend on better understanding of urban processes and I think that urban geography and comparisons between cities can make a big contribution to that.

What is one helpful tip you’d like to share with your students to help them succeed at UTSC?
Take some classes just for fun. Try to learn really different things while you are doing your undergraduate degree. And READ. It is a great way to learn about stuff.