Fifteen Questions: Bruno Carvalho on Cities, Bike Lanes, and Punny Halloween Costumes

The urbanist sat down with Fifteen Minutes to discuss cities and urban studies. “I’m not sure I would say cities are inherently anything except for places where strangers live among each other and places where constructions are supposed to last beyond a single generation,” he says.


Bruno M. Carvalho is a professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and African and African American Studies and is an affiliated professor in Urban Planning and Design at the Graduate School of Design. His work focuses on cities and culture.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: When started here, you talked to the Harvard Gazette about leading an effort to establish an urban studies secondary. How has navigating that been, and what do you think the future of urban studies at Harvard looks like?

BMC: One thing I’ve learned is that Harvard sometimes moves slow. And that’s not always a bad thing. Since then, we now have the Bloomberg Center for Cities which provides a campus-wide space for conversations around the urban. There’s plenty of student interest, I think there are a lot more interests coming to college now, realizing the role that the built environment plays in their lives and the legacies they inherited from the past, and the possibilities that we can envision for the future.

There are ways in which Urban Studies can help us fulfill what I see as one of the greater promises of liberal arts education, which is to bring together people with very different perspectives, backgrounds, aspirations, and skills, because it generates a common denominator. You can have a computer scientist and anthropologist discussing the perils and promises of smart cities, or a poet and an engineer talking about different priorities or aesthetic values and design.

I think that our curriculum doesn’t do enough to produce pathways for these pretty radical encounters between very different kinds of students and different kinds of conversations. And I think urban studies almost necessarily does that.

FM: What did you study as an undergrad, and how did you find your way into urban studies?

BMC: I was always very interested in history, but in this very naive way thought that I got this. I know a lot about history already, so why would I study history? And I ended up first gravitating to government, then I found government to be a little more limited in its understanding of politics than what resonated with me at 18.

And then I discovered that you could actually study in Portuguese, and I’m from Brazil, and I thought, well, I’m reading Portuguese, that’s a lot easier and quicker for me. So I discovered that you could do comparative literature and combine a lot of different things. I ended up writing a thesis about Arthur Miller and the Brazilian playwright called Nelson Rodrigues, and about competing visions of what it means to be successful, and how literature could help us think through that.

FM: You teach a freshman seminar on how people in the past imagined future cities. What are some common predictions that people had in the past that didn’t pan out to what our reality is now?

BMC: I’ve been researching and thinking about this for the better part of the last 10 years, and I have a book that’s called “The Invention of the Future: A Transatlantic History of Urbanization,” where a lot of this research culminates.

Some generalizable things from my research are that reasonable predictions tend to underestimate the range of possible outcomes. In other words, we’re often really, really wrong in our forecasting. All sorts of things people assumed didn’t pan out, from concerns of overpopulation to flying cars. There’s a sort of general tendency for people to imagine, after there’s been an inflection point in the history of technology, to imagine that it will continue at the same pace and not a plateau, whereas it often plateaus. So on the one hand, people were pretty convinced that there would be flying vehicles right after flying technology started to become available all the way from balloons to airplanes. At the same time, nobody really predicted that the car would so dramatically reshape our built environment, because it just seemed like it made so little sense to rethink our cities and function of what are really fairly inefficient technologies to move a lot of people around. And yet it happened.

FM: How do you measure the health of a city — socially, economically?

BMC: A healthy city is a city that enables the widest range of futures possible while also adapting to changing aspirations. A healthy city is never static.

FM: When you go to a new city, what’s the first thing you notice?

BMC: How easy it is to get around without a car. What kinds of spaces are dedicated to pedestrians, to children, to the elderly? How do people pay their bills? How do they have fun? Where do they hang out? How do they dress, how do they interact with each other? What does the building stock tell us about its histories? What are the layers that you can kind of unveil, if you look closely into cues like architecture?

FM: If you were to design a city from scratch, how would you make it?

BMC: I wouldn’t. We have plenty of cities that we can redesign. And there’s so many cities that I love that are so different from each other. I would say that my urban politics is defined more by walkability than anything else, and there are different cities that get to that from very, very different places.

FM: Are cities inherently unequal places and is there any way to design cities in a way that would mitigate inequality?

BMC: I’m not sure I would say cities are inherently anything except for places where strangers live among each other and places where constructions are supposed to last beyond a single generation.

Now, are human societies inherently hierarchical and unequal? I also don’t know. Certainly cities historically have been, but some much more than others. Access to mobility, access to jobs, culture, housing, and so on, have been the factors that made some cities more mobile and open and inclusive than others.

FM: This is perhaps too general a question, but what would you say is the biggest difference you’ve noticed between Brazilian cities and American cities?

BMC: One thing I’ve tried to resist in my work is using national categories in conversations about the building climate, because often they’re analytical categories that can distort. There are people in Rio that have more in common with people in Johannesburg or in Paris than they do with people half a mile from where they live.

That said, there are ways in which Latin American cities are historically very different from U.S. cities.

Their growth boom was largely unplanned. It was largely with self-built housing. Whereas earlier cities often developed with infrastructure first and then people, in Latin American cities, often people came before the infrastructure.

FM: Where do you see the source of change in the design of cities coming from? Is it a national government or local government? Is it more social forces?

BMC: In the U.S. there have been more movements that understand the crucial role of land use policies. There have been abundant housing movements that have focused on zoning reforms and so on, but I think it’s way too early to have some sense of what the bigger picture is and where this will all lead towards. That’s a very U.S.-centric answer, and I think these dynamics in the U.S. are very, very different from elsewhere in the world. Often the most powerful forces in urban development are developers and construction companies, whereas in the U.S., it's homeowners and neighborhood associations often.

Traditionally, you made money from housing by building it. In the U.S. now you really make money by not building it, artificially suppressing supply and having real estate values continuously go up, which is of course, a great deal if you’re a homeowner who cares more about your home equity than anything else, but it’s not a good deal if you’re not.

FM: What is your favorite historical city slash city that no longer exists?

BMC: Novo Airão.

FM: What current projects are you working on?

BMC: I’m finishing up this history of the future.

As part of the research on this book, because the imagination of futures and transit were such a key to that, I want to expand that to my next book, but focusing more narrowly on bikes and the very important role that they played in the late 19th century, including the New Women movement, and then taking it to the present and trying to think through biking in multiple dimensions from the experiential to the emissions related, the environmental advantages of bike lanes, but then also some of the social aspects that can come with more bike centric cities. You get to feel the air blowing against your face. Also the silence. It’s remarkable when you go to a city with few cars how you can hear the chit-chat of lovers or grandparents hanging out with their kids.

And there’s something else too: We often think of cars in motion, but a great problem is that most cars spend most of the time not moving and they take up a hell of a lot of space. So if we have less need of a space for parking, we can use those spaces in other ways, either for more housing, or for more pollinator gardens, or bioswales.

FM: How would you characterize the Cambridge bike lane debate, in terms of other cities and also in terms of your lived experience in Cambridge?

BMC: So I never learned how to drive, first because I was too poor to own a car, and then out of a certain commitment to certainly not a world with no cars — we’re well past that — but a world with fewer cars. I think that the environmental burden of car centric urbanization should be at the heart of any conversation about climate change, about adaptation, about mitigation, and about emissions, and it often isn’t.

Many cities in Europe have transitioned back to less car centric mobility and have really placed a bet on bikes as a solution to all sorts of environmental, social health, spiritual, and practical challenges of moving people and goods around packed spaces.

I think Cambridge has been a leader in the United States. The biking Safety Ordinance is, I think, a very good piece of policy that has transformed the city for the better.

There are very clearly many City Council candidates that are opposed to bike lanes. I think many of them don’t really understand how cities work, to put it bluntly. I think many of them don’t understand that making spaces for bike lanes can actually make traffic congestion better. Many of them think that bike lanes hurt businesses, which sort of goes against most of the studies that we have, though of course upzoning and bringing more people closer to businesses should be part of how we think of that economic equation.

This is a very pivotal moment for Cambridge: Does it actually try to do something different from the surrounding suburbs, or does it actually maintain the status quo that only privileges cars?

FM: You received your Ph.D. from Harvard in 2009. What has changed about Cambridge or Harvard specifically since then?

BMC: I think the politics has gotten nastier, or maybe I just noticed it a bit more. A lot of a lot more of our graduate students now can’t afford to live near campus and I actually think we underestimate the impact of regional or municipal housing policy on campus issues like attendance at events. It’s harder to attend an event if you live very far from it. So it does feel like there’s a broader community that’s a little more spread out.

I mean, I say that because it’s my urbanist brain thinking through this question on those terms, but I love campus, I love to be back. I love its scale. I love how much there is to do in such a compact space. It’s an extremely congenial city, I just wish we could make it easier for more people to live here.

FM: How was the experience of teaching a larger Gen Ed course versus a smaller seminar class, specifically for your work?

BMC: It’s hard to teach a Gen Ed for the first time.

Especially for a topic the urban because you have a subset of students that are very interested, but that don’t really have that elsewhere in the curriculum. And many of those have already a fairly sophisticated starting point, have thought about these issues, even if they’ve done so outside of their coursework. And then you have students that are introduced to some of these questions that are these for the very first time, and then as with any Gen Ed course, you have students that just want to check the box, for whatever reason. So it’s kind of hard to negotiate these different levels of commitment and intensity.

And then a seminar, it’s, I think, the third or fourth time I’ve taught this seminar, and what’s always striking is just how different the energy is based on the particular constitution of a group and the chemistry of the dynamics of the group based on particular members, but this has been just a really wonderful group of students.

FM: Halloween is next week. Do you have a costume?

BMC: Yes! So me and my family like to dress up as a family — my six-year old daughter, and my wife. I always like to be a pun costume, so last year my wife and my daughter were witches, and I was a sandwich.

I did have a witch hat and then a BLT costume.

This year we thought of going as market metaphors like bear’s market, or lion’s share where it’d be the singer Cher. My daughter has decided she’s going to be a butterfly this year, so if any readers have any suggestions of butterfly related puns, I’m all ears.

— Associate Magazine Editor Sarah W. Faber can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @swfaber.