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My passion about spatial justice dates to my days in Architecture School [in Manizales] and as a by-product of public education. I started wondering how to not only design but to generate public spaces in Colombian cities. Soon I realized that architectural training alone wouldn’t allow me to understand the forces at play in this endeavor. Then is when I decided to walk the inter/transdisciplinary path and enrolled in a Master of Urban and Regional Studies [in Medellin].

Things got complicated and enlightening at once. I researched the potential of interstitial spaces for becoming part of a metropolitan system of public spaces. Then, I started to unravel how the euphoria for the 1991 Political Constitution set the foundations for strengthening the role of municipalities for propelling a planning practice for territorial equality. Engaging with urban planning in the early 2000’s meant to join a vibrant social learning process. The emergence of this process required to bring to the public debate and pedagogies the scope, methodologies, and impact of territorial planning. 

It was precisely that moment when I worked as deputy director of the planning department in the municipality of my hometown [in Pasto]. As a civil servant my core duty was to lead the updating of the strategic spatial plan of the city. This was my first work experience that taught greatly about the everyday life of planners, the challenges of local governments to articulate participatory planning and the politics involved in any planning decision. These learnings helped me later as a young academic [in Medellin] to teach and advise other local governments about framing and updating strategic spatial plans and propel territorial planning practices at different scales. Each engagement with different places challenged me to see the persistence of structural spatial injustices, the scars of armed conflict in the social fabric, and the contradictions of state-led planning practices. Simultaneously, I became more exposed to the work of grassroots organizations and NGO debunking state led interventions and proposing different ways of framing planning practices.  

I became passionate about the radical potential of the classroom and the power of teaching. Working with students of diverse backgrounds in undergraduate and postgraduate levels pushed me to devise pedagogies that fuel the spatial imaginations while harnessing a commitment with social justice more broadly. I started to understand that the university itself is a political actor and has agency in the decision-making process in city making. I worked in tandem with local and regional authorities and community organizations allowing me to witness and reflect the impacts of authoritative knowledge and the power dynamics expressed in their clashing rationalities. This experience brought me to consider my pedagogy in relationship with multiple actors, often in dispute, to collaborate on policy relevant challenges. Even though this was a fulfilling arena, my scholarship needed to be nurtured at a different level. 

In 2007 I moved to Chicago to finally start my doctoral studies in Urban Planning and Policy. This move opened a different set of questions to recast my identity as a scholar. It became clear how coloniality shaped higher education in its embedded assumptions about western centric perspectives.  The dissonance and struggle brough by the everyday experience in my doctoral education helped me to develop a new positionality as migrant mestiza interested in the negotiated co-production of cities and the political economy of urban design in Latin American cities. In this quest I tried to fit my ideas and professional experience into the Anglo-Saxon academia cannon. A struggle that remains.  My research explored the negotiation of large-scale projects in downtown areas in Colombian cities. I focused on the strategies for unlocking land values in prime real estate locations through the lenses of what I termed ‘critical spatial planning’ as a critique of a-spatial orthodox planning theory.  In this endeavor, I unraveled the formation and international influences of the Colombian planning system and the clashes with the logics of urban informalities and the ‘stubbornness’ of southern epistemologies. Yes, I managed to get some ‘southerness’ and a critique of coloniality into the picture. 

I am convinced that recalibrating knowledge production from the Global South is the main challenge of contemporary urbanism. Once I moved back to Medellin in 2012, the city had become a beacon of hope for urban transformations in the ‘global south’. The city was a popular destination for urban practitioners and scholars in search to understand how to address urban violence and informality through territorial interventions. While I was involved in the spatial strategic plan of the city prior to my PhD and on my return, I got even more interested in the politics of the circulation of planning ideas and the role of urban authoritative knowledge.  Given the spotlight of the city, I led collaborative initiatives of transnational design studios on spatial strategies for informality. At the same time, I analyzed the geographies of emulation and the circulatory power of some ‘best practices’ in South-South circuits and explored land management practices of housing provision in Colombia for low-income households unveiling the spatial disruptions in the policy implementation.  

In 2015 I moved to London to join a development planning department in an institution with global aspirations.  Yet again my identity and the positioning of my scholarship were challenged. Here, I asserted the critique of the coloniality of development studies and practices. I expanded the regional scope of my academic work to Southeast and Middle eastern cities and harnessed the ethics of learning alliances with multiple organizations advocating for the right to the city using knowledge co-creation methodologies. Since 2017 I have co led a master’s in building and urban design in development. In this process I have radicalized my perspective about the imperative to nurture innovative pedagogical strategies and embrace the questions brought by decolonial debates and praxis. My quest on understanding the territorial and relational nature of urban spaces and the pursuit of spatial justice serves as the intellectual platform to guide my research, teaching, and public outreach.

 I use decolonial and critical urban theory through knowledge co-production methodologies to study the politics of space production and urban design in Latin America and Southeast Asia to foster more just cities and the recognition of multiple urban knowledges. Learning from southern urbanisms, I seek to unravel the relationship between informality, living heritage, and urban learning, which is key to shape the potentials of a negotiated co-production of urban space. My aim is consolidating a repertoire of innovative urban design pedagogies and critical spatial practices at the intersection of urban design, strategic spatial planning, and urban policy mobility. 

Currently I work as an associate professor of The Bartlett Development Planning Unit at University College London. Keenly aware of the collective work required to shift out field of studies, I am corresponding editor of Urban Studies and International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. I am also part of the editorial board of the Revista Brasileira de Estudos Urbanos e Regionais (Brazil), Revista de Urbanismo (Chile), and the Revista Bitácora Urbano Territorial (Colombia). I am also part of UCL UrbanLab steering committee, an associate of the LSE Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre and trustee of the Charity Latin Elephant. 

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