In the Spotlight – Paola Jiron
Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism, University of Chile, Santiago de Chile.
1. What are, in your vision, the big issues of mobility today, taken into consideration particularly (but not only) the context of the Latin American countries?
Given the increasing concern on climate change and the environmental problems related to carbon emissions, new forms of mobility require to be rethought. However, making mobility more sustainable does not only require technological advances, but also a thorough understanding of mobility practices and the experiences these practices generate in order to rethink alternate forms of movement. This involves understanding that mobility decisions and strategies are at times individual and mono-modal, but often and increasingly quite complex, multi-modal and often interdependent, as they relate to the various social relations that exist in society today. Mobility decisions are generally based on interdependent relations and require observing them in their complexity. For instance, children depend on their parents’ life schedules but parents also depend on their children’s school schedules, afterschool activities, doctors, birthday parties, in order to organise life and hence mobility practices. This interdependence involves considerations as specific as the type of clothing to wear, to the modes, position on the bus, routes, schedules, social relations, car choice or housing location. These complexities require a network of collaboration that includes grandparents, siblings, extended family, friends, acquaintances, paid help, among many others. Very often these interdependent mobility decisions leave a heavier burden on some members of the household than others, and this often generates various forms of inequality. It is these inequalities that I am particularly interested in looking at, particularly in the case of Latin America. We organised the PanAmerican Network Conference last year in Santiago, and it became evident from the various researches presented, that Latin American mobility issues are inextricably related to mobility differences in terms of income but also in terms of gender, race, age, disability, location, among others, generating uneven mobilities. It became evident that, although many of these uneven mobilities can also be found in other contexts, they are exacerbated in Latin America and these issues become urgent given the lack of infrastructure as well as continued urbanization processes taking place, accompanied by important urban interventions. Despite existing research on these issues, it is still difficult to understand the specificities of these inequalities as well as how they intersect and making them more complicated.
Another big issue relating to mobility involves global migration, or more particularly the liminal, mobile transboundary spaces. That is, the physical time spaces of borders are becoming crucial, but also the way language, food, music, race, money, etc. become transboundary areas of daily living. Although this issue is very important in Europe at the time, in the Latin American context, it has involved important studies of the US-Mexican border and what being in transboundary situation involves, but these issues are now becoming relevant in other contexts as well: Chile, Bolivia, Peru transboundary, Colombia, Brazil, Peru transboundary; Argentina Paraguay, Brazil; southern Chile and Argentina.
Finally, one of the emerging issues in mobility research that I think is increasingly relevant, deals with policy mobility and the way urban policies and interventions travel across countries, languages, methodologies, disciplines, actors, etc. This is particularly relevant in the Latin American context, given the constant pressure to undertake urban interventions in terms of housing, public space, transport related infrastructure, etc. What is often observed is the replication of international models without much local consideration, yet, upon implementation, much of local idiosyncrasy emerges, making the outcome of such interventions often different to what was originally expected. One specific aspect we are particularly interested in has to do with the way mobility ideas are materialised into built space, in terms of design ideas, materials, spatial structure, volumes and shapes and how these spaces are then used, mediated and adapted by local users.
2. It has been discussed for some time a “mobility turn”, by recognizing multiple practices, politics, compromises, relationships and impacts (spatial, social, economic, psychological) of mobilities. How important are such issues when you look into social (in)justice and gender in the contemporary urban context – are these two big themes in your recent research agenda?
The mobility turn has allowed for unveiling new forms on inequality that traditional urban research could not grasp, given that it had a particularly static approach to urban dynamics, particularly research on residential segregation and urban inequality. By observing mobility practices, inequality issues become more complex and different aspects of this inequality previously unattended become relevant. We have broadened traditional accessibility approaches to include the way different social conditions face the various mobility barriers present while trying to access activities, people and places. For instance, as mentioned before one of the crucial issues the new mobility paradigm has allowed to observe in a much clearer and creative way is the implications of interdependency in daily mobility decision making. In the case of many of the cases we have observed in Chile, is that most often the person that carries the burden of deciding and dealing with the multiple interdependencies present in household mobility decisions are women, not only in cases of female headed households, but in all sorts of household arrangements. This is where the intersectionality of gender along with other social conditions including age, bodily ability, ethnicity, become crucial to understand contemporary mobility practices and their implication in social injustice in cities today.
3. To what extent experiences of “mobile moments” and “mobile places” portray global and also local aspects of the “new mobilities paradigm”? How these concepts can help out mobile researchers in their approaches?
Recognising the importance of mobile and transient places to understand how significant space is when traveling is not new, I have seen a few researchers trying to observe how people experience, spatialize and signify spaces while they move. The methods we use are applicable anywhere; I have talked to researchers from countries as different as Indonesia to Russia to Brazil who are interested in using the shadowing technique we use. What we find is particular about using this ethnographic tool, is recognising the specific experience observed; the typologies of mobile place-making that we might find in Santiago, cannot be generalised to other cities in Chile, nor to other cities in the world. Perhaps many situations repeat themselves, and we can find many similarities in commuters in Santiago or Sydney, or how similar adaptation strategies that emerge upon Metro modifications in Delhi or Santiago, but the specificities of the implications are situated and context specific. What we are finding fascinating is how some of the ways we can understand mobility experiences can also be useful to transport related decisions and interventions.
We are now quite interested in doing comparative mobilities work, comparing different cities, modes, interventions and the relation these experiences have on urban space.
4. Could you explain, in some detail, how do you combine, in the projects you are engaged, transport engineering concepts and tools with others from the field of “mobilities anthropology”? What are the main pitfalls and achievements in your research and projects?
We are currently working with transport engineers in combining quantitative modelling techniques of time use and transport decision making with qualitative ethnographic work on mobility experiences. It has been quite challenging and at the same time fascinating trying to combine both approaches. On one hand it implies understanding the way transport studies are advancing and incorporating new ways of looking at mobility issues, incorporating time use as opposed to origin and destination information only. Understanding the surveys, information required as well as modelling applications has been a learning experience. Moreover, trying to adapt our ethnographic methods to fit modelling processes has also been quite motivating. I think transport engineers may be more open to complementing transport decision making and transport interventions with mobility experiences impact, than social scientists or urban planners are to understanding the way modelling techniques can be used to broaden the understanding of social practices or urban planning. One specific area of transport planning that I am finding quite attractive is the use of big data and data visualization along with ethnographic data on mobility experiences to understand how mobility and the use of space takes place. Moreover, we are also looking at the affective aspects of mobility. We are currently in the middle of our fieldwork so there is still much work to do.
Interviewed by Thiago Allis