York urban scholars form links in China

In December, six scholars associated with the new City Institute at York University attended a symposium on urban issues at Fudan University in Shanghai and laid the foundation for future collaboration.

Led by City Institute director Roger Keil, the York delegation participated in a symposium on Urban Culture Between Tradition and Globalization Dec. 14-18 at China’s second largest university. Like York, Fudan is among the biggest universities in its country and located beyond the downtown core.

Above: York delegates, from left, Shelley Hornstein, Ute Lehrer (front), Gene Desfor, Patricia Wood and Harris Ali, with Fudan University student. Photo by Roger Keil.

"China is one of the top urban laboratories," says Keil. "There are few places as interesting to observe as Shanghai in terms of urbanity."

"York is interested in strategic relationships with universities abroad," says Keil. "And China is offering many interesting opportunities." When Adrian Shubert, York’s associate VP international, suggested York send a delegation to the Fudan symposium, Keil rounded up five colleagues – environmental studies Professors Harris Ali, Gene Desfor and Ute Lehrer; visual arts Prof. Shelley Hornstein; and Geography Department Chair Patricia Wood. "It was an incredible opportunity for us," says Keil. "We went with little concrete knowledge about what we could expect. We went there curious, open-minded and with positive anxiety to see what we could do, to take this opportunity by the horns, to do something useful for us and for York University."

The symposium was designed to increase dialogue between urban researchers at both institutions and to explore possibilities for future academic collaboration and exchanges. Scholars, aided by interpreters, discussed a wide range of topics, ranging from waterfront use and condo development to urban culture and SARS. The symposium ended with two public lectures by Hornstein and Keil.

Unsure what to expect, the Canadians were impressed by the high level of scholarship and the issues they had in common with the Chinese intellectuals, said Keil.

Above: Bikes remain the dominant mode of transportation in Shanghai, though cars are becoming more common. Photo by Roger Keil.

Their common ground was underscored by the Canadians’ experience of the city itself. While in Shanghai, Keil and colleagues also got a taste of the culture, commerce and daily lives of the 18 million inhabitants of one of China’s biggest and most complex cities. They attended a Chinese opera. They visited the usual tourist spots – a temple, the Oriental Pearl Tower and museum – and took a boat tour along the Yangtze. But they also ventured off the beaten path into neighbourhoods undergoing rapid modernization, where old temples were dwarfed by skyscrapers, and people lived in shacks next to high-rise condos. "The speed at which people live their lives is so much more intense than it is for people living in Canada," said Keil. But as Shanghai embraces the modern world, it also embraces the problems. Cars are replacing the ubiquitous bicycle and the air pollution is unbearable, he said.

Above: The modern Shanghai skyline. Photo by Roger Keil.

In a report to Shubert, Keil has identified three research themes York and Fudan scholars intend to collaborate on:

  • urban and waterfront redevelopment;
  • urban health, and how to avoid infectious diseases;
  • urban literature, art and architecture.

"We’re going to pursue these further and see if we can develop research collaborations over time," says Keil.

Keil is planning to invite his Chinese hosts to York for a similar conference in September. "We have established good personal and professional relations with these people that we hope to nurture." Scholars from the Chinese University of Hong Kong might be involved, too.

Above: Smog over Shanghai. Photo by Roger Keil.

Above: Shanghai in transition. Photo by Roger Keil.