What are the members of Spatial Planning & Strategy up to? In this series of interviews we meet various members of the section and discuss their work, who they are, and have a look behind the scenes. Today, we meet dr. Juliana Gonçalves, our newest Assistant Professor and co-director of the Centre for Urban Science and Policy (CUSP). Juliana has an interdisciplinary background with expertise in socio-technical systems, urban science, policy analysis, public participation, and spatial justice. In this interview, we talk about two of her research project at TU Delft: ‘Citizen Voice’, led by Juliana herself, and ‘Sponge City’, a flagship project of the Climate Action Program at TU Delft. We will discuss these projects in depth in our interview, tracing the difficulty of making citizen voices heard in planning, and reconceptualizing the idea of the sponge city. But first, let us dive into Juliana’s interdisciplinary background of expertise – an academic path she has suitably christened a “journey through scales”…
Part I: An academic journey through scales and disciplines
“At my first job,” Juliana starts, “I was working in a laboratory for materials science. I was working with material particles to create new materials. It was nano scale.” She laughs: “we would use microscopes!” She was then pursuing a diploma in mechanical engineering in Brazil. “Then I decided I wanted to go higher, to a different scale. I went to France for a master.” At the Sorbonne, Juliana discovered her interest in sustainable energy systems. “There I was working with hydrogen. After that, I pursued another master, on thermo-sciences. There I was looking at solar energy and solar systems in buildings.” Slowly, the subject scale was increasing. “Then, for my PhD, I worked on a similar topic, integrating solar energy into the building envelope. And there was the next scale: the urban scale. Looking into urban physics, the relation between the urban environment and both solar radiation and wind flows.” At this scale, Juliana discovered a remarkable emergent effect. “I realized that the topics we work on, when you go to a bigger scale, become more concrete; the complexity becomes more evident. When you are in the lab, you don’t see anything, you don’t see people, you barely see the impact of what you are developing, sometimes it takes decades for research findings to reach society in a tangible way – it is fundamental research. When you’re doing things at a building scale, the impact on people is more concrete and more visible.”
By working through these different technical scales, Juliana developed a certain skill too: “I have a very strong technical background, which allows me to understand technical people. I know how technical people think, because I think the same way. So now I am able to connect social subjects or social disciplines to a technical discipline. I am not saying I am an expert on social sciences, but I’m able to connect people and ideas.” This skill comes in very handy at our design-focused faculty, she says. “Now, I am very interested in integrating design into my research. Design is a more qualitative method, and I’m very interested in learning more about urban design and how I can connect design with engineering and social sciences.” Perhaps, design can bridge technical and social disciplines, Juliana philosophizes. “Maybe design can be the communication channel and a connecting tool between social sciences and engineering. I’m still exploring this idea. I see a lot of parallels between engineering and designing processes, and I see a lot of points of connection between engineering, policy, and design. Because design has this double nature of qualitative methods embedded into a systematic approach, it could bridge these different fields very well.” Design as a participatory tool is very much at the forefront of Juliana’s research. Design can bring different stakeholders, including citizens, to the same table to make decisions together. A research line Juliana is exploring uses design as a tool in visioning processes: “How can we create a value-driven collective vision that is truly inclusive and really disrupts and challenges business-as-usual pathways?”
Part II: The Citizen Voice project, a bottom-up research project by TU Delft researchers
Not entirely coincidentally, the ‘citizen voice’-project, led by Juliana, focuses on participation, socio-technical systems, and design too. She explains its origin: “The project came about when I started my postdoc, and I was very interested in public participation, on this idea of involving citizens in urban research and decision-making. We started looking at commercial tools that allow you to collect spatial data about how citizens perceive the city. This way, we can understand their preferences, needs, and aspirations for the city.” However, there was a factor limiting the research greatly: licence fees. “I asked my supervisor back then: why don’t we develop this? We have data science skills, we have computational skills, let’s try and develop a tool of our own!” She found two other colleagues to join the initiative: Trivik Verma and Claudiu Forgaci. In 2022, the project was selected as a SPRING pilot part of the Resilient Delta Initiative and received support from the Digital Competence Center at TU Delft. Juliana put together a small interdisciplinary team of students and software developers and started developing the Citizen Voice platform for public participation. “In the meantime,” she elaborates, “we also had a master student doing research on public participation for the project, interviewing different urban stakeholders to understand their requirements and needs for public participation. We interviewed urban planners, people working at municipality, experts from academia, and we had a survey with citizens as well. This work provided the conceptual foundations for the Citizen Voice platform and was published as a TU Delft master thesis “Urban Voices” by the TPM student Ioannis Ioannou.
The first prototype is, as of early 2023, being finalized, after which it will be available for testing. Furthermore, the code is open source, so external parties can work with the tools we develop as well. “Basically,” explains Juliana, “the functionality that we have now is that you can ask someone, for example, ‘where do you live?’ or ‘where do you work’ and there will be this map, and someone can just zoom in and put a pin ‘I live here’ or ‘I go to work here’, and with this pin they can also say ‘I love my work’. So, the first prototype tool is a survey tool, but it is spatial: you can connect whatever is the answer to a spot on the map. And the tool connects it automatically.” The project was recently awarded seed funding from the Climate Action Program at TU Delft: “the seed funding will support us to further develop the Citizen Voice platform in collaboration with Carissa Champlin from the Industrial Design Faculty at TU Delft. We will look at how people interact with digital platforms for public participation and how we can ensure a suitable user-technology-process fit”.
The future ambitions for the project are twofold. Firstly, the team wants to improve the Citizen Voice platform: “we want to develop a set of different public participation tools and processes to accommodate the diversity of needs in public participation, particularly vulnerable communities. We want to promote inclusive participation, enabling a diversity of people to be engaged in decision making” Secondly, the platform will be used for applied and critical research. The platform itself will be the means and the subject of their research: “on the one hand, we want to apply our tools to answer specific questions – how do people move in the city? How do they want to live in the city of the future? – and, on the other, we take a critical perspective on public participation tools and processes, looking at the risks and pitfalls of participation research and practice, including our own. So, we want to understand the limitations of public participation and our own tools. We do not see public participation as a panacea in urban planning and design.”
Part III: The Sponge Cities project: an integrated approach to climate adaptation
Originally a Chinese concept, born as part of a national urban water management programme, the Sponge City is now a vital part of the TU Delft research on climate adaptation and resilience. In short, the Sponge City is a response to water imbalance in cities, which can lead to all kinds of problems: flooding, heavy rain, drought, instability of building foundations, and associated socio-economic impacts. “The Sponge Cities project consolidated my growth in scale,” says Juliana. “This is because the concept of a Sponge City requires a multi-scalar approach, as it involves the integration of blue and green elements in the city, across the city, and beyond the city.” She explains the knowledge gap she spotted: “A lot of literature focuses on water and flooding, and almost all publications are on the Chinese context. Our idea is to look at the sponge city from a holistic perspective that doesn’t focus on water management only. With colleagues at BK, we are working on an integrated conceptualisation for the Sponge City – an urban planning and design concept – exploring its potential for climate adaptation and resilience.
As the project is gaining momentum, a lot of questions and issues come to light. Juliana explains: “The lack of contextual diversity when we look at current “sponge solutions”, like nature-based solutions and green-blue infrastructure in general, is very problematic. Because every context has different climatic conditions, sponge solutions have to be very contextualised. That’s hard. Whatever you plan here might work really well, but when you transfer to another context, it won’t work.” Another issue concerns interdisciplinary collaboration: “Sponge Cities have the potential to become a response to climate change in cities. But there is a disconnection: when we look at the sponge cities literature, it focuses on engineering, environmental sciences, and water management; and then we go to the literature on climate change in urban areas, we have trends related to sustainability, resilience, behaviour change, socio-ecological approaches, often with a systemic integrated approach. So, there is a disconnection between the two bodies of literature, although they are tackling the same issue.” A third issue concerns the social aspects: “a lot of nature-based solutions and green-blue strategies, which are at the core of Sponge Cities, when they’re added to the city, eventually lead to gentrification. This is also a disconnection because it means that the social layer of the city was not considered in the planning and design of these interventions. If we do not consider the social layer, we risk reinforcing existing inequalities and pushing disadvantaged communities into further vulnerability. The Sponge City concept we are working on will reflect these concerns.”
“Think there are a lot of open questions still,” she concludes, “and we’re trying to address some of them. Climate change is driving a real transformation in urban areas. Mitigation and adaptation interventions are being deployed across multiple urban systems, including energy, mobility, housing, food, water, among others. In such a complex transformation process, trade-offs and synergies emerge. Value conflicts emerge. Opposing visions for the future emerge. I think we have to explore these situations. For example, how can energy transition and climate adaptation work together? What is there that we can do? How can we adapt to climate change ensuring that outcomes are just and democratic? And also, what and where are the trade-offs? When do we have to make decisions? If we have to choose between two important values, should we not reconsider and look for alternatives?”
For anyone who is interested in these questions too, Juliana has a simple message: “Get involved, contact me! I am really open to talking with students. I also run the Centre for Urban Science and Policy (CUSP) with the most brilliant colleagues from different faculties at TU Delft. At CUSP, one of our objectives is to connect researchers, students, and educators across disciplines and faculties of TU Delft, and beyond. I’m always happy to connect people to each other. It is wonderful to see students from BK working with students from TPM and CiTG, for example. Students learn so much from each other, and I learn so much from them myself!”
More information on the Citizen Voice project can be found here: https://cusp.tbm.tudelft.nl/project/citizen-voice/.
More information on the Sponge Cities project can be found here: https://www.tudelft.nl/en/climate-action/research-themes/climate-change-adaptation
More information about other projects Juliana is involved with: https://juliana-g.com/projects/