Cities Professor Travels to Brazil to Develop New Course in Environmental Studies

Posted August 26th, 2010 at 4:38 pm.

Brazil, by far the largest country in Latin America in terms of both area and population (191 million people),  is nevertheless poorly represented in many Latin American studies curricula in the United States, says Gary McDonogh, the coordinator of Bryn Mawr’s program in Latin American, Latino and Iberian Peoples and Cultures.

.Free University of the Environment, Curitiba, Brazil

Free University of the Environment, Curitiba, Brazil

McDonogh, a professor in the Growth and Structure of Cities Program who also serves on the steering committee of the College’s environmental-studies program, has ensured that Bryn Mawr students will have the opportunity to be introduced to Brazil—a vast, complex, and increasingly influential nation—by studying the relationship of several of its main cities to their natural and cultural environments.

Thanks to grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, McDonogh spent much of the summer in Brazil, gathering information and materials for a new 300-level course titled “Cities, Natures and Identities in Brazil.” Offered through the Cities Program, the new course will fulfill requirements for concentrations in both Latin American studies and environmental studies. McDonogh will teach it for the first time next spring.

Salvador da Bahia, Brazil

Salvador da Bahia, Brazil

McDonogh also plans to incorporate Brazilian material into his 200-level Comparative Urbanism course as it studies themes such as race and class or cities and nature in North America, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

“The introduction of Brazil into the curriculum helps us achieve an even wider global balance in environmental studies,” McDonogh says. “Brazil embodies many problems associated with the environmental history of the global South—colonial conquest, commodity exploitation, profound inequality, dependence and independence. Yet, in recent decades it also has become a crucible for new solutions, socially and ecologically beyond those posed in the U.S. and Europe.”

As home to the Amazon rain forest, Brazil occupies a special place in the hearts of environmentalists.  Its wealth of “natural resources” makes it an excellent lens through which to examine the cultural construction of nature and “a foundation to return to in terms of human/ecological change over Brazilian and world history,” McDonogh notes.

São Paulo, Brazil

São Paulo, Brazil

In June and July, McDonogh lived in São Paulo, where he participated in an NEH seminar on urban fictions n  in Brazil and traveled to the city of Curitiba; in August, he traveled to three more Brazilian cities.

The seminar introduced McDonogh to a group of 15 professors and two graduate students who examined five central texts of Brazilian fiction under the guidance of David Foster of the University of Arizona.

In conjunction with the seminar, McDonogh worked on a project focusing on the relationship of automobiles, class, race, gender, and violence in urban settings in Brazilian fiction of the 1920s and 30s.

During this time he also visited Curitiba, a largely middle-class city famous for its commitment to highly innovative environmental-sustainability initiatives.

“I really came to appreciate that travel within Brazil is travel on a continental scale,” he notes.

It was also exciting, says McDonogh, to get an intensive introduction to a national literature that gets little attention in the United States, and he is enthusiastic about the authors he has discovered and met, from Patricia Galvão, who wrote the 1933 working-class novel Parque Industrial, to contemporary writer Marcelino Freire, who met with the group.

“My wife teases me about the 50 novels I carried home,” McDonogh says.

While the workshop gave McDonogh a chance to improve his Portuguese, he spent off hours exploring the city—sometimes visiting neighborhoods mentioned in the novels he was reading or exploring the ethnic complexity of a metropolitan area of 20 million inhabitants.

“I was mapping out the city, getting to know its spaces,” says McDonogh. “I spent time in the municipal archives, talked to people and collected materials that aren’t readily available in the United States: films, urban histories and chronicles, and books coming out of Brazilian urban-planning schools and environmental-studies programs.  And I took hundreds of photos ranging from architecture, public spaces and Chinatowns to recycling centers.”

“I also wanted to see what’s available at a popular level, and what sorts of themes tend to come up in daily interactions,” McDonogh says. “I noticed, for instance, that there is very little emphasis on recycling in São Paulo, but it’s clear that there are people making a living from collecting cardboard who roam the city with carts piled with discarded papers. That’s a good example of how issues of wealth and poverty are implicated in discussions about sustainability.”

Later, McDonogh used a curricular-development grant from the Mellon Foundation to engage in similar investigations of the other cities he visited, finding striking contrasts in the way the cities had developed in relationship to their surroundings and the effects of those developments on the cities’ varied populations.

His investigations extended  into Salvador da Bahia, an early center of sugar production and a center of Afro-Brazilian culture; Brasilia,  the modernist capital city built from scratch in 1960 to shift focus from the nation’s coastal capitals toward its interior; and Rio de Janeiro, which addressed a deforestation crisis as early as the mid-19th century. These cities differ profoundly in their natural settings, economic development, population demographics, and environmental problems and policies.

“It’s been really wonderful to have a new area to study,” McDonogh says. “Before this trip, I had spent a little time in Brazil, but now I have a much more intimate sense of the variety of landscapes, urban spaces, and populations there, which allows me to make new connections with people and issues there for the future.”

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