Meet Clara Irazábal-Zurita, URSP’s New Director

Nov 4, 2020

Clara Irazábal-Zurita

This January, MAPP will welcome Dr. Clara Irazábal-Zurita to the University of Maryland as professor of urban studies and planning and new director of the Urban Studies and Planning Program. Irazábal-Zurita comes to UMD from the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), where she was director of the Latinx and Latin American Studies Program and a professor of urban planning. Prior to UMKC, she directed the Latin Lab and was an associate professor of urban planning at Columbia University in New York City and held appointments at both University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and the Pratt Institute, NYC.

Irazábal-Zurita has spent over two decades exploring social and spatial justice through the lens of urban planning and design. She examines the complex paradox of planning’s emancipatory promise—leveraging the constructs of the built environment to create social equity, opportunity and vibrant, just communities—and its systemic failure to deliver. Her research, which straddles continents, sits at the intersection of culture, politics and the politics of place, with case studies ranging from the informal settlements of Venezuela to the immigrant communities of the United States. She is the author of City Making and Urban Governance in the Americas: Curitiba and Portland, which illustrates the government-community synergy in two cities successfully navigating rapid growth, and has written and spoken extensively on the cultural, economic, political and racial issues that shape urban enclaves.

Irazábal-Zurita began her professional life in architecture, but found herself gravitating to urban planning and design as she gained a deeper understanding of the outside forces that shape the world’s cities. “I have a lot of respect for architecture and I’m very glad to have that background,” she says, “but I found myself becoming more interested in the larger issues of context: the politics of place and the cultural and social aspects of placemaking; and that led me eventually to planning.” Her multinational background—growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, and later pursuing her master’s and doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley—gains her a unique perspective into two different, yet similar, Americas, grounding her quest to illuminate how planning, for better or worse, impacts the lives of our most vulnerable inhabitants. Below, Irazábal-Zurita talks about tackling today’s challenges through the eyes of a planner and (finally!) stepping foot on UMD’s campus.  

Planning’s role in fostering—and hindering—a just world: Understanding urban challenges, says Irazábal-Zurita, requires a deep examination of urban planning’s failures and its role in furthering social injustices. It’s by looking at where and why planning has failed, she says, that we can chart a path forward. “Planning should be emancipatory, is should release individuals and communities from spatial conditions that oppress them,” she says. “There are many entry points—housing, community development, architecture or public space—but whatever entry point we work with, we must be mindful of planning as an instrument for emancipation while also pointing out when and how and why planning has contributed to conditions that oppress societies and places.”

How planners can address grand challenges: According to Irazábal-Zurita, the practitioners shaping our world are ideally suited to tackle today’s “quadripartite” of challenges—climate change, public health crises, economic recession and society’s racial reckoning. The collaborations happening at MAPP and with the greater university, she says, are ripe to solve these challenges through leadership and reinvention. “I think that we can dig deeper to address the current difficult moment that we’re traversing as a global society. Planning is well-positioned to provide leadership to overcome these distinct but overlapping crises in manners that bring us to a different model of living on the planet. It’s not about returning to what many thought was “normal” pre-pandemic; we need to reinvent ourselves in ways where we are kinder to each other and the planet. I think planning has the instruments to provide that type of leadership.”

What excites Irazábal-Zurita about her next chapter: Irazábal-Zurita says the intellectual powerhouse of UMD’s well-regarded research and teaching community is what drew her to College Park, as well as its community-minded mission as a land grant institution. But the biggest trapping was the accomplished faculty team she’ll be joining in the Urban Studies and Planning Program. “[The program] is populated by rock stars. I feel like the director’s job is already done there, but if there is anything I can contribute to create a greater sense of community and purpose as a collective, I would be so honored.”

On visiting campus for the first time: Because she interviewed during the pandemic, Irazábal-Zurita’s move to College Park this month will be the first time she’s stepped foot in the College Park area. “It’s a strange thing,” she laughs. “I’m really looking forward to exploring campus and getting to know my new community.”

The Berkeley Connection: Irazábal-Zurita joins a long line of Berkeley grads at MAPP, including three faculty in the Urban Studies and Planning Program. Together, she looks forward to working in College Park’s neighboring minority and immigrant communities and bringing her expertise to bear on the challenges they face. “The social justice commitment instilled at Berkeley is engrained in us; we cannot get rid of it!”

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