Student Q&A: Sofía Viguri (MUP ’15)

Sofia ViguriHometown: Mexico City

Undergraduate school/major: Tecnológico de Monterrey, BA in International Relations

What was your work experience/background before coming to the GSD?

I worked four years as a policy consultant in the academic and non-profit sectors in Mexico City. I focused on global best practices for the implementation of environmental policy, as well as institutional structures for strengthening sustainable development governance. Working for both national and local governmental offices, applications ranged from air quality as related to transportation and building performance, to water and waste management.

Why did you decide to pursue planning as a career?

As my career developed, I realized that many of the most important sources of pollution and environmental degradation are controlled by local governments, which in my country are often informed by offices that have poor data development activities and outdated planning tools.  I am also very concerned about the societal impacts of current housing policy and regional greenfield markets in Mexico, and wanted to better understand underlying economic forces.

What made you decide to come to the GSD?

I believe that in order to shape the way the built environment operates, a better dialogue between science, design, policy, and finance is needed; I found the GSD to be the school that best complemented my existing skills. While mainly helping me develop spatial-physical sensibilities, it also included a strong real estate component, all of which is nurtured by a solid network of critical theorists and practitioners. Importantly, the program is flexible enough to allow for a healthy cross-pollination with other schools and research centers at Harvard.

What are your main interests in planning and concentration area?

From a technical perspective, I´ve always been interested in data development and management for decision-making; at the GSD, my interest has grown towards the critical study and creation of data-driven visual representations.

Policy-wise, I am interested in land conservation, as well as in the integration of land use and transportation planning at a regional scale. My concentration is in Housing and Neighborhood Development, so as to cultivate an awareness of the social and economic impacts of policies that seek to constrain or control the markets for land.

What has been the most surprising aspect of the GSD?

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the GSD has a strong culture of constructive criticism around each others' work. Informal “pin-ups” are a great way to learn how to distill the essence of your ideas, and learn from your instructors and colleagues about the best way to communicate them. This also creates the habit of asking for feedback, and being confident about suggesting ideas to improve others' work. I didn't expect to get such a push towards improving my public speaking skills as part of the program.

What has been your favorite class or project? Why?

Visual Analysis and Representation totally transformed the way I perceive my surroundings. It taught me to acknowledge (and sometimes embrace!) the biases I have when looking at a place and representing it. The professors complement each other exceptionally well. They combine data collection and on-site observation with rigorous data analysis and physical design sensibilities. Because of this, projects in this class turn out to be very well rounded, and by the end of the semester all students, regardless of their background, have a portfolio with which to apply for a job. The assignments are stimulating and diverse; they tap into all kinds of talents.

What did you do over the summer? How did that add to your education and goals?

I participated in the deployment of an urban development modeling tool for Mexico City. My internship was based in San Francisco, where an urban planning firm developed the original model, which quantifies greenhouse gas emissions and other performance-based metrics associated with different prototypes of urbanization present in California.

This job made me practice and further develop GIS techniques learned during my first semester; it also required me to expand the knowledge I had about built forms in my own city.Most importantly, the internship helped me form a clearer idea about how I want to steer my learning at Harvard during the second year of the program, so as to keep me focused on the aspects of planning I like the most, but also being aware of the present needs in the labor market.

What are your career ambitions?

Consultancy for the public sector is a path I want to maintain, within the scope of environmental and land use policy. Nonetheless, I first want to work at a local planning office in order to gain an insider´s perspective on the politics of municipal finances and decision-making. I am particularly interested in medium-sized cities in the Mexican Bajío region, which are rapidly urbanizing.

In the long term, I would like to promote and head a regional planning organization in a developing country, focusing on strategic land development agreements between different jurisdictions and the private sector.

Anything else?

Although the planning curriculum is important, a graduate experience is so much more than courses. The character of the place where you live, the accessibility of professors you would like to work with, the networking opportunities, the diversity in the background of your classmates… all of these are critical factors of the learning process.

Especially in urban planning, it is fundamental to live in a city where you can appreciate and apply what you learn as you carry out your everyday life. I was happy to discover some of the most progressive urban policies I know of in Boston, while Cambridge has a remarkable planning tradition, and exceptional resources to implement it!  I think these two cities offer quite a unique and enriching atmosphere for anyone seeking to become a planner.

As the program grows, I hope that more people from disciplines different from architecture and design, as well as from developing countries, continue to come to the GSD. Interdisciplinary leadership in the school is valuable and necessary, and the main agents of learning are the members of the class themselves.