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Natasha Hicks (MUP/MDes ’19) and Santiago Mota (MDE ’18) study poverty, affordable housing, and other urban-studies issues through Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative

Harvard Graduate School of Design degree candidates Santiago Mota (MDE '18) and Natasha Hicks (MUP/MDes '19) were among the 16 Harvard University students who took on fellowships through the new Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative this past summer, each spending 10 weeks in mayors’ offices around the United States in order to study and share insights on persistent local problems. Mota's fellowship brought him to Laredo, Texas, to map patterns of poverty, while Hicks traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, to take a look at affordable-housing possibilities.

The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative is a collaboration among Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, and Bloomberg Philanthropies, with a mission to inspire and strengthen city leaders, as well as equip them with the tools to lead high-performing, innovative cities. The summer fellowships that Mota and Hicks undertook are one of the various platforms that the initiative has established to further its mission.

The Harvard Gazette recently produced a multimedia look at three of the initiative's Summer 2018 fellows, including both Mota and Hicks, as they worked through their areas of inquiry.

Mota, who graduated from Harvard's collaborative Master in Design Engineering program in May, is an architect from Mexico City and co-founder of CASA Research and Design Group, focused on design of social housing prototypes. His summer fellowship brought him to Laredo, Texas, to investigate why poverty is so persistent across generations.

One of Mota's investigative approaches was a “heat map” of Laredo using GIS (geographic information system) data and department records, helping to inform city officials of where the city's most in-need residents live and the demographics of their households, and to illustrate the physical, social, and economic conditions that might be contributing to their poverty. Mota broke down poverty rates by neighborhood, visualizing income data from 2012 to 2016 in a choropleth map. He combined this choropleth map and a pie chart to identify where single-female households are concentrated, drawing on recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau and American Community Survey. And, with a dataset provided by the nonprofit Gateway Community Health Center in Laredo, Mota was able to construct a hot spot analysis map to itemize the morbidity of Type 2 Diabetes. See Mota's maps and other examples of his Laredo work in the Gazette‘s feature.

“There are two ways to understand poverty,” Mota told the Gazette. “I think the structural definition applies to the city because the environment and the conditions people are living in describe how people become impoverished and why they remain impoverished, and that is a more difficult thing to explain because it requires a lot of data. So, it matters where they live, what their health condition is, what their income is, what their access to services is, et cetera.”

1,400 miles away in Charleston, South Carolina, Hicks confronted an increasingly common urban dilemma: a suddenly popular city facing increasing housing and living costs coupled with stagnant or slowly increasing wages. In response, the city sought Hicks's ideas and expertise to develop its first-ever strategic plan for affordable housing, one that includes a policy framework and a toolkit the city can use to realize its goals over the next five years.

“Essentially, my work is just to look those barriers straight in the eye and figure out what the toolkit and plan of action should be,” she said.

Hicks's work also involved assisting Charleston's efforts to redevelop territory on the East Side of downtown, land that has been fallow since the Cooper River Bridge was demolished more than a decade ago. As a former industrial site, environmental challenges are inherent to the area's redevelopment, but the city is eager to take advantage of a rare urban opportunity— available, raw acreage—to build affordable housing.

“Cooper River Bridge is an interesting opportunity because… it hasn’t fully gentrified yet, but it is definitely on the cusp,” Hicks tells the Gazette. “It's a great site to put a lot of these tools in one spot and really make a signature site that shows the city’s investment in affordable housing and demonstrates that to the larger world.”

Read more about the projects that Hicks and Mota each undertook, and see multimedia presentations of their work and ideas, via the Gazette‘s full feature.