Stories of Young Urbanists: Meet Carola Vega

04.11.2020, Nayla Saniour

Carola Vega is an urbanist currently working as a consultant in Barcelona. She was born and raised in Peru, studied between the United States and worked in different European cities before moving to Spain. This global journey has led her to shift progressively from architecture and urban design to strategic urban planning. # BEING AN URBAN CONSULTANT For the past couple of years, I have been working as a consultant at [Idencity,]( a strategic planning firm based in Barcelona specialized in developing solutions to urban challenges. As a consultant, I work on an array of topics like mobility, smart cities, urban economic development, universal accessibility, etc., depending on each city’s needs and priorities. My day-to-day includes, among other things, analyzing data and researching to produce strategic plans, reports and guidelines. I also get to develop projects aligned with local, regional or international agendas, such as the [UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)]( # THE POWER OF GOOD COMMUNICATION One of the key things I have learned working on projects related to urban policy-making is that, while it is important to develop good strategies and initiatives, it is also crucial to communicate them right. For example, accessible infographics play an important role and informing citizens in a clear manner goes a long way. This is also something that the private sector is realizing: the power of good, effective communication. #ARCHITECT TURNED PLANNER I initially studied architecture and throughout my bachelor’s degree I only looked for internships in architecture firms. It was the “obvious” path to go and I didn’t question this idea for years, even when I graduated and started working full-time in architecture. However, it was during my first projects working at an urban scale that I started to realize that there are also various forces (economic, social, political) that impact and shape the built environment. It opened my world which was – until that point – made up entirely of tangible buildings. This shift sparked my interest in urbanism, and eventually made me realize that this is what I am truly passionate about. At first, I was inclined towards urban design but gradually became interested in strategic planning. Strategic planning is the design of strategies which gear the city’s development towards a defined set of goals and targets in the short, medium and long term. To reach these goals, it is essential to coordinate the actions of different stakeholders: multiple levels of government, companies, civil society groups, etc. I think my journey in planning has definitely complemented my architectural background. By understanding how certain policies will impact a given neighborhood in the next five years or how the public and private sector can work together for a project, you can gain very useful insights which help you become a better designer. {{Pic1: Photo by Carles Rabada on Unsplash}} # HOPPING BETWEEN CITIES I got my bachelor's degree in architecture at [Syracuse University](, in upstate New York. An important aspect for me when choosing this university was their study abroad program: they had a campus in Florence and another in London, and I got the chance to do my exchange programs in both. Also, what is great about the American system is that it allows you to take classes outside your field: I took some classes in sociology, history, and Italian. After working for a couple of years in architecture, I decided to get my master’s in urbanism. I got into the [European Post-master in Urbanism](, a joint program where you can choose between 4 different universities in 4 countries. I did it between the [Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya]( and the [Delft University of Technology]( # LEARNING IN-SITU As an architect, I always had a strong interest in living in Barcelona ; it can sound cliché but as a student I was fascinated by Gaudi’s work. However, it was mainly Barcelona’s long history of urban planning that eventually drew me to the city. When I moved here during my master’s I realized that I was learning a great deal outside the classroom, on the streets, about the city’s model. It is inspiring to see how both the local city council and neighborhood associations constantly push innovative initiatives to improve and redefine the city. {{Pic2: Photos by Carola Vega}} # FINDING STABILITY IN ONE PLACE When making decisions about my studies, I have always tried to find combinations between great academic programmes and the opportunity to live – and eventually work – in different places. I had the chance to study and live in many different cities: I worked in Milan one summer, in Paris another, then in Rotterdam, New York…This led me to meet people, learn languages, and discover the local architecture and urbanism. Although I would repeat these experiences in a heartbeat, moving around also implied sending countless applications, some to firms which had no openings, receiving zero answers and trying again. Overall, starting a life from scratch is exciting, but also challenging and expensive. After hopping around, I value having now a certain level of stability, and being able to build a network and meaningful friendships in one place. # URBANISM – AN OPEN FIELD Making the transition from architecture to urbanism has been a challenge because it is such a broad and abstract field. But once you make that shift, you can work in an array of different places. Often people think that it is either working in the planning department of a local government or for a private company. But things are not black or white, there are many types of organizations and research centers that are increasingly working on urban issues. # UNDERSTANDING CITIES FROM A YOUNG AGE Urbanism is a career that is increasingly out there and it is gaining momentum, but a lot of people don’t really understand it. For a long time, my family and friends did not fully get it, what they initially imagined is that I designed parks or plazas. It is easier to say you are an architect, that’s for sure, but people need to understand what urbanism is and why it is important for our cities. I often wonder what would have happened if at an early age I had learnt about how cities worked or how citizens could make a change in their community. I think this type of education can really have an impact. There are interesting initiatives that are already pushing these ideas, like [La Città dei Bambini](, the City of Kids (also a book by Francesco Tonucci) which aims to empower children and make them active agents in their communities. Initiatives are being developed in Italy, Spain, Latin America, where kids brainstorm on projects, such as how to get from their home to school safely without adults. Children also get to meet with local representatives and even have budgets destined for their proposals. {{Pic3: Photo by Carola Vega}} # LEARNING FROM OTHERS Coming from the very insular profession of architecture, I studied and worked with people within my field for a long time. Transitioning into urban studies radically changed that, as I had to collaborate with economists, political scientists, geographers, data scientists, etc. Working with people of different backgrounds and expertises widens your perspective and helps you approach urban challenges with a better set of tools. As an advice to people that want to pursue urbanism: cities are complex systems, work with and learn from people who look at problems differently than yourself! #RECONNECTING WITH SOUTH AMERICA I grew up in Lima and left to study abroad when I was 17, at an age when I barely understood my hometown. Every time I go back, I learn a great deal from how the city is evolving, for better and worse. Although there are increasingly more bottom-up groups advocating for sustainable and inclusive cities, urban planning in Peru still revolves around the provision of infrastructure and zoning codes. There is also a huge absence of data in planning, especially in medium and small cities, which translates into weak evaluation mechanisms, no accountability and scarce information available for citizens. It is challenging from afar, but one of my goals is to eventually develop impact-driven projects and tools which can contribute to closing this data gap and promote inclusive and human-centered urban development in Peruvian cities.