Stories of Young Urbanists: Meet Dorraine Duncan and Jhordan Channer

22.06.2022, Regina Schröter

Dorraine Duncan and Jhordan Channer are co-founders of [Island City Lab](, a think-tank confronting urban issues in cities across island nations. Whilst Dorraine studied environmental policy and urban planning and Jhordan architecture at Georgia Tech, Atlanta, they gained internship experience in Singapore and Guangzhou, South China. After graduation, they moved to New York City, where Dorraine worked in municipal planning and Jhordan in urban design. They were both fellows at the Urban Design Forum before they returned to Kingston, Jamaica, where they are now based. # PIVOTING FROM MATHS INTO RENEWABLE ENERGY POLICY Dorraine: I did an undergraduate degree in Maths at [Kalamazoo College](, Michigan. As an international student, my parents considered maths to be a ”marketable“ subject, one that I could easily get a job with, but I was not at all passionate about it. I was, however, able to do a minor in environmental studies and got very interested in renewable energy policy in my senior year. Back then, I thought it was too late for me to enter that field, but my professor comforted me by saying that there are many ways of tackling issues in renewable energy and that public policy was one way. It was an eye-opening piece of advice for me, as you easily convince yourself that your entire future hinges on one decision. In my experience, making such a transition and pivoting in your career is typical for young professionals these days and it is a positive thing to embrace. # MOVING AWAY FROM AN EXPLOITATIVE WORKING CULTURE Jhordan: I went to the Caribbean School of Architecture in Jamaica where I developed a language, awareness and tools to interpret the context in which I live. After graduation, I found myself in an exploitative working environment and hated the projects I was working on. Dorraine and I knew each other from high school; she told me about [Georgia Tech]( and walked me through the application process. I got into grad school with a research assistantship, which meant my education would be tuition-free. Dorraine really helped me with this transition and we have been partners ever since. # SINGAPORE – A DIFFERENT SCALE OF CITY PLANNING Dorraine: At Georgia Tech, I met an alumnus who now works in Singapore and they were able to facilitate a summer internship for me at their firm. I really enjoyed living there and being inspired by all the urban innovations that existed across the city. I was working with [CPG Corporation]( on urban development projects located across Southeast Asia and the Middle East. This was urban planning in the literal sense: building brand new cities from scratch. It was eye-opening and terrifying to see this scale and pace of development. {{Pic1: Singapore at night. Photo by Jhordan Channer.}} I realised that my American planning education did not prepare me for the realities in Global South Cities. I wished I had been more exposed to this planning context in school because the 1920’s US American planning theory and history were not useful in cities in South East Asia, nor back home in the Caribbean region. We need to broaden planning education to have a more contemporary focus on Global South cities since that is where most of the urban development and population growth is happening now. # GUANGZHOU – A BLACK EXPERIENCE IN SOUTH CHINA Jhordan: Dorraine landing her summer internship in Singapore motivated me to also look for opportunities in Asia. I had a professor who had previously done a project with the [Guangdong Urban & Rural Planning and Design Institute]( in Guangzhou, so they helped me get a summer internship there. Particularly in South China, there is a rapid urban expansion happening and they are planning entire cities. {{Pic2: The city of Guangzhou. Photo by Jhordan Channer.}} It was a surreal experience to be Black in South China, especially since I was staying in an urban village. Urban villages are very dense areas in the city with very little diversity: people there are still very connected to a rural lifestyle, whilst living in high-density apartment complexes. For many people, I was the first Black person that they had ever met. Living in an urban village, all my life outside of work was taking place in public spaces and seeing how people were integrating it into their daily routines was extremely inspiring to me. {{Pic3: Exploring Guangzhou. Photo via Jhordan Channer.}} # MOVING TOGETHER TO NEW YORK CITY Dorraine: When we approached graduation, neither of us had any job prospects. Jhordan was really sold on New York City’s allure and convinced me to move there with him. We stayed with Jhordan’s aunt in Queens whilst looking for jobs and were able to find support within the Caribbean community of NYC, which is one of the largest diasporas of Caribbean people worldwide. We did not have a professional network in NYC yet, and I spent six months looking for employment while being pressured by my student visa deadlines. But during this very stressful time – being unemployed and experiencing a brutal winter – I was able to find solace in Jamaican food and the comfort of my community. {{Pic4: Jhordan and Dorraine in New York City . Photo by Dorraine Duncan.}} # MASTERING NETWORKING Dorraine: During my unemployment period, I learned to master networking on LinkedIn. I reached out to people working in renewable energy policy and sustainability planning with the NYC municipality. All these people in interesting positions went to Northeastern universities, so I really had to “sell“ my degree and education from Georgia Tech which is in the South. I got support, especially from women of colour, who offered to review my CV and shared their network with me. With these new connections, I got introduced to the person who later hired me as Project Manager in the [New York City Economic Development Corporation]( # NEW YORK CITY’S CIVIC SOCIETY GROUPS Jhordan: I was able to bridge my Atlanta connections to NYC and got a job shortly after our arrival at [WXY](, an urban design and planning practice, with a former teacher of mine from Georgia Tech. But I also explored networks of urban professionals outside of my job. One example is civic society groups, where you can throw your ideas around with people from similar fields. I was an active member of [Black Space](, a collective that supports planners, architects, artists and designers as Black urbanists. The plethora of those organisations in NYC was extremely useful for us to build a network there. # THE URBAN DESIGN FORUM FELLOWSHIP EXPERIENCE Dorraine: I found out about the [Urban Design Forum Fellowship]( via a colleague who had participated. Each year, the fellowship tackles a different topic. In the year I joined, it was about the urban heat island effect and how to reduce its risks in vulnerable communities. The fellowship lasted for almost a year, during which I was also working full time as a Project Manager. In the first period of the fellowship we learnt about the topic of the [urban heat island effect](, and in the second phase, we created solutions with a client, which in my case was the [Mayor's Office of Climate Resiliency]('s%20Office%20of%20Climate,today%20and%20generations%20to%20come.). The fellowship gave me the opportunity to explore a topic guided by my own curiosity. It felt like a studio class back in university, and you could really see the breadth of solutions that get developed when you have diverse voices in the room. Jhordan: When Dorraine was going through the fellowship, I applied for the following year’s program called [Cooperative Works](, which explored how to support workers of colour, expand worker cooperatives, and democratise economic resources to build a more inclusive economy. The topic seemed very abstract compared to my job as an urban designer, but it was very interesting to engage with it, and I have been listening to economics podcasts ever since. My year was fully online due to the pandemic so I learned how to moderate online working sessions. It was a big responsibility to take on this fellowship whilst still working our full-time jobs. But because in NYC the Urban Design Forum is well known, we both got support from our employees to do it. {{Pic5: Project “Rooted Resilience”. Photo via Urban Design Forum.}} # LEAVING NYC AND RE-INTEGRATING INTO JAMAICA Dorraine: There is a fickleness to being on a visa, particularly in the US. After gaining amazing experiences in NYC, we were forced to leave after three years. We weren’t shocked that we didn’t get picked in the visa lottery, but we were still disappointed. But having worked outside the US previously had broadened my idea of where I could build a life, which made it easier for me to accept having to move back to Jamaica. {{Pic6: Jhordan working in the garden in Kingston. Photo by Dorraine Duncan.}} Jhordan: It felt surreal to me to spend so much time in a place and get pushed out of it again. It was frustrating to leave NYC and it was tough to adapt to a new life in Kingston, but returning to Jamaica also did become an opportunity to get reacquainted with being a Jamaican citizen. Living in our city and country again has been very fulfilling. # FOUNDING ISLAND CITY LAB Dorraine: When we moved back to Jamaica last year, we started refining an idea that we had for a long time and founded [Island City Lab](, a think-tank that confronts the issues affecting the built environment of island nations. We see the need for creating and disseminating best practices in the urban development of Island cities and nations, as they have particular issues that manifest themselves in different ways than larger countries. For example, we are extremely vulnerable to climate- and economic-related issues. Our approach to the built environment needs to be grounded in approaches that build resilience across all aspects of urban life. {{Pic7: Emancipation Park in Kingston City. Photo by Jhordan Channer.}} Jhordan: With Island City Lab, we are trying to generate something that does not exist yet. Our major goal is to convene urban stakeholders across sectors to break down silos and confront the major issues that are affecting the built environment of island cities. We see the need for such a space at a local level, similar to civic society groups in NYC, outside of the traditional private or government sector to share new ideas around major urban issues. When we launched last summer, lots of people expressed their interest to support us. We realised that the demand for such a space had not been met in the Caribbean yet. # MAKING VOICES HEARD ACROSS ALL CARIBBEAN ISLANDS Jhordan: At the moment across the Caribbean Islands, decisions on urban developments are taken by a few experts. Island City Lab wants to disseminate urban data publicly and make it available so that civic groups can start generating their own demands about what they want for their urban spaces. We are currently conducting research with the [Caribbean Policy Research Institute]( about zoning, density and land use in the city. In Jamaica, for example, there is no building code and there are foundational processes that need to be developed, which we try to mobilise through our research. Dorraine: Urbanism, planning and development in the Caribbean have a problem with civic participation. Only people who have power and capital are involved in the decisions, so a very limited amount of voices are being heard in everything related to urban development. Our vision is to bring together voices from all over the Caribbean to create structured ways to get people involved in addressing issues on their islands. Hopefully, we will be able to also expand our reach and practice to other islands outside of the Caribbean.