The Dean’s List
U of T Mississauga’s Interim Vice-Principal, Academic and Dean, shares her joys, challenges and priorities for her term, and talks about the leadership roles that have shaped the way she approaches her research in urban infrastructure
Amrita Danière has been studying policy and planning and informal housing for over 25 years, but it’s clear that her love of cities and the way people live in urban environments emerged way before then, and it’s quite frankly in her DNA.
“My father, who was born in France, was a professor of economics, working a lot in what was then called “developing countries” – mostly in Africa, but a bit in Latin America as well – and I just thought he had the best job,” says Danière, who grew up in Boston, and has been a professor at UofT since 1995, based in the Department of Geography, Geomatics, and Environment at UTM.
“And because my mother was born in Lahore, which was then in India but is now in Pakistan, I had visited India a couple of times when I was a young girl, and I just loved the experience of traveling there.”
In a recent interview on VIEW to the U podcast, Danière, who is also UTM’s Interim Vice-Principal, Academic and Dean (VPAD), talks about her research related to informal settlements, often referred to as “slums” or squatter settlements, housing, and urban infrastructure.
This field of study has taken her around the world, including Latin American, Egypt, and Bolivia, but Danière has particularly focused in the cities of the global South, with much effort devoted to Southeast Asia and Bangkok, where she lived for a time shortly after completing her PhD in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Danière moved, with her two-year-old son and husband to Thailand, in the early 1990s to work fulltime in a Thai research organization.
“I mostly work in communities that can be thought of as self-constructed, where people often occupy the land without any formal permission of a government and they don't go through the regular market,” says Danière, adding that occupants either carve out or inherit the space and then construct a dwelling.
“I study what people in those communities need in terms of public services to function safely and healthily in their environments. So, that normally includes water and waste – such as sanitation and disposal collection – and can also include transportation and, of course, housing.”
Danière says these informal settlements are situated all around the globe and countries have different names for them, such as in in Brazil, where they are called favelas, or in Mexico, colonias populares. A fair comparison in the Greater Toronto Area, and in North America more generally, are the “tent cities” that get erected in various big cities. In most of the instances that Danière has considered, the living arrangements, though haphazard and poorly constructed with mediocre materials, are typically still more substantial than tents. In addition, she says that some of the settlements she has studied have longevity, too, having been in place for 50 or 60 years.
Working in this area inspires Danière, especially when she sees how much quality of life improves for communities when things like potable water, electricity, and better garbage collection are facilitated.
Her administrative work is also a source of inspiration that comes with its share of challenges, but is offset with the frequent hits of gratitude she receives because she helped solve a problem or improved someone’s educational experience.
In her role as Dean, where she oversees all “academic aspects of a student and faculty member's life,” and is responsible for things like the shaping of curriculum, faculty promotion, academic integrity, as well as driving the campus’s priorities, Danière says the UTM campus is an engaged community that allows her to have a broad reach across many different areas.
“Because of where I sit, I have a lot of connection to every part of the campus, and often outside of the campus,” says Danière.
“I can bring all that knowledge and all that linkage to these other people and other offices to bear, and that that's the part that I really like about this job.”
She is halfway through her one-year term as Interim VPAD, a position she held full-time from 2016-21, and she has a number of priorities she aims to see through: successful oversight of UTM’s self-study report, which is a review of the campus’s academic framework that is conducted every seven years; strategizing with other key administrators about how to manage some of UTM’s financial challenges; continuing the work in sustainability that UTM has had at the forefront of its mandate for many years; and also carry out the work in equity, diversity, and inclusion that the previous Dean, Professor Rhonda McEwen, prioritized on the campus to propel key efforts, such as UTM’s Anti-Black Racism group and Indigenous initiatives at UTM.
Having held a number of academic appointments at UTM over her tenure, including as Vice-Dean, Graduate, Acting Vice President and Principal, and the Chair of UTM's Department of Geography, Geomatics, and Environment for many years, Danière feels that the leadership roles have slightly shifted how she conducts her research, but in the best of ways.
“The most tangible way in which my administrative work has influenced my research would be in providing a real clear sense of the leadership that's involved in a project because you usually never work by yourself,” says Danière.
“I think I've really come into my own as a researcher in the last 10 years because I've been able to bring a lot of very disparate people together to work on complicated issues and problems that I never would have attempted before I had this kind of maturity about group dynamics and how groups can work to solve problems together.”
- Listen to the full VIEW to the U podcast interview with Professor Danière or read the transcript.
- The episode of the podcast was dedicated to one of the faculty members from Amrita's Home Department of Geography, Geomatics, and Environment: the beloved Barbara Murck, who passed away in October 2022. Read more about Barb’s legacy at UTM, or visit the Kudoboard that was established to reflect on her impact as a UTM community member.