Babak Manouchehrifar awarded 2023 GPEIG/ACSP Gill Chin Lim Best Dissertation in International Planning Award 

The Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning announced that the 2023 winner of the GPEIG/ACSP Gill Chin Lim Best Dissertation in International Planning Award is Babak Manouchehrifar, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for Urban Planning and Religious Practice: Three Challenges.

The following story is posted on the ACSP website:

In recognition of the commitment of the late Gill-Chin Lim to the study of humanistic aspects of globalization, GPEIG established this award in his name. It is funded annually by the Consortium of Development Studies (CODS), which was founded by Lim in 1982. This award recognizes superior scholarship in a doctoral dissertation completed by a student enrolled in an ACSP-member school.

Manouchehrifar is a scholar of urban planning and national development who studies the relationship between spatially located religious communities and secular principles of urban governance, both in the U.S. and globally. He is currently a Princeton-Mellon postdoctoral Fellow in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, and a Stewart Fellow with Princeton University’s Humanities Council. Manouchehrifar earned his PhD in Urban and Regional Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2022. His doctoral dissertation challenges the conventional assumption that modern urban planning is founded solely on secular principles and is “indifferent” to all religions. The dissertation demonstrates that this assumption, which views secularism as the singular ethos in urban planning, coupled with the dominance of Anglo-Saxon Protestant norms embodied in modernization theories of international development, has often hindered urban planners’ understanding of local communities and, at times, even contributed to socio-spatial conflicts. Dr. Manouchehrifar’s research has been published in the journals Planning Theory and Practice, Planning Theory, and Planning Education and Research. At Princeton, Manouchehrifar teaches seminars on “Religion and the City” and “Religion and Public Policy: At Home and Abroad.” He is currently working on a book project, titled “Urban Planning and Religious Pluralism: Challenges and Possibilities.”

"The [winning] dissertation comprises of three remarkable papers challenging the commonly held assumption that planning is a strictly secular discipline. Through a variety of methods, including genealogy, comparative case studies, and empirical analysis, Babak unpacks how religious dynamics shape and are shaped by urban planning practices on both local and global scales, shares Award Committee Chair Carolina Sarmiento, University of Wisconsin-Madison. "His work demonstrates how tensions between secular principles of urban governance and urban communities’ religious practices impact planning processes in diverse contexts, including Albania, Iraq, Canada, France, the Philippines, and the United States. His research has broad implications for how planners can engage with lived religion."

Here's more from Manouchehrifar:

Q: How did you feel when you learned you won?
I felt deeply humbled and honored to receive this prestigious and highly competitive award, especially considering the many excellent and impactful dissertations produced by my peers in the field of international planning.

Q: Who do you want to thank?
A: I am most grateful to an interdisciplinary community of scholars for their mentorship and support during this research. First and foremost, I want to thank my incredible advisor, Professor Bish Sanyal, who guided me throughout my doctoral journey, from the very first day of my arrival to the U.S. to the final defense of my dissertation and beyond. He encouraged me to pursue my passion and curiosity and to challenge myself to produce original and rigorous scholarship. In addition, I am deeply grateful to my dissertation committee members, Professor John Forester of Cornell University, Professor Courtney Bender of Columbia University, and Professor Balakrishnan Rajagopal from MIT, for their guidance and encouragement. They fundamentally shaped my understanding of the topic and challenged me to think critically and creatively about it through their valuable insights and advice. I also want to thank the 2023 Gill-Chin Lim Award Committee, ACSP, and GPEIG for recognizing my scholarship and providing encouragement as I continue my academic journey. I am grateful to my colleagues, friends, and staff at MIT, Princeton, and in Iran who supported me during the challenging times of my doctoral studies. Last but not least, I want to express my gratitude to my family, especially my spouse and our daughter, for their love, support, and patience with me. I am indebted to all of these people for their contributions to my work.

Q: What inspired you about this project?
A: This study emerged out of my interest in understanding the challenges and possibilities of engaging with religiously diverse communities in designing more inclusive and sustainable cities. Through my professional experience as a planner and civil engineer in Iran as well as my academic studies in the U.S., I noticed a particular disjunction between the theory and practice of urban planning and international development: urban planners encounter various aspects of religion and secularity in their professional practice considerably more often than they do in their academic training and theoretical explorations. This observation motivated me to probe how religion and secularism influence planning and implementation processes in both Western and non-Western cities. I was not convinced by the conventional view of religion in planning as merely a private belief, irrelevant to the spatial and practical domains of professional planners. I believed this conventional view ignored the messy realities of dealing with spatial expressions of religious differences in planning practice, including disputes over houses of worship as well as unconventional cases such as a sex club rebranding as a church to bypass zoning codes. In my desertion, therefore, I examined how U.S. planners have addressed spatial conflicts involving religion since the late 19th century in the United States as well as internationally: in the Philippines, Albania, and Iraq. In this study, I pursued two goals. The first was to challenge the long-held assumption of “religious indifference” in urban planning and to highlight the ethnocentric bias of modernization theories in international development, which view Anglo-Protestant norms as the normative template through which “Third World” nations could progress by emulating the success of the “First World.” The second goal was to search for a new style of planning practice that embraces religious pluralism by focusing, not on grand theories of religion and development that view religion abstractly as an otherworldly, non-spatial, and extra-legal phenomenon, but on the material and lived expressions of religion in the built environment.

Q: What's Next?
 What’s next for me is to continue my research and teaching at the intersection of urban planning, international development, and religious pluralism. I am currently working on a book project at Princeton University that expands my dissertation research in areas of race, climate change, and urban analytics. My ultimate goal is to find a job in planning academia that will enable me to do research and teach based on my passion and expertise. I am inspired by the mission of planning schools to train diversity-advocate students committed to challenging established paradigms and creating equitable and sustainable cities. As I continue my academic journey, I look forward to collaborating with scholars and practitioners across various fields of expertise to address the questions of spatial inequity and social injustice from different perspectives at both local and global levels. I believe that planning is not only a profession but also a vocation that requires empathy, open-mindedness, and innovative thinking. I hope to contribute to this field with my scholarship, pedagogy, and service.

Manouchehrifar will present his winning paper at the ACSP Annual Conference in October.