Topics: Administrative, College of Architecture and Planning, Scholarships

November 4, 2015

Nihal Perera wants to make urban planning more holistic and useful for ordinary people.

The traditional top-down and data-driven process gives more consideration to helping businesses, the powerful and the well-to-do, he said. Little thought is accorded to individuals' ability to function within an area or a community's capacity to change space according to its needs.

Nihal Perera, a professor of urban planning, is a second-time Fulbright scholar. He'll teach and conduct research in Myanmar through next summer.

"Planners take a large area and abstract concepts, such as population and maps, and produce abstract spaces like neighborhoods and roads," said the professor of urban planning in the College of Architecture and Planning. "But people tend to transform abstract, larger space into spaces that are more useful for their daily lives."

That can include everything from creating a house of worship to putting up a fence for a dog. Perera wants planners to become part of that transformational process, which he prefers. "It’s more efficient and less expensive."

So he'll use his second Fulbright Scholar award to teach planning at Yangon Technological University in Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma) and begin a research project on planning.

Myanmar and planning

Perera knows he'll find fascinating examples of urban planning when he studies Naypyidaw, Myanmar's new capital seemingly built to impress and finished in 2012. Highways with up to 20 lanes often carry just a few cars.

London's Daily Mail reported in April that while Naypyidaw is the size of 120 Manhattans and has enough room for about a million residents, "it remains a relative ghost town."

While Perera has proposed to teach one class on Asian urbanism and planning and one on the same topic in America, "I don’t know exactly what I'll be teaching. It's very slow with a military government in transition. I don't have my contract yet, but I've already shipped my books." He plans to leave later this month and work through the summer.

Helping towns function from the start

He embraced holistic planning years ago when he and a government consultant planned and built 12 new towns in Perera's native Sri Lanka. "Our model was to start small and expand, accommodating and enhancing our plans to help people use the space as they needed. We had some commercial and residential areas at the beginning, together, so it works as a small town from the beginning."

The more traditional approach meant "towns didn't really become towns for 35 to 50 years, so by the time they were functioning, the original people who lived there had died."

Planning also works better when it takes into account changes in cultures and cultural landscapes—where people live, work, shop, eat and worship—because that is how they use space.

Perera is set to base his fourth book on this Fulbright experience. "It will be a little bit of a mishmash, but the focus will be Asian urban planning. And there will be a connection between Asia and Indiana, with one chapter addressing Gary."

He's written a book about the politics of space making that's due to be released this month, one about society and space in Sri Lanka. He co-edited a book about how people and institutions create space while transforming Asian cities.

Groundwork for Ball State students' field work

He also hopes his time in Myanmar will lay the foundation for the next CapAsia trip. His college's immersive field-semester in Asia lets students work with locals on architecture and planning projects.

Ball State's Fulbright Scholars

Ball State faculty members have won more than 20 Fulbright scholarships in the past 60 years.

See a list of recipients.

During the CapAsia semester, he intends to plan a housing and historic preservation project in Yangon with Ball State students and Yangon Technological faculty and students. Ball State students also will be immersed in entrepreneurial learning as they contribute to Nepal's post-earthquake rebuilding, particularly how it's conceived, through a small building project.