The world’s biggest cities get much of the attention in research about urban planning, but Gregory Randolph is interested in the smallest of urban areas.
Randolph, a PhD student at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, gravitates to informal settlements in India, where he finds fascinating stories unfolding. He’s watched villages morph into towns and residents shift from agriculture to non-farm jobs.
“As a researcher, I’m always drawn to the stories that I feel are not being told,” Randolph said.
Randolph’s research has identified a novel form of urbanization, what he’s calling “urbanization from within.” He contends that small villages are transforming into urban areas without an influx of industry or migrants. Instead, the urbanization of these places is occurring through internal population growth and the social and economic changes brought by population density.
Randolph is now writing a book about his findings, which was the subject of his dissertation to earn his PhD in Urban Planning and Development. He’s also landed a job as an assistant professor in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of City and Regional Planning – which he’ll start this fall.
“He’s an incredible student – like one in a billion,” said Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, the USC Price School’s James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning. “I just always knew he would be a star. It was our unwavering belief that he would triumph, and that has all come to fruition.”
Originally from North Carolina, Randolph moved to India for five years after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was initially attracted to one of those megacities that capture urban planners’ imaginations – New Delhi – where he lived while working for a nonprofit that helped people in informal settlements upgrade their homes.
Through that work, he saw a huge disconnect between urban policy and labor market policy. For example, the Indian government built high-rise buildings to house residents from informal settlements, even though most residents were street vendors who needed easy access to the street. These observations led him to cofound a policy think tank, called the Just Jobs Network, that conducts research and advises governments on labor issues in the Global South, a term used to identify countries and regions in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania.
It was during this time that he met Munna, a bicycle rickshaw driver who briefly worked in New Delhi, only to return to his home state of Bihar just six months later. Randolph learned that, for many people, big cities like New Delhi were not a destination but a pitstop to earn money. Randolph wondered: How are the “circular movements” of migrants like Munna changing their home villages?
He received a Fulbright-Hays scholarship to investigate. Last year, he spent eight months in India where he confirmed that these settlements were urbanizing by natural population growth – not a migration of people from elsewhere – and that temporary out migration was seeding the creation of a local, non-farm economy. He also observed that the impacts of climate change partly explain why people are exiting agriculture and taking up other kinds of jobs locally.
“The purpose of my work was to get inside the black box of the phenomenon and understand what was really happening on the ground,” Randolph said. “To see how the individual decisions of people and families and firms were adding up to these patterns that I was seeing in the secondary data.”
His findings – that the rural villages are becoming “urban in place” – calls into question some of the ways that experts traditionally think cities form, as well as what defines a city geographically, socially and economically. These cities are essentially market towns with commercial areas that include small, informal enterprises serving the local market. Construction is almost entirely informal, too, Randolph said.
“He’s really challenged orthodox urbanism,” Currid-Halkett said, adding that Randolph’s research suggests that “what’s going on in the Global South may be different than the conventional, long-standing theories of urbanism that have carried us through the 20th and 21st century with regards to Western and Global North cities.”
Randolph said he found “an amazing mentor and adviser” in Currid-Halkett. He also credited USC for giving him the flexibility to have a dissertation committee co-chair at UCLA, Michael Storper, an economic geographer and a supportive mentor.
Randolph’s international experience helped get him the job at Georgia Tech, where he will help shape a new master’s program in global development and teach courses focused on community development. He’ll likely continue research into smaller, often overlooked communities.
“There’s this false assumption that Global South urbanization is heavily concentrated in mega cities,” he said. “One of the things I’ve shown in my research is that’s not the case. Actually, small towns are extremely important to the overall pattern of urbanization that we see in countries like India. We need to turn our research agendas in that direction to understand what’s happening in these places.”