Lara Arjan

The globetrotting urban planner

This urban development specialist has lived and worked from one city to another, helping her thrive in a multicultural workplace while having a clear view of the different facets of urban development.

July 2020

Lara’s own family came from different cultures and ethnicities: her mother is Pakistani with European and Indian subcontinent roots; her grandparents and great grandparents are from different ethnicities belonging to three religions; and her dad’s side is Palestinian.

 

Lara spent most of her formative years in Amman, Jordan and had short stints in Beirut and the United Kingdom. But her love for development work started as early as she was 12. Lara’s father, who was an environmental engineer, took her once to release an oryx herd in the Eastern Jordanian desert—that experience left her mesmerized. Growing up in Amman in the 80s, she also witnessed nearby wars and waves of refugees in her city, which brought about socioeconomic and environmental stress. This has shaped the way she looks at the world.

She decided to take up environmental sciences and landed on a job as an environmental impact specialist for a United Nations Development Programme project in the Eastern Jordanian desert—the exact place where she watched an oryx being released 10 years earlier. She helped draft a management plan for the Azraq Wild Reserve, an oasis and Ramsar site. “The job was perfect because it helped me gain breadth. I loved working with people from different disciplines, and I also appreciated the long overnights in the desert,” Lara recalled.

Lara spent a big part of her career in Montreal managing a portfolio of international development projects in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). She then became an urban planner for the City of Edmonton in Canada before finally moving to Manila.

Midlife crisis propelled Lara to ADB. “I wanted to experience something different,” shared Lara. “I usually metamorphose every 10 years!” she added.

Lara’s work at ADB is of an advisory nature. She is part of a department providing innovation and knowledge support to ADB operations. She is mainly in charge of the City Development Initiative Asia (CDIA) Trust Fund, a multidonor trust fund that supports cities to build bankable urban projects. Lara also manages a technical assistance project in Fiji and Indonesia that aims to pilot nature-based solutions in informal settlements in both countries. “I am grateful for the multiple opportunities my work provides me to learn about different facets of urban development and other cultures,” she shared.

I believe that all regions in the world are similar in the challenges they face – people want to make a living, they want to care for their families – whether you are a construction worker in Canada or a taxi driver in Kabul, your concerns are the same.

Lara Arjan 
Urban Development Specialist 
Urban Sector Group

Are there any insights you’ve gained from working in the MENA region that are applicable to your work now in Asia and the Pacific?

 

Lara: Things are very complex in the MENA region. In general, I think it helped me look at things from different perspectives and not only look at them from one perspective. I am aware of the environmental and socioeconomic and political stresses of any given situation. I believe that all regions in the world are similar in the challenges they face – people want to make a living, they want to care for their families – whether you are a construction worker in Canada or a taxi driver in Kabul, your concerns are the same. Challenges countries face are not unique either, they are of a different breadth and depth. I remember how apprehensive I was on my first field trip to Makassar, Indonesia. I was not sure what to expect. I did not know the language, and I did not know the culture. I was not sure how to approach people. Just observing people in the workshop, their body language, how they laughed at jokes, catching what I could from the translator, I realized how different yet how similar people can be. I could have been in Cairo, Tunis, or Ramallah. 

 

What has been a memorable moment or lesson for you in ADB so far?

 

Lara: While on a field visit to Makassar, we met a young mother in a slum area that was constantly flooded. She was pregnant with her third child. Although we did not speak the same language, we had a connection. All that woman wanted was not to be flooded by the sewer each rainy season. When expecting a baby, you want the best for the baby. For a moment in time, I could relate to her. Although we live worlds apart, we could connect at the human level because we’re both mothers. Everyone wants the best for their children. It gave so much meaning to the work we do at ADB. I do not realize this when I go through the piles of paperwork to process a loan or a grant. That moment made all the work worth it.

 

You seem to be interested in social justice and gender equality. How can this be strengthened in your work?

 

Lara: I applied to ADB knowing the lengths it takes to integrate these aspects in its work. We are blessed that we have strategic priorities that give us the ability to integrate these aspects. Also, working under the Livable Cities Operational Objective gives me the leeway I need. Social justice and gender equality are at the heart of livability. If we put an equity lens on the work we do, as prescribed by our strategic objectives, all the work we do should lead to it, so whether you are thinking of a transit project or designing an energy project, you should think of how people will access these services and how your project will level the playing ground for everyone involved.

What or who inspires or motivates you?

 

Lara: People. These complex beings. Every human is a story, everyone is a bundle of complexity and contradictions. People are resilient and have agency and strength. I am inspired by everyday people. Each and every one of us is a story. Disappointment, hope, aspirations. Everyday people inspire me. I want to serve people.

How would you like cities to change after the pandemic? How can it become more livable?

Lara: Humans have short memories. The Spanish flu was similar in the scale and the geographic limits, and these plagues and other calamities, humans usually went on as business as usual after they were over. There were some gains though. The cholera outbreak gave us modern day sewerage systems.

This pandemic put inequalities in sharp relief and made us realize how encroaching on nature would always fire back. I hope we decide to build back with more equity and justice—and build back green. I think we need to balance economic drivers with social and environmental considerations when we build back better. We need to question what is important to us and why.

During these unusual times, how have you been spending your time in lockdown? What do you do aside from work?

Lara: I have more time to cook and bake (yes, I got into the baking thing funnily enough, but my baking is still lousy at best), more time with my partner and two children, which is extremely welcome, especially since the eldest was scheduled to leave the nest in the fall.

I also reach out to family and friends spread across the globe, read, and watch films. I am a movie buff, and I am watching repertoires of certain directors, my first goal was to watch the Miyazaki repertoire, my second is to watch Aldomovar’s repertoire, third is Ken Loach, and I would like to explore some Filipino directors.

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Urban solutions pathways

ADB's Vision of Livable Cities

Cities contribute to national economic growth, but they can be polluted and overcrowded. Asia’s rapidly developing cities face inadequate basic services, environmental degradation, and increasing poverty. “Livable Cities” is ADB’s vision and approach to urban development. ADB works to support the transformation of developing cities in Asia and the Pacific into safe, sustainable urban centers.

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