By Lauren Shank, MURP 2025
In October 2023, I joined a small group of planning students and professors on a trip to Yucatán, Mexico. Having had a few months of reflection, I have found that the inspiration and insights gained during this time remain front of mind. The trip was not only thought-provoking from an urban planning perspective, but also truly transformative in terms of worldview.
The Yucatán Peninsula has a rich history of indigenous culture. This history, as well as the present and future for indigenous people in this region, was the primary focus of the trip. By meeting and dialoguing with local leaders, community members, and experts, we learned about indigenous Maya ways of life, pre- and post-colonial urban development, including the enduring legacy of European colonialism, and how some Maya communities have organized in reaction to the larger systems which threaten access to traditional knowledge and practices.
To explore these themes and their connection to our field, we started by visiting museums and archaeological sites, including Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. As our understanding of the history of the Yucatán and the Maya grew, our experiences expanded to include interaction with Maya communities and how they live today. We learned about traditional Maya beekeeping and the cultural significance of the Maya house.
We visited an agro-ecology school, called U Yits Ka’an, and feminist collectivist farm, called U Yich Lu’um, where we learned about the milpa and other traditional farming methods that include multi-culture cropping. We explored a cenote, or underground waterhole, after learning that many of these sacred sites are threatened by pollutive runoff from an industrial pig farm. Lastly, we visited a sustainable tourism center where local Maya work to restore mangrove forests. Along the way, I am thankful to have shared amazing local food, music, and hospitality. Throughout all these experiences, it was demonstrated to us how important these traditional ways are to these communities and also how members must organize resistance to ensure their continuation.
We were hosted by Yazmín Novelo, Michael Joseph, and their daughter Ixchel, who operate the Nojolo’on Peace Center which educates on and advocates for nonviolent resistance and social organizing.
According to their website,
“The Mayan people are part of that south that today faces a crisis of land dispossession, loss of linguistic vitality, economic marginalization, lack of health systems and education respectful of their knowledge and ancestral wisdom…We believe that any movement for change must come from the community itself, in collective processes of reflection and re-appropriation of our Mayan values and for the reconstruction of our history told by ourselves.”
Although these are difficult and complex issues to tackle and may not always relate directly to the day-to-day activities of a planner, they should, however, concern our thinking of the socio-spatial environment and inform our professional values. For me, this means planning in such a way that protects the ability of groups to self-define and self-organize, or to have what is already theirs: autonomy and liberation. In an academic discipline, this means committing a sort of “epistemic disobedience”, to reference the words of Dr. Alejandra García, of whom we attended a lecture with local students from IUDY University in Mérida.
To commit epistemic disobedience requires one to look beyond the imperatives of one’s discipline in order to achieve a greater good. In the example of the Maya, things like farming, a swimming hole, bee honey, the architecture of a house, etc. aren’t simple preferences for a historic past, but relate rather to a deeper cosmology that connects the body, community, food, land, nature, and other animate non-human beings. These connections are preserved in the language and practices of its people and give meaning to the interactions of everyday life. Finally, to look beyond western thinking, which tends to emphasize individuality, mobility, and optimization over more integrated or relational ways of knowing and narrating, I think will bring that greater good to our communities, classrooms, and to the built environment.
 These sites are commonly referred to as “ruins”, including by me in the first draft of this story. However, I learned that there is debate over this term among Maya activists who want to push back against the idea that their culture existed only in the past, has collapsed, and that these sacred sites or towns are now “ruins.”