ExplorersBio

Cara Eckholm

Urbanist/Ethnographer

Young Explorers Grantee

Picture of Cara Eckholm looking out a window

Photograph by Amanda Rivkin

Picture of Cara Eckholm

Photograph by Phil Lopez Weider

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I spent most of my childhood in Beijing, and my school there had an amazing theater program. So I wanted to be an actress, and even managed to land a two-year stint as a cast member on an educational TV show sponsored by the Chinese government. Once I moved back to my hometown, New York, my interest in performance led me to join my high school debate team. That gave me a passion for law. Until my senior year of high school, I wanted to be a Supreme Court justice. (I still would not be opposed to the idea!)

How did you get started in your field of work?

In college, I knew I wanted a thesis topic that combined my two key interests, architecture and public policy, and I knew I wanted to travel. I was able to check those boxes with a somewhat unusual topic: fights over monuments in Eastern Europe. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, protesters displayed their rejection of Communism by demolishing leftover monuments, and "Where's Lenin?" became a joke across the region. For my senior thesis, I decided I was going to answer that question, but also its natural follow-up: Who has taken Lenin's place?

I was lucky to receive funding from my university for a month-long research trip to Estonia, Hungary, and Poland. I started to cold-email, contacting government officials, intellectuals, tour guides, art historians—really anyone I could think of. And I set up lots of interviews, ranging from one at the mayor's office in Budapest, to a coffee date with a prominent academic in Tallinn. By hearing the perspective of all these different stakeholders, I was able to understand how these young democracies are choosing the monuments that will define their nationhood—but also how bitter battles over symbols of the past are affecting today's politics. The experience convinced me of the power of urban ethnography and naturally steered me to the subject of my Young Explorer project in Bosnia.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to ethnography?

By 2050, 70 percent of the world's population will live in cities. Tensions tend to peak in metropolitan areas, making healthy urban environments necessary for global stability. The world will need smart city leaders who can understand how people relate to the built environment. I hope to be one of them, working to accommodate our rapidly changing reality.

What's a normal day like for you?

My days are always so different. When I am out doing fieldwork, I spend most days with the people I am studying, going to their homes, following them out at night, trying to understand their daily lives. I travel often, too, to meet with clients and present my findings. When I am back in Copenhagen, I bike to work and spend my days in the office. I am still pretty new to the city, so I try to get out and explore in the evening and on weekends. With its immaculate planning and humming culture, Copenhagen is a wonderful place to be for someone like me, with my interest in urban studies.

Do you have a hero?

I have always been inspired by Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park and other great landscapes. He brought nature to urban dwellers and vastly redefined public space for the benefit of the many. More recently, I have become fascinated with the Danish architect Jan Gehl, who studies the space between buildings to make cities more "people friendly." His Copenhagen-based firm has worked on everything from redesigning New York's Times Square to building a square in Amman, Jordan, for Palestinian refugees.

What's been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

I am always touched by how open people are to letting me, a stranger, into their worlds. In Sarajevo, one of the translators Amanda and I worked with even invited us on a weekend trip to Montenegro for her cousin's wedding. Most challenging is harder to say, but I can definitely tell you about the time I was most frightened. We were driving across Bosnia, innocently following Google Maps. On a narrow and deserted path through the mountains, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by bright red signs warning of land mines on the side of the road. And there was no way to turn around without driving into one of the warning signs. We later learned that the road had not been touched since the Austro-Hungarian era, except for the land mines that were planted during the Bosnian War and had not yet been removed.

What are your other passions?

Debate! I represented my high school in tournaments across the country and became a member of the National Debate Team, competing internationally. It was a debate tournament that first took me to Bosnia, in 2009. Though I no longer compete, I have been involved with the activity in lots of different ways since. I organized a debate tournament in New York on the state of civil liberties post-9/11, and the tournament materials (a textbook and video) were used in over 1,000 high schools as part of a curriculum on the subject. In a return to my acting roots, I even helped to produce and hosted the pilot of a reality television show about debate for PBS!

Eckholm's Twitter

In Their Words

I am always touched by how open people are to letting me, a stranger, into their worlds.

—Cara Eckholm

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