By Ramin Rajaii
UCLA Luskin Student Writer
Los Angeles: universally recognized as a hub of technological innovation, entertainment and creativity. But with this reputation come a slew of negative perceptions. The vision of Los Angeles as an urban metropolis is often associated with cynical perceptions of unsustainability, disorganization and inefficient transportation. Which image of L.A. is closer to reality?
Exploring this question is the mission of a team of five students from Geneva, Switzerland. Part of a strategic initiative meant to build increased international collaboration, the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs teamed with the University of Geneva to bring these students to L.A. during an "Urban Futures Workshop." The students hoped to gain eye-opening perspectives that could then be applied to urban planning obstacles back home.
Led by Dr. Alexandre Babak Hedjazi, Lecturer and Vice-Rector Scientific Deputy at the University of Geneva, and Dr. Leobardo Estrada , associate professor of Urban Planning at UCLA Luskin, the Urban Futures Workshop analyzed local urban infrastructure, reflecting on the processes by which cities switch from current planning and development to future sustainable goals amidst pressure of environmental degradation, demographic shift, scarcity of natural resources and rescaling of governance. With a combination of site visits and lectures by experts in relevant fields, the five students — Martina Schuermann, Roman Zemel, Elodie Charrière, Lara-Florine Isoz and Urban Furlan — explored the unique facets of Los Angeles to determine what works and what doesn’t.
While their backgrounds were certainly diverse, with degrees ranging from environmental science to international relations, they aimed to approach the seemingly chaotic, bustling city of Los Angeles with a mentality for exchanging innovative ideas regarding sustainability.
"Sustainable development is quite different in the U.S.," Furlan said. "At home [in Geneva], we have an image of the city that is defined, one that has a regular form and is easy to govern. [But here], how do you govern a region with 40 cities, very different people and cultures all combined in one?"
Schuermann agreed that the team’s initial impression of Los Angeles was one of unsustainability due to excessive traffic, pollution and the absence of coordination between municipalities. According to Hedjazi, the workshop's organizer, the visitors were baffled by the extent of usage and transportation models found in L.A., in comparison to the "relatively efficient public transportation in Geneva."
Nevertheless, they soon realized that there was more to be discovered. The group agreed that several of the city’s attributes have been integral to its continued success, and these qualities would likely be beneficial if adopted back home.
Notably, Charrière praised Los Angeles for its emphasis on the education of its youth as a means to ensure a progressive future. Moreover, having observed the organic farmers’ markets and tree planting near the L.A. River, Zemel was pleasantly surprised by the extent to which the community actively participated in encouraging green sustainability.
"[In Los Angeles], green sustainability is surprisingly not just an academic field; citizens are making an active effort to improve upon these issues," he observed. "And here, planting trees actually builds a sense of social cohesion as an unexpected consequence."
Similarly, Isoz was excited by the vast amount of optimism she encountered in such a city.
"In cities [such as L.A.], you have so much chaos and disorganization, but people still seem very optimistic," she said. "Despite the density of the population, there are many opportunities available to help a person grow."
The University of Geneva students’ findings and the workshop’s conclusions will be presented to an audience of mayors and city officials at the ICLEI 7th Conference of Green Cities, to be held in Geneva April 16-19, 2013, and to which UCLA Luskin students and faculty have been invited by their UNIGE colleagues.
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