In Memoriam: Jacqueline Leavitt (1939 – 2015), Professor Emerita of Urban Planning

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UCLA Urban Planning scholar, committed teacher and mentor, and community activist dedicated to social justice passes away following distinguished career.

By Stan Paul

The UCLA Urban Planning Department mourns the loss of Professor Emerita of Urban Planning Jacqueline “Jackie” Leavitt who passed away November 27 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 76.

Professor Leavitt’s research during her decades-long career focused on housing and community development policy, public housing, and the multiple meanings of home, among many other urban and social issues. As a founder of the American Planning Association (APA) Planning and Women Division she is considered a pioneer in research on gender and community development. Additionally, her work brought to light the ways in which low-resourced populations managed to live, work, and survive in cities and regions across the globe.

“I entered urban planning believing in its ability to support social movements through both rigorous research and ethical practice,” she said in a 2008 interview by Progressive Planning Magazine. “In a country where rights are being usurped, and where the government has an ability to demolish public housing…, I still hold to beliefs for social and economic justice, and have tried to develop ways to bring those themes into my classrooms, not as an afterthought but an integral and basic goal.”

“Jackie loved her students, cared for her friends, had passion for her work and community activism. She was as comfortable inspiring her students to change the world, or talking at international gatherings for the rights of the poor, as she was holding the hand of public housing tenants and bringing holiday gifts to their children. We will miss her greatly,” said UCLA Luskin Associate Dean Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris.

An award winning scholar, Professor Leavitt was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to study the privatization of rental housing in New Zealand and Los Angeles, and won first place in the “New American House” competition earlier in her career. She studied the impact of privatization on tenants living in public housing and led projects that helped community organizations reverse disinvestment in underprivileged urban areas. Most recently, she worked with UCLA Emeritus Law Professor Gary Blasi to study the working conditions of taxi drivers in Los Angeles, expanding this research to include women taxi drivers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York City.

Professor Leavitt held both master’s and Ph.D. degrees in Urban Planning from Columbia University, where she is recognized as one of the school’s outstanding practitioners and a central figure in the feminist movement within Urban Planning.

She came to UCLA in 1983 as a visiting lecturer after teaching posts in prestigious planning programs at Columbia University, New York University (NYU), Cornell and City University of New York, and taught continuously in the UCLA Urban Planning Department for the last 32 years. Throughout her career, Professor Leavitt was a committed teacher and mentor, serving as faculty director of the Urban Planning Department’s undergraduate Urban and Regional Studies minor and teaching undergraduate courses in Urban Planning and UCLA’s Undergraduate Honors Collegium. Since 1999, she served as the director of the UCLA Urban Planning Department’s Community Scholars Program, a joint program with the UCLA Labor Center (a unit of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, IRLE), bringing labor and community leaders together with urban planning graduate students to conduct applied research projects. Professor Leavitt’s work “embodied her deep commitment to participatory planning, and both brought the university into the community and brought the community into the university,” said Chris Tilly, IRLE Director and Professor of Urban Planning.

The impact of her research and practice was far reaching. She served as a consultant to nonprofit resident groups, the Swedish Council for Building Research, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the New York City Housing Preservation and Development Agency. She also served on the Nickerson Gardens Community Development Corporation, which was formed to assist one of the largest public housing projects in Los Angeles.

“Jackie Leavitt was a fierce and stalwart critic of the systems and forces that marginalized so many. She was strong willed and articulate, and creative and innovative. That combination of fierceness and creativity is how I will remember her. She was one in a million,” said Luskin Interim Dean Lois Takahashi.

“Jackie was a long time Urban Planning colleague whose passionate commitment to social justice touched every aspect of her research and teaching on housing, gender, labor, and community development. She will be greatly missed by many of us,” said Evelyn Blumenberg, Professor and Chair of the UCLA Department of Urban Planning.

Professor Leavitt is survived by her brother Howard Leavitt and his family. A celebration of her life will be held in Los Angeles and New York (locations to be determined), where her ashes will be distributed. The UCLA Department of Urban Planning will hold a gathering in celebration of her life on Sunday, March 6 at UCLA.

In Memoriam: Edward Soja (1940-2015), Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning Edward Soja, UCLA scholar and Urban Planning faculty member, passed away

By Stan Paul

Edward Soja, longtime UCLA scholar and Urban Planning faculty member, passed away Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015 in Los Angeles at the age of 75.

Dr. Soja was born in New York in 1940. He earned his Ph.D. in Geography from Syracuse University and began his career as a specialist on Africa at Northwestern University. After being recruited to UCLA in 1972, he began focusing his research on urban restructuring in Los Angeles, as well as the critical study of cities and regions. His interests were wide-ranging, including questions of regional development, planning and governance, and the spatiality of social life.

“Ed was a towering figure in the fields of urban planning and the social sciences and a strong force in the Department of Urban Planning for almost 40 years,” said Evelyn Blumenberg, Professor and Chair of Urban Planning. “His insight, wit and leadership will be greatly missed.”

His numerous publications, as writer, editor and collaborator — with fellow UCLA Urban Planning faculty, scholars from across the United States and around the world — include, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (1996), The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century (1996, co-edited with Allen J. Scott), Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions (2000), and Seeking Spatial Justice (2010).

His most recent book, My Los Angeles: From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization (2014), covered more than four decades of urban development in Los Angeles as well as other urban regions. In his introduction, Soja wrote of Los Angeles:

“Its iconic imagery provokes exaggeration, fomenting emotionally excessive repulsion as well as unbridled attraction….Further complicating any understanding of the actual place, Los Angeles for the past century has been a fountainhead of imaginative fantasy, emitting a mesmerizing force that obscures reality by eroding the difference between the real and the imagined, fact and fiction.”

“Ed Soja was respected globally for his innovation in conceptualizing ‘the urban’ and his teaching and mentoring of scholars,” said Lois Takahashi, Interim Dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. “But I will remember him most for his enthusiastic greetings, his incisive humor and his inspiring curiosity. I will miss him terribly.”

During his long and distinguished career as a scholar at UCLA, Dr. Soja also devoted himself to teaching both graduate and undergraduate students and serving as doctoral academic advisor to numerous Ph.D. candidates from the Department of Urban Planning. In addition to courses on regional and international development, he also taught courses in urban political economy and planning theory. He was also a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, in The Cities Program, an international center for architects, engineers, city planners, social scientists, community groups, public servants and leaders in the private sector.

Most recently, Dr. Soja received the Vautrin-Lud International Prize for Geography for 2015. This award, often known as the ‘Nobel Prize of Geography’, was announced during the 26th International Festival of Geography. This prize honors the career of a distinguished geographer whose work has been very influential within and beyond the discipline. Unfortunately, Dr. Soja was unable to be present at the event in Saint-Dié, France and could not deliver the customary plenary lecture. Instead, his work was explored in an effective round table discussion between many of his international peers.

“Ed Soja’s passing is a great loss to the Urban Planning department,” said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Professor of Urban Planning and Associate Dean of the School of Public Affairs. “He was a giant in the field of social sciences, someone whose work has inspired and will continue to inspire us for generations. His recent award of the Vautrin Lud Prize or ‘Geography’s Nobel Prize’ underlined the enormity of his contributions to our field.”

As his friend and former UCLA graduate student, Costis Hadjimichalis, recently said, “Edward Soja has now gone to his own personal ‘Third Space.’”

A gathering in celebration of his life will be held Monday, January 25 from 4:00PM-6:00PM at the UCLA Faculty Center, Sequoia Room.

The UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs will establish the Edward Soja Memorial Fellowship in his memory.

Study: New P.E. Curriculum Triples Performance on Test Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris led a study that found positive results for the UCLA Health "Sound Body Sound Mind" physical education curriculum

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By Amy Albin
UCLA Health

A physical education program that brings commercial-grade fitness equipment to under-resourced schools, along with a curriculum based on boosting confidence and making participation more enjoyable, dramatically increases students’ performance on California’s standardized physical fitness test, a UCLA study has found.

Publishing in the July issue of the Journal of Education and Training Studies, Urban Planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris reported that the UCLA Health Sound Body Sound Mind curriculum tripled the percentage of students who passed the state Fitnessgram test in schools where it was implemented — from an average passage rate of 20 percent prior to the curriculum’s initiation to an average passage rate of 60 percent after its completion. The study also found that students’ confidence levels, enjoyment of physical activity and knowledge about fitness increased following the program.

“I was not expecting that in such a short time one could see such a big difference in the kids’ fitness performance,” said Loukaitou-Sideris. “A curriculum such as this could go a long way toward motivating children to be more active and fighting obesity, particularly in low-income communities where such efforts are most needed.”

Loukaitou-Sideris, along with a team of UCLA graduate students, followed 640 students attending five inner-city Los Angeles schools during the academic year 2012-2013. The students, who ranged from seventh to 10th grade, spent eight weeks taking physical education classes that followed the Sound Body Sound Mind curriculum. Students, parents and physical education teachers were asked to respond to questionnaires before and after the students completed the curriculum. The researchers also interviewed teachers and analyzed students’ Fitnessgram scores.

“Further research is needed to evaluate the impact of the SBSM curriculum on students in more schools, and especially to look at the impact on students of various ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well the long-term impact of the program,” added Loukaitou-Sideris.

Sound Body Sound Mind has been implemented in nearly 100 middle and high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the vast majority of them in low-income communities. More than 400 educators have been trained on the curriculum. The Sound Body Sound Mind Foundation was created by philanthropists Cindy and Bill Simon in 1999, and became part of UCLA Health earlier this year.

Approximately 23 percent of children and young people under the age of 18 in Los Angeles County are obese, and another 19 percent are overweight, as measured by body mass index. Low-income communities tend to offer limited access to free and safe spaces for physical activity outside of school, making it more difficult for children from those communities to get regular exercise.

Sound Body Sound Mind addresses this problem with state-of-the-art fitness programs and a unique curriculum that includes 30 lesson plans focused on mastering basic physical tasks. All of the activities are designed for small spaces, so they don’t require gyms or large multipurpose rooms, which many inner-city schools lack.

“At the core of the teaching strategy is creating a welcoming environment, removing intimidation and demonstrating to students that they can improve their fitness by focusing on their own achievement rather than comparing themselves to others,” said Nathan Nambiar, executive director of the Sound Body Sound Mind Foundation and community engagement manager at UCLA Health. Nambiar says that students are never asked to perform in front of others and, since everyone is moving at once, they don’t worry that others are watching.

At Alliance Alice M. Baxter College-Ready High School, a public charter school in San Pedro, the initiation of the Sound Body Sound Mind program last fall resulted in a dramatic increase in the percentage of students passing the FITNESSGRAM test — from 37 percent to 82 percent.

“It’s changed the entire outlook our students have on fitness,” said Brooklin Brumund, athletic director at the school, which was not part of the study. “A lot of these kids come from families where exercise and healthy lifestyles are not promoted. Many have never been involved in recreational sports. At the beginning some of them complained about hating anything physically strenuous, and now they are running miles, passing the physical fitness test, and showing confidence that they’ve never had before. It’s been an amazing transformation.”

The study was funded by a donation from the UCLA Dream Fund.

Study: New P.E. Curriculum Triples Performance on Test Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris led a study that found positive results for the UCLA Health "Sound Body Sound Mind" physical education curriculum

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By Amy Albin
UCLA Health

A physical education program that brings commercial-grade fitness equipment to under-resourced schools, along with a curriculum based on boosting confidence and making participation more enjoyable, dramatically increases students’ performance on California’s standardized physical fitness test, a UCLA study has found.

Publishing in the July issue of the Journal of Education and Training Studies, Urban Planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris reported that the UCLA Health Sound Body Sound Mind curriculum tripled the percentage of students who passed the state Fitnessgram test in schools where it was implemented — from an average passage rate of 20 percent prior to the curriculum’s initiation to an average passage rate of 60 percent after its completion. The study also found that students’ confidence levels, enjoyment of physical activity and knowledge about fitness increased following the program.

“I was not expecting that in such a short time one could see such a big difference in the kids’ fitness performance,” said Loukaitou-Sideris. “A curriculum such as this could go a long way toward motivating children to be more active and fighting obesity, particularly in low-income communities where such efforts are most needed.”

Loukaitou-Sideris, along with a team of UCLA graduate students, followed 640 students attending five inner-city Los Angeles schools during the academic year 2012-2013. The students, who ranged from seventh to 10th grade, spent eight weeks taking physical education classes that followed the Sound Body Sound Mind curriculum. Students, parents and physical education teachers were asked to respond to questionnaires before and after the students completed the curriculum. The researchers also interviewed teachers and analyzed students’ Fitnessgram scores.

“Further research is needed to evaluate the impact of the SBSM curriculum on students in more schools, and especially to look at the impact on students of various ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well the long-term impact of the program,” added Loukaitou-Sideris.

Sound Body Sound Mind has been implemented in nearly 100 middle and high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the vast majority of them in low-income communities. More than 400 educators have been trained on the curriculum. The Sound Body Sound Mind Foundation was created by philanthropists Cindy and Bill Simon in 1999, and became part of UCLA Health earlier this year.

Approximately 23 percent of children and young people under the age of 18 in Los Angeles County are obese, and another 19 percent are overweight, as measured by body mass index. Low-income communities tend to offer limited access to free and safe spaces for physical activity outside of school, making it more difficult for children from those communities to get regular exercise.

Sound Body Sound Mind addresses this problem with state-of-the-art fitness programs and a unique curriculum that includes 30 lesson plans focused on mastering basic physical tasks. All of the activities are designed for small spaces, so they don’t require gyms or large multipurpose rooms, which many inner-city schools lack.

“At the core of the teaching strategy is creating a welcoming environment, removing intimidation and demonstrating to students that they can improve their fitness by focusing on their own achievement rather than comparing themselves to others,” said Nathan Nambiar, executive director of the Sound Body Sound Mind Foundation and community engagement manager at UCLA Health. Nambiar says that students are never asked to perform in front of others and, since everyone is moving at once, they don’t worry that others are watching.

At Alliance Alice M. Baxter College-Ready High School, a public charter school in San Pedro, the initiation of the Sound Body Sound Mind program last fall resulted in a dramatic increase in the percentage of students passing the FITNESSGRAM test — from 37 percent to 82 percent.

“It’s changed the entire outlook our students have on fitness,” said Brooklin Brumund, athletic director at the school, which was not part of the study. “A lot of these kids come from families where exercise and healthy lifestyles are not promoted. Many have never been involved in recreational sports. At the beginning some of them complained about hating anything physically strenuous, and now they are running miles, passing the physical fitness test, and showing confidence that they’ve never had before. It’s been an amazing transformation.”

The study was funded by a donation from the UCLA Dream Fund.

Counterpoint: Alumni Perspective on ‘Informal Cities’ As a planner for Los Angeles County, Jonathan P. Bell MA UP 05 has a different view of "informal" activities like street vending and unpermitted housing.

Jonathan P. Bell

Jonathan P. Bell

By Alejandra Reyes-Velarde
UCLA Luskin Student Writer

Last year, urban planning professors Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Vinit Mukhija published their book “The Informal American City,” exploring informal activities such as unpermitted housing and street vending across the country. To the authors, informal activities require understanding and potentially legitimization, to improve living and working conditions for citizens.

But having experienced the effects of informal housing firsthand through his work as a zoning enforcement planner, Jonathan P. Bell MA UP ’05 brings a different perspective to the debate of informal housing.

In his role at the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning, Bell says informal housing complaints are common, leading him to investigate activities such as illegal street vending, yard sales and unpermitted home-based businesses, and even conversion of garden sheds into housing. But Bell finds the term “informality” itself to be a problem because he thinks it is a euphemism used by urban planners to mean ‘illegal.’

“The problem with the term ‘informal’ is that it softens reality of what’s actually happening with so called informal housing,” Bell says. “There’s nothing benign about uninspected and poorly built housing that’s frequently the cause of injuries or deaths. That is what’s happening in Los Angeles.”

Though he has worked closely with both Loukaitou-Sideris and Mukhija, as they both served on his capstone project committee while he attended UCLA, Bell has several critiques for the views expressed in their book. Bell says he thinks the depiction of informal housing as tidy, informal garage apartments are deceiving and make it easy to call for legalization of unpermitted dwelling units.

“People are getting hurt or killed in unpermitted housing far too often,” Bell said.“Yet the dangers of unpermitted housing are rarely discussed in the informality literature.”

A common argument for informal housing is that it provides affordable housing in Los Angeles for those who live below the poverty line or in low-income situations. According to Bell, the areas remain a poor housing option because they are unsafe and uninspected, often being priced at near market value.

Bell says he has a ‘boots on the ground’ zoning enforcement perspective, visiting local communities on a daily basis and talking to community members about their concerns and problems.

“Experiencing [informal activities] firsthand, [we] are much better prepared to propose solutions,” Bell says. “This helps us explain the gravity of the problem and the need for property owners to take responsibility to find safe and workable solutions through permitting the unsafe dwelling units.”

Finding a solution to the puzzle of informal housing demands the work of enforcement and urban planners as well as potential changes in policy. Though Bell says he thinks municipal codes and policies should be followed to ensure residents’ safety, he says one option would be to re-examine and change some municipal codes to support the development of safe and affordable housing options.

“For example, removing requirements for on-site covered parking facilities at residences could enable more legal garage conversions…along with the necessary environmental analyses and outreach strategies to explain these changes to weary communities,” he said. “But until then, we have municipal codes in place that are rooted in community health and safety. ”

Bell has written several articles and continues to write about the subject of Informal housing in the online magazine, UrbDeZine, including an interview with a UC Berkeley PhD student and his responses to counter arguments on the matter.

 

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris is the Associate Dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, a Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning, and a core faculty of the UCLA Urban Humanities Initiative.

Professor Loukaitou-Sideris’ research focuses on the public environment of the city, its physical representation, aesthetics, social meaning and impact on the urban resident. Her work seeks to integrate social and physical issues in urban planning and architecture. An underlying theme of her work is its “user focus”; that is, she seeks to analyze and understand the built environment from the perspective of those who live and work there. Dr. Loukaitou-Sideris’ research includes documentation and analysis of the social and physical changes that have occurred in the public realm; cultural determinants of design and planning and their implications for public policy; quality-of-life issues for inner city residents; transit security, urban design, land use, and transportation issues.

Recent and ongoing projects, funded in part by the U.S. and California Departments of Transportation, The California Department of Recreation and Parks, the Mellon Foundation, the Haynes Foundation, the Gilbert Foundation, and the Mineta Transportation Institute, include: documentation of varying patterns of use of neighborhood parks among different ethnic groups; proposals for the physical and economic retrofit of inner city commercial corridors, examination of gentrification and displacement in transit station neighborhoods, sexual harassment in transit environments, studies of transit security, and planning for parklets.

She has served as a consultant to the Transportation Research Board, Federal Highway Administration, Los Angeles Metro, Southern California Association of Governments, South Bay Cities Council of Government, Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative, Project for Public Spaces, the Greek Government, and many municipal governments on issues of urban design, open space development, land use and transportation, and she has been commissioned to author research papers by the National Academies and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Dr. Loukaitou-Sideris is the author of numerous articles, the co-author of the books Urban Design Downtown: Poetics and Politics of Form (University of California Press, 1998), Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation over Public Space (MIT Press, 2009), Transit-Oriented Displacement or Community Divided? (MIT Press, 2019), and Urban Humanities: New Practices for Reimagining the City (MIT Press 2020); and the co-editor of the books Jobs and Economic Development in Minority Communities (Temple University Press, 2006), Companion to Urban Design (Routledge, 2011), The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor (MIT Press, 2014),  New Companion to Urban Design (Routledge, 2019), and Transit Crime and Sexual Violence in Cities: International Evidence and Prevention .

BOOKS

Urban Humanities: New Practices for Reimagining the City.
Cuff, D., Loukaitou-Sideris, A., Presner, T., Zubiaurre, M., and Crisman, J., MIT Press (2020).

Transit Crime and Sexual Violence in Cities: International Evidence and Prevention
Ceccato, V., Loukaitou-Sideris, A., Routledge (2020).

Transit Oriented Displacement or Community Dividends?
Chapple, K., Loukaitou-Sideris, A., MIT Press (2019).

The New Companion to Urban Design
Banerjee, T., Loukaitou-Sideris, A., Routledge (2019).

“The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor”
Edited by Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris. (MIT Press 2014)

Companion to Urban Design
Banerjee, T. and Loukaitou-Sideris, A. (Eds.)
New York and London: Routledge (2011).

Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation over Public Space
Loukaitou-Sideris, A. and Ehrenfeucht, R., MIT Press (2009).

Jobs and Economic Development in Minority Communities
Ong, P. and Loukaitou-Sideris, A. (Eds.) Temple University Press (2006).

Urban Design Downtown: Poetics and Politics of Form
Loukaitou-Sideris, A. and Banerjee, T., University of California Press (1998).

Op-Ed: Turn to Europe for Models for California High-Speed Rail Stations Urban Planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris argues in the L.A. Times that train stations should strive to connect with their communities.

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In an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, Urban Planning professor and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris shines light on California’s unique opportunities in building the nation’s first bullet train.

In designing the rail system, Loukaitou-Sideris wrote that cities should focus on the extending half a mile around the station and the broader region in order to make the most of the $68 billion investment.

“The arrival of high-speed rail can provide opportunities to transform adjacent station areas and reshape local economies through thoughtful planning and policies that integrate the railway stops with the local business and physical environment,” Loukaitou-Sideris wrote in the op-ed.

Loukaitou-Sideris encouraged California to look to rail systems in Europe as examples for designing a transportation system that would build community and stimulate the economy. She provided examples of European rain systems that incorporate its surroundings in an efficient way, including Madrid’s Atocha high-speed railway terminal and Germany’s Leipizig central train station, which both serve as shopping, eating and entertainment destinations.

“The architects of stations must focus on breaking down the barriers caused by coping with a massive transportation infrastructure, employing good design to place rail tracks out of the way and to increase the station’s connectivity to its surroundings,” Loukaitou-Sideris wrote.

In addition to providing transportation to increase connectivity, Loukaitou-Sideris addressed the need to find alternate forms of transportation to access stations in order to encourage walking to attractions near the terminals. Concealing parking structures and providing bike and car sharing facilities, for instance, can encourage people to visit nearby landmarks and entertainment centers.

Loukaitou-Sideris wrote that future planning and design should consider the municipal and regional context and assets of cities in California and should connect smaller cities and larger cities.

“Smaller cities should engage in complementary planning with bigger cities…and seek to identify productive relationships with newly accessible neighboring areas,” she wrote.

With these ideas in mind, Loukaitou-Sideris argued that California has the potential to design railway stations that become city landmarks and build community in regions across California.

In addition to her work as an educator, Loukaitou-Sideris conducts research on the public environment of the city, its aesthetics and impact on residents. She focuses on seeking to integrate social and physical issues in urban planning. Loukaitou-Sideris has served as a consultant to the Transportation Research Board, Federal Highway Administration and other projects. Her published works include “Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation over Public Space” and numerous articles.

Is Revival of Downtown L.A. Real? Urban Planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and other panelists agree that balance of power is shifting.

By Sarah Rothbard/Zocalo Public Square

This year, GQ called downtown Los Angeles “America’s next great city” and “the cool capital of America.”  The New York Times included downtown on its list of “52 Places to Go in 2014.” At a “Thinking L.A.” event copresented by UCLA and Zocalo Public Square at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Grand Avenue, a panel of people who have developed, designed, lived, worked and played downtown discussed whether downtown actually lives up to this (admittedly East Coast) hype.

Award-winning architect and UCLA professor Thom Mayne cautioned against the hype. The notion of “downtown,” he said “is already a misnomer” for Los Angeles, a county of many different cities and more than 10 million people. “‘Downtown,’ as a word, connotes a singular,” said Mayne, pointing to what the word means in cities like Kansas City, Cleveland and Chicago. But in L.A., downtown is just one of a number of downtowns.

Zocalo Public Square
Two UCLA professors, architect Thom Mayne and urban planner Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, took part in an Oct. 14 panel discussion hosted by UCLA and Zocalo Public Square.

Los Angeles Times arts and entertainment editor Laurie Ochoa disagreed. Yes, L.A. has a lot of neighborhoods and tribes; she recalled that when the L.A. Weekly’s offices moved from Hollywood to Culver City, her colleagues “were tearing their hair out” over the identity crisis of becoming Westsiders. “To me, it’s one city,” she said. L.A. is united by its theaters, restaurants, its people. And downtown has long been a cultural hub, she said. Before there was Disney Hall, there was the Music Center.

Mayne recalled that for a long time, he lived in Venice and never went downtown. Crossing the 405 was like getting through the DMZ in Korea.

Ochoa again disagreed: Downtown’s not “suddenly interesting,” she said. “It’s always been interesting.” For a long time, only a certain kind of person lived downtown. Now it’s a destination for all sorts of people.

New York Times national correspondent Jennifer Medina, the evening’s moderator, asked the panelists to define success for downtown.

UCLA urban planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris said that success is having people live, work and play downtown — transforming it into a place with life on the weekends and after-work hours. Great cities have great downtowns, she said. Downtown is the symbolic heart of Los Angeles, which is why its success is so meaningful.

Downtown is just one of the hearts of L.A., Mayne added. “I think it can be absolutely successful without being dominant.”

Who exactly are the people living and playing downtown? Medina asked restaurateur Bill Chait, who owns businesses across the city, if he notices a difference between customers at his downtown restaurants versus his Westside restaurants.

His downtown clientele is “incredibly eclectic,” said Chait. They’re younger, more urban and mobile. Chait, who grew up on the Westside, recalled that he resisted opening restaurants downtown for years. It was strictly a daytime environment, he said. There wasn’t enough of a residential population to sustain a restaurant, he thought at the time. In 2009, however, he opened up Rivera near the new L.A. Live complex, and other restaurants followed.

Over the past five years, downtown has become a center for people across the eastern part of Los Angeles, said Chait. Yet for all its architectural glory, noted Mayne, there was not a soul on foot on Grand Avenue at 7 p.m.

Loukaitou-Sideris said that architecture remains a hurdle for downtown. There’s been an emphasis on creating architectural masterpieces, but not on what’s happening on the street. The buildings and streets “don’t talk to one another” or link to one another, said the urban planning professor.

One of Medina’s favorite places downtown is Grand Central Market, which also epitomizes downtown’s current transition. At Grand Central, she said, you can pay $6 for a latte or $6 for a dinner, including a beer. How can downtown deal with the tension between preservation and creation?

Chait said that a lot of downtown development is going in the right direction because more people and builders are reclaiming rather than knocking down and rebuilding.

The challenge also lies in preserving downtown’s social diversity, said Loukaitou-Sideris, making sure it doesn’t turn into another Westside.

However, Mayne said that changing the perception of downtown has to start on the upper end. If wealthy people come into the area, everyone else will follow. Building low-income housing is the last thing you do — not the starting point, he said.

Ochoa said a flow between high and low was needed, illustrated by the availability of expensive coffee and $2 gorditas at Grand Central Market, and the skateboarders at the Caltrans building Mayne designed on Main Street.

Chait said that downtown’s evolution is being driven by renters rather than by super-wealthy buyers. You’re never going to gentrify all of downtown, he said. The challenge is to create housing for the people who already live there instead of relocating them.

At what point, asked Medina, will downtown start attracting people over age 45?

It already is, said Chait — at least to eat. On a Saturday night at his restaurant Bestia in the arts district, there’s a moment when you’ll see people from the Westside: right before dark.

The balance of political power is shifting, said the panelists, pointing to Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents downtown and has a great deal of clout, particularly when it comes to urban planning.

In the question-and-answer session, an audience member asked the panel what can be done to make downtown feel safer.

Loukaitou-Sideris said that vibrant, more populated streets mean fewer opportunities for crime. She did a study of bus stops around L.A. and found that the 10 most dangerous stops were downtown — and they were often just a few feet away from stops on the same line with no crime. An open storefront adjacent to the stop versus an empty lot made all the difference, she said.

Another audience member asked the panelists to weigh in on downtown’s Grand Park. It feels “kind of one-dimensional,” the individual said. Is it going to be a truly great, central public space?

It’s not finished yet, said Ochoa, who was echoed by Loukaitou-Sideris.

“Give it a few years,” said Loukaitou-Sideris. It’s still quite sterile, but people — rather than design and planning — may change it.

Thinking L.A. is a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square. This piece has been adapted from one running on the Zocalo Public Square website.

 

New Book Co-edited by Urban Planning Professors Explores “Informal Urbanism”

Urban Planning professors Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris have a new book out this month called “The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor”, and it aims to challenge how planners and policy makers think about informal urbanism.

The book, published by MIT Press and co-edited by Mukhija and Loukaitou-Sideris, looks at examples of informal or unregulated activities in eight large cities in the United States. Through a collection of case studies and analyses written by top experts in urban planning, including a number of their colleagues at UCLA Luskin, Mukhija and Loukaitou-Sideris make the case for a need to examine informal urbanism not just economically but also spatially.

The following is a Q&A that Mukhija and Loukaitou-Sideris participated in with UCLA Luskin:

Q: How did the original idea for this book come about? Has there been literature on this topic before?

Living in a city like Los Angeles we are surrounded by informal activities and settings. We start our book by describing urban scenes that are quite common in some Los Angeles neighborhoods: A street vendor selling ice popsicles pushing his cart down the sidewalk, a yard sale in front of someone’s garage, day laborers looking for work opportunities in front of the neighborhood hardware store. These are only a few of the everyday settings and activities that are omnipresent in Los Angeles and many other US cities; many more are discussed in our book. While there is significant literature about the informal economy in cities, most of this literature concentrates on informality in the developing world. Additionally, most of the existing literature focuses on the economic transactions of informality and ignores its spatial settings.

Q: Why is it that informal urbanism is often dismissed by planners and policy makers as “marginal?” What did you find that contradicts this thinking?

All too often informal urbanism is considered a “third-world problem.” Most planners in developed countries assume that informal activities are either limited in scope and therefore safe to ignore, or criminal in nature, and thus should be opposed. Some perceive that dealing with informality falls only within the regulatory realm, and there is no important role that planning or design can play. Some progressive planners may worry about making conditions worse for those engaged in informal activities and prefer an approach of benign neglect. Our book includes detailed case studies of examples from Los Angeles, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, Phoenix, Kansas City, Atlantic City, and New York City, and shows that informal or unregulated but otherwise licit activities are widespread and varied in American cities. And while informality has often been associated with immigrants, informal activities are pervasive and spread across different social groups, diverse urban settings, and different geographical regions of the country.

Informal and formal activities are not always distinct and rigidly separated. They often overlap and depend on each other. The ubiquity of many informal activities also shows that informal practices are not transitory, even if some of their specific settings are ephemeral. Finally, our case studies show the contradictory nature of informality, with both potential winners and losers associated with it.

Q: What are some common types of informal urbanism that people see everyday, but might not categorize as a different type of urbanism? And what are some benefits that communities get from these unsanctioned enterprises?

Informal activities that people may see everyday, depending on where they live, range from taco trucks to day labor (as our book’s subtitle indicates), yard sales, unpermitted granny flats, informal gardening, urban agriculture, informal parking (when people rent their driveways and front yards), informal taxi services, etc. In certain cases, such informal activities exist because they fulfill some needs that are not adequately addressed by the formal economy. A good example is unpermitted second units that may offer affordable housing to tenants and income to landlords in single-family lots. However, the notion that informality is always a virtue or only has positive consequences is also flawed. We are well aware that informality can lead to increased vulnerability, exploitation, and unhealthy conditions for those undertaking the informal activities or consuming its products, in addition to revenue losses for municipal governments.

Q: What are the policy or societal responses to informal urbanism that you hope will arise from your book?

We argue that in addition to examining the economic consequences of informality, we also need to address and respond to it spatially. Some policy or societal responses include: 1) the creation of a supportive public infrastructure (e.g., worker centers for day laborers, appropriate sidewalk space for street vending, water pipes for colonias, etc.) that can lessen the hardships for those participating in informal activities; 2) the identification and enhancement through design of underutilized space that can host certain informal activities; 3) the provision of sensible environmental regulations that ensure safety, cleanliness, good sanitation, and lack of noise or odors in informal settings.

Policy responses should give particular consideration to the socio-spatial context of informal settings. While citywide regulations may be appropriate for matters relating to health and safety, other issues relating to when and where informal activities can take place may be neighborhood-specific.

Q: What do you hope planners, specifically, can gain from this book?

We hope that the book will make informality more visible to planners and policy makers in the US as it is a topic that deserves their positive attention. The complex nature of informality makes addressing it difficult. However, we find that ignoring informality is not always the best policy. At the same time, outlawing or criminalizing informality is rarely successful. And while some regulation is necessary to protect the health and safety of the general public, many existing laws and ordinances make absolutely no room for informality and other unexpected activities. While several of our chapters recommend some form of formalization through more sympathetic ordinances and permits, the belief that legalization and regulation can adequately respond to all informal activities is also misleading. Our case studies also indicate that alternative and non-state institutional arrangements can play a constructive role in addressing the more pernicious aspects of informality. Lastly, our cases studies indicate that creative design approaches may allow the safe co-existence of formal and informal activities in spatial settings and the lessening of conflict between them.

To learn more about the book, you can read Mukhija’s and Loukaitou-Sideris’ brief interview with MIT Press.

Contributors  include Jacob Avery, Ginny Browne, Matt Covert, Margaret Crawford, Will Dominie, Renia Ehrenfeucht, Jeffrey Hou, Nabil Kamel, Gregg Kettles, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Kate Mayerson, Alfonso Morales, Vinit Mukhija, Michael Rios, Donald Shoup, Abel Valenzuela Jr., Mark Vallianatos, and Peter M. Ward.

 

Parklets Toolkit Receives National Recognition

Reclaiming the Right-of-Way, a comprehensive toolkit on planning methods to encourage walkability and complete streets design in neighborhoods, has been named a recipients of a National Planning Achievement Award for Best Practice, presented by the American Planning Association.

The award is the latest in a string of honors for the toolkit, which is led by program manager Madeline Brozen and UCLA Luskin Urban Planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris through UCLA Luskin’s Complete Streets Initiative. Local and regional APA chapters had previously recognized the project’s contributions to planning theory and practice.

In a letter supporting the project’s nomination, Los Angeles City Councilmember José Huizar called the toolkit “invaluable,” saying the toolkit encouraged the city to try new ideas and “helped the shift toward a healthier, more walkable and enriching public realm gain a stronger foothold in Los Angeles.” Similar letters of support came from the L.A. Department of Transportation and the City of Cincinnati.

Though focused specifically on parklet development in Los Angeles, the toolkit provides methodologies and guidelines that can be applied to other communities and cities. The city of Pasadena, for example, just announced the possibility of parklets being installed alongside their Colorado Boulevard; additionally, LADOT launched a website titled www.PeopleSt.org that offers resources for community members to create and apply for their own public parklet spaces.

Reclaiming the Right-of-Way is the first part of a three-phase effort, made possible by a $75,000 grant from The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, that included the publication of the toolkit, installation of two demonstration parklets in Los Angeles, and evaluation of the parklets’ role in their neighborhoods.

A brief description of the toolkit and award is available on the American Planning Association’s website:http://planning.org/awards/2014/achievement.htm