Kian Goh, assistant professor of urban planning, wrote an article for The Nation about California’s raging wildfires, the deadly stakes of global warming and a key aspect of the crisis that has not captured headlines: “Yes, climate change intensifies the fires — but the ways in which we plan and develop our cities makes them even more destructive,” Goh argued. Private homeownership, a key part of the American Dream for generations, is an ideal that has blinded us to safer and more sustainable priorities, she wrote. She called for new urban designs that protect whole communities, including their most vulnerable members, rather than individual lots. “Given the scope and scale of the climate crisis, it is shocking that we are being presented with so few serious, comprehensive alternatives for how to live,” Goh wrote. “We need another kind of escape route — away from our ideologies of ownership and property, and toward more collective, healthy and just cities.”
Four members of the UCLA Luskin faculty have received research grants from the Institute on Inequality and Democracy. The 2019-20 grants, among 10 awarded to faculty across the UCLA campus, support research, scholarship and teaching that challenge established academic wisdom, contribute to public debate and/or strengthen communities and movements, the institute said. UCLA Luskin recipients are:
- Amada Armenta, assistant professor of urban planning, who will study undocumented Mexican immigrants in Philadelphia and their layered, complex relationship with the legal system in their everyday lives.
- Kian Goh, assistant professor of urban planning, who will use the lessons of Hurricane Sandy to research the key role public housing and infrastructure play in the quest for climate justice.
- Paul Ong, research professor and director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, who will create multimedia public narratives that document the stresses of gentrification, displacement and other community changes.
- Amy Ritterbusch, assistant professor of social welfare, who will develop a restorative justice initiative to take research to the streets, producing knowledge about historically misrepresented communities beyond the confines of academic publication traditions.
In addition to awarding faculty grants of up to $10,000, the Institute on Inequality and Democracy supports research by graduate student working groups. The six groups announced for the 2019-2020 academic year include several urban planning and social welfare students from UCLA Luskin.
Kian Goh, assistant professor of urban planning, spoke with the Social Design Insights podcast about the impact of climate change on marginalized communities — and the influential role urban designers can play. The wide-ranging conversation touched on the vibrant grassroots movement to protect the poor from eviction in the sinking city of Jakarta, Indonesia; the worldwide influence of Dutch urban planners who draw on 800 years of expertise in dealing with flood control; and the Green New Deal, which could transform urban design with a large-scale U.S. commitment to environmental justice. Planning schools can prepare their students for the coming challenges by stressing that designers must understand the communities they serve. “We do talk in design schools about how to do good, for instance, and to think about marginalized and poor communities and how to help them. But not about the structural, social and political issues that they actually confront,” she said.
By Mary Braswell
A deep exploration of social justice as a guiding principle behind urban design will evolve into a book conceived by the UCLA Luskin faculty.
Over spring quarter, Urban Planning brought 10 prominent scholars to campus to shed light on public space in all its complexity. They spoke about the market forces, political calculations, environmental concerns and lifestyle trends that are transforming cities in Southern California and around the world, pushing some citizens to the fringe. And they offered frameworks for putting inclusion back at the center of urban design.
The speakers’ insights will become chapters in a book that shares the same name as the lecture series: “Just Urban Design: The Struggle for a Public City.”
“Cities are very much theaters of inequality, an inequality that has been increasing in the last decade,” said Urban Planning Professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, who organized the project with Chair Vinit Mukhija and Assistant Professor Kian Goh.
“The larger question that motivates this series is whether there is anything we can do through physical planning and urban design to create more just cities.”
The speakers who came to UCLA as part of the Harvey S. Perloff Lecture Series and Meyer and Renee Luskin Lecture Series brought decades of experience both in scholarly settings and on the front lines of urban upheaval.
They included Setha Low, described by Loukaitou-Sideris as “one of the most prominent anthropologists and ethnographers of our time.” A professor at City University of New York’s Graduate Center, Low has worked with U.N. Habitat and other institutions to develop global social justice indicators for urban design.
“This is a really important moment in time,” Low said during her April 23 visit to UCLA. “There is a push to create a society, at a moment of great divisiveness, that is much more open and accessible and let’s say free. We need places to come together.”
She said one of her greatest challenges is communicating these ideals to the general public.
“We need to really explain how public space creates flourishing societies,” she said. “We need to really reach outside of ourselves and reach a much broader public so that they understand why it matters.”
The April 25 lecture by Harvard Professor Diane E. Davis was moderated by Goh, who noted, “The things that I learned from her, mostly to do with politics and scale, really informed the work that I do now.”
Davis, who earned her Ph.D. in sociology at UCLA and now serves as the chair of urban planning and design at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, raised foundational questions such as “What makes a city public?” and “What gives a city a robust democratic public sphere?”
“I’m really interested in the politics of how people and states interact or don’t interact with each other,” she said. “I think that is a really important framing for thinking about the best urban design.”
The notion that public space transcends national boundaries guided a May 1 talk by Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman, professors at UC San Diego and partners in a studio specializing in urbanism, architecture and political science.
“We believe that the convergence of geopolitical borders, climate justice and poverty is ultimately the challenge of our time,” said Cruz, explaining a project the two had created for the U.S. Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Called “MEXUS: A Geography of Interdependence,” the presentation cast the border region as a shared space interwoven with environmental, economic and cultural connections.
Forman sounded an alarm about the “nativist mentality” that is moving into the mainstream, “legitimizing open racism that we haven’t seen since the middle of the 20th Century.”
“We see the San Diego-Tijuana border region as a microcosm of all of the injustices that neoliberal globalization has inflicted on the world’s most vulnerable people: poverty, climate change, accelerated migration, gender violence, human trafficking, slow suburbanization, privatization and so on,” she said.
Forman said that she and Cruz want to tell a very different story about life on the border.
“Our work reimagines the U.S.-Mexico border as a tissue of social and spatial ecologies, an amazing laboratory for political, urban and architectural creativity. For us, conflict is a creative tool.”
These other speakers also contributed to the series: Rachel Berney and Jeff Hou of the University of Washington, Alison Hirsch of USC, Kimberley Kinder of the University of Michigan, Matt Miller of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Rios of UC Davis.
Loukaitou-Sideris, Mukhija and Goh will join the “Just Urban Design” lecturers in contributing chapters to the planned book, which has sparked interest from several publishers.
Collecting the insights of guest speakers in a single book is a model that UCLA Luskin Urban Planning has successfully used before. In 2014, Loukaitou-Sideris and Mukhija invited lecturers to contribute essays examining urban activities such as street vending, garage sales and unpermitted housing to create the book “The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor,” published by MIT Press.
Stan Paul contributed to this article.
In a recent CityLab article, UCLA Luskin’s Kian Goh commented on the Indonesian president’s approval of a plan to relocate the nation’s capital. The current capital of Jakarta is overcrowded and sinking by a few inches per year as a result of excessive underwater pumping. “Only part of this [relocation plan] is environmental,” explained Goh, assistant professor of urban planning. She stressed the economic and political factors at play, arguing that “a move to literally reposition the capital may have to do with reframing the center of power in the country itself.” Even if the president is successful in moving the capital, the government will still need to deal with the sinking land and rising seas in Jakarta. Goh predicts that Jakarta will remain the center of economic activity in Indonesia regardless of whether the capital is moved, concluding that “the people will still be there, and the problems they face will still be there.”
Kian Goh, assistant professor of urban planning, was quoted in an article from CityLab on a speculative proposal for sustainable living in the face of our rapidly changing climate. The futuristic solution involves high-tech cities that float atop the surface of the ocean and are aimed at total self-sufficiency in terms of food and energy production. The floating city is designed to provide permanent communities for those displaced by rising sea levels. Goh encouraged bold, utopian thinking but said this idea was unrealistic, mainly because these cities — while certainly a beautiful vision — could never provide enough homes for the several million people threatened with displacement. According to Goh, ideas like the floating city “are oftentimes posed as solving some big problem, when in many ways [they’re] an attempt to get away from the kinds of social and political realities of other places,” she said.
By Mary Braswell
To fully comprehend the experience of black Americans, start by throwing out conventional maps, tired vocabularies and old ways of thinking.
That is the core message of Marcus Anthony Hunter, chair of African American Studies at UCLA and co-author of a new book about the struggle and triumph of black culture over many generations.
Hunter drew on insights and anecdotes from the book, “Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life,” to engage an audience of more than 50 students, faculty and guests at a Nov. 19, 2018, lecture at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
“I believe that in order to move forward into a more productive world and more productive scientific conversation about space, place and people, we need new words,” he said. “And new words bring realities, bring frameworks, and so my agenda today is to give you some new words and bring it from the culture.”
Hunter’s takeaway — to seek out fresh vantage points for a clearer picture of truth — was a fitting launch for the Transdisciplinary Speaker Series at UCLA Luskin. A collaborative effort by Public Policy, Social Welfare and Urban Planning, the new series brings in lecturers from across the spectrum of social sciences to share messages that cross, even erase, disciplinary lines.
“We are talking about how to step out of our silos,” said Social Welfare Professor Mark Kaplan, who spearheaded the seminar series. “This is really an effort to get people to think beyond their immediate range of disciplinary interest.”
Faculty members including Mark Peterson of Public Policy, Laura Wray-Lake of Social Welfare and Amada Armenta and Kian Goh of Urban Planning worked together to nominate speakers “who perhaps we would not think of in our own fields,” Kaplan said.
The series aspires to do more than simply attract people curious about what’s happening outside their own disciplines. It aims to shatter old paradigms, overcome institutional resistance, encourage collaborative work and find solutions to the tough social problems that UCLA Luskin tackles daily, Kaplan said.
He envisions UCLA Luskin as a laboratory for the transdisciplinary approach, an idea that has been incubating at the School for years. The initiative got new life in spring 2018 when Dean Gary Segura met with Kaplan and endorsed the lecture series and its broader ambitions.
Hunter’s talk showed the potential of the cross-pollination approach, weaving urban geography together with demographic data, oral histories, news archives and a large dose of cultural touchpoints from poetry, fiction, film and music.
Parliament Funkadelic’s 1975 “Chocolate City” album inspired Hunter and co-author Zandria F. Robinson to adopt the term as a fitting description of black communities, replacing “slum,” “ghetto,” “Buttermilk Bottom,” “Cabrini Green,” “South Central” — and the stereotypes they invoke.
“Wherever two or more black people are gathered, there is a chocolate city,” Hunter told the Transdisciplinary Speaker Series audience. But he stressed that the black experience does not require a physical bond.
“There’s this idea of connectivity across black space that to me is deeply, deeply profound,” said Hunter, an associate professor of sociology. “Without meeting with each other, there’s a similar sentiment about all sorts of things related to trauma, struggle and accomplishment.”
To underscore his argument that conventional borders are misleading and outmoded, Hunter played audio of Malcolm X’s 1964 address at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit.
“If you black, you were born in jail, in the North as well as the South,” the racial justice advocate said. “Stop talking about the South. As long as you south of the Canadian border, you South.”
Hunter’s reimagining of U.S. territory is made up of many different “Souths.”
“When we think about the South, we’re talking about surveillance, Jim Crow, racial segregation, residential segregation. We know from the research that these practices exist all across the United States, but we usually attribute bad behavior to the South,” Hunter said.
“Everywhere is the South if you are black. The South follows black people as they leave.”
Some of these geographies exist below the surface, as in the case of black transgender women, Hunter argued. He aired video clips of “the two Ms. Johnsons”: Gay rights activist Marsha P. Johnson was killed in suspicious circumstances in New York City in 1992. Duanna Johnson was shot to death on a Memphis street in 2008, months after her videotaped beating by two police officers drew wide condemnation. The killers of these two black transgender women have never been found.
“Your status as trans puts you at this really interesting and dangerous intersection and you often come up missing,” said Hunter, who devoted a chapter in his book to the two Ms. Johnsons and the little-known worlds they traversed.
“Our goal here was to recover those maps and to also honor the lives of these people who tried to navigate the chocolate city in all of its dangers and wonders.”
View a Flickr album from the Transdisciplinary Speaker Series event.
By Mary Braswell
When 105 high school sophomores came together with urban planning students, professors and professionals at the UCLA Luskin School, everyone in the room stood to benefit.
The students came from two Central Los Angeles schools as part of Gear Up 4 LA, a federally funded program to put underserved students on the road to college.
The adults were there to support this mission but also to address the vexing lack of diversity in their field.
Many young people aren’t familiar with urban planning as a major or career path, said Rodrigo Garcia, MURP ’15, a transportation specialist with Alta Planning + Design. As part of the firm’s pro bono work, Garcia collaborates with schools across Los Angeles with the aim of diversifying the field.
“We want to urge these kids to have an impact, to make changes in their community” regardless of which career they choose, Garcia said.
Alta Planning hosted the March 22, 2018, event with the Luskin School’s Planners of Color for Social Equity and Urban Planning Womxn of Color Collective. UCLA Luskin professors Kian Goh, Chris Tilly and Goetz Wolff shared their expertise on the opportunities and challenges that planners face.
Two hours into the program, one student asked a question that many were likely thinking: “What is the exact definition of ‘urban planning’?”
“I get the same question from my mom,” said Mayra Torres, a fourth-year student majoring in sociology and minoring in urban and regional studies.
“If this were a class, I could spend the next 45 minutes having a discussion about this,” Goh said. The best way to think about the mission of urban planners, she said, is to “envision a better city, a better society, and how to get there from here.”
Sixteen-year-old Paola Flores was unfamiliar with the field before the event but left wanting to know more. She was impressed by a workshop led by Alta Planning’s Kevin Johnson, MURP ’17, who asked the students to chew over a planning issue, then create a meme, gif or Instagram story to communicate their ideas — all in an hour’s time.
“It taught me something new,” Paola said. “I didn’t realize how improving public transportation could actually make rent go up.”
Paola attends West Adams Preparatory High in the largely Latino and immigrant community of Pico-Union. Students from Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Koreatown were also at the event.
“We want to build a college-going culture in our community,” said David Gantt, the RFK site coordinator for Gear Up, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.
Beginning in middle school, Gear Up guides low-income, first-generation and minority students through each step on the path to a higher education, Gantt said. Counselors work one-on-one with each student, and workshops show families how to read high school transcripts, interpret PSAT results and apply for financial aid, among other services. In some cases, the support extends through the freshman year of college.
Gear Up “makes you feel like you’re family, with arms wide open,” Paola said. Earlier this year, counselors detected that her grades were flagging, she said. They called her in, gave her a pep talk and “now I have all As except for one B.”
Gear Up students visit college campuses across Southern California, West Adams site coordinator Danny Tran said, but he believed this was the first group to visit an urban planning program.
“Students who want to build bridges or design roads might think they need an engineering degree, especially with the current emphasis on STEM,” Tran said.
The UCLA Luskin session introduced them to another path.
Greg Maher, a principal at Alta Planning who volunteered at the event, said he hoped the diverse group of students would get hooked on urban planning.
“This field is very white and very male. It drives me crazy,” said Maher, who received a BFA in design and certificate in landscape architecture from UCLA.
“We need to recruit and retain more planners of color,” agreed MURP candidate Raisa Ma, one of several UCLA Luskin Urban Planning students on hand to mentor the high schoolers. They included Marlene Salazar, who moderated a panel that included the three faculty members, undergrad Torres and MURP candidates Jacob Woocher and Jesus Peraza.
“I want you to know you can get an education, you can get a degree and change the world you live in,” Torres told the students.
Tilly noted that, as high school sophomores, “it’s early to decide, ‘Yes, I definitely want to be an urban planner.’ ” But he encouraged all the students to embrace both big ideas and on-the-ground issues in their communities. “That will be great for being an urban planner but also for being a responsible citizen in a society that needs a lot more responsible citizens stepping up.”
Despite recent gains in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in the United States such as gay marriage and the right to serve openly in the military, the fight against equality for LGBT people appears to be gaining strength, according to Kian Goh, assistant professor of urban planning. Violence against LGBT people has continued “unabated, however, during the recent period of legislative wins,” Goh writes in a recently published article, “Safe Cities and Queer Spaces: The Urban Politics of Radical LGBT Activism.” In the online article in Annals of the American Association of Geographers, Goh cites data from GLAAD and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, indicating that 2015 and 2016 were the “most deadly on record for transgender people in the United States, overwhelmingly affecting transgender women of color.” In LGBT communities, homelessness continues to be an issue, and socioeconomic disparities are reinforced, “particularly among women, people of color, young and old, and gender-nonconforming.” Goh adds that these overlapping identities and “systems of oppression exacerbate the marginalization of LGBT-identified people, creating ‘unjust geographies’ that intertwine race, class gender and sexuality.” Goh looks at how researchers, planners and others who contribute to the “making of cities” can understand and contribute to social movements, change and justice, and — through participatory observation and working with these groups — examines the efforts of two New York-based queer activist groups fighting for social and spatial change. — Stan Paul