Associate Professor of Urban Planning Kirsten Schwarz was featured in a Pasadena Star-News article about her work on urban heat islands and public policy. Asphalt and concrete structures in urban areas absorb and radiate more heat than less developed and better landscaped areas with more shade and greenery. Schwarz, part of a UCLA team awarded $956,000 to research heat solutions in Los Angeles, explained that racially motivated policies established in the past impact how people today experience the same weather differently. “There is an uneven distribution of trees across the city, and that can result in an uneven distribution of heat across the city as well,” Schwarz said. “Areas that have uneven impacts are low-income areas and areas of long-term disinvestment.” According to Schwarz, formerly redlined areas are hotter due to less municipal investment in planted streetscapes and parks. She said an interdisciplinary approach is key to understanding and addressing extreme heat in Los Angeles.
By Mary Braswell and Joanie Harmon
Growing up amid the ancient redwoods of Sonoma County, Amy Stanfield developed a deep connection to trees, even greeting her favorites by the names she gave them as a little girl.
“You can stand in the forest and then look up and you just have this very awe-inspiring feeling looking up at these insanely tall, old, historic trees,” Stanfield said. “Redwood trees are really just a symbolic and beautiful part of my life.”
So when the third-year public affairs major spotted a new course on offer in spring quarter — “Trees in the City,” taught by Associate Professor of Urban Planning Kirsten Schwarz — she quickly enrolled.
“I think all the students came to this course with a love of trees,” Schwarz said. “I don’t want them to lose that, but I do want them to think a little bit more critically about the role of trees in the city, and who might benefit from them.”
Trees tell a complex story, touching on water use, climate change, gentrification and even mundane considerations like sap falling on cars.
Schwarz’s course examines urban forestry through an environmental justice lens, weaving together social sciences, natural sciences and fieldwork with the Los Angeles nonprofit TreePeople.
It’s one of several innovative courses that illustrate the UCLA Luskin public affairs major’s emphasis on deep engagement in civic life and rigorous scholarship that draws from many disciplines.
Also new in spring 2021 has been Public Affairs 125, “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools,” taught by Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor, an authority on school safety and student well-being.
Astor, who has a joint appointment with the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, said he designed the curriculum with a holistic approach to enhance how universities prepare future educators, social workers, psychologists, administrators and policymakers.
“The new vision proposes that schools won’t just respond to crisis,” Astor said. “It will recognize the current inequities in the system and create school settings that uplift and inspire students — graciously creating a community of educators, peers and families that will elevate the aspirations of each child.”
The course incorporates lessons from more than a year of upheaval endured by schools around the country.
“The dual global pandemics of COVID-19 and our national reckoning with systemic racism after the murder of George Floyd focused a bright light on many blind spots we have as a society when we discuss and research school safety,” Astor said. “The two pandemics highlighted well-documented health, racial and geographic inequities, and started a widespread public conversation about them.”
With her keen interest in education policy, Stephanie Tapia Onate was glad she could take the new course in her final quarter as an undergraduate.
“I like that it focused on improving the school environment. As a former student of the LAUSD public school system, I know that there’s a lot of work to be done,” said Tapia Onate, who will soon graduate with a public affairs bachelor’s degree, then pursue a master of public policy at the Luskin School in the fall.
What sets “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools” apart, she said, is the opportunity to personally engage with a wide variety of experts and to develop the practical skills needed to deliver a policy message to the general public.
Astor’s lineup of guest speakers comes from an impressive array of disciplines, including education, public policy, social welfare, psychology, neuroscience, medicine and law. Scholars from UCLA and across the nation, as well as top officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District, have spoken to the class on topics that included racism, bullying, weapons and drug use, mental health and the unique needs of LGBTQ, homeless or undocumented students.
The course has an expansive view of how to make schools a safe space not just for students but for teachers and staff, Tapia Onata said.
“Teachers do deal with a lot of secondary trauma and sometimes they’re often forgotten in the conversation about mental health resources in schools,” she said. “They are one of the communities at school that we do need to support.”
Students in Astor’s class learn to develop strong policy positions then communicate them to the public through op-eds, TED Talks and TikTok campaigns.
Tapia Onate chose to create a series of one-minute policy videos on TikTok, a platform now used frequently for educational outreach as well as entertainment.
“It’s straight to the point, it can deliver your message really fast, and people are more likely to remember what you say in a short video,” she said.
Immersion in civic life is also central to the “Trees in the City” curriculum. During their quarter-long partnership, students worked with TreePeople to fill the nonprofit agency’s most immediate need — turning a voluminous amount of information about the benefits of trees into messaging tailored to local communities.
One team of students developed a school curriculum on the importance of trees that aligned with Next-Generation Science Standards; they even identified sources of potential funding that TreePeople could pursue.
“Students were really interested in ways that environmental stewardship and curriculum centered around trees could be introduced early on,” Schwarz said.
Amy Stanfield said her team chose to highlight the wisdom of those who “lived on the land the longest and most successfully” — Los Angeles’ Indigenous communities.
Through case studies and an infographic, the team demonstrated how to incorporate time-tested traditions into Westernized systems and provided resources to residents who want to connect with local Indigenous leaders.
“We wanted to center our project on amplifying Indigenous people’s voices in the science world and in this type of urban ecology setting,” Stanfield said.
In a happy coincidence, her work with TreePeople will continue next year as she interns with the nonprofit group for her senior capstone research project.
“Trees in the City” has been a perfect match for Stanfield’s interests, which blend ecology, policy and urban planning, as well as film. She is grateful for the personal attention that Schwarz gives each of the 14 students in the upper-division class, and for the interactive curriculum that has deepened her understanding of urban greenspaces.
“Everyone in my college life can’t hear me say enough about it,” Stanfield said. “I get done with class and say, ‘You guys, my tree class is making me so happy!’ ”
A team of 10 UCLA professors has earned a $956,000 award for a project that will combine their expertise in engineering, urban planning, public health and environmental law to address the rapid increase in the number of extreme heat days in Los Angeles.
The prize is funded by a 2015 donation from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation.
The project, called Heat Resilient L.A., will over the next two years determine where and when people moving around the city are most vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat — a problem being caused by climate change — and assess which communities most need cooling interventions.
Based on their findings, the team will design new cooling structures and work with local stakeholders to determine where they should be installed. The team has designed a prototype structure that resembles a bus stop shelter, but in addition to a roof that provides shade, it also uses a combination of radiant and evaporative cooling technologies to provide “passive cooling” for those nearby.
Throughout the project, the researchers plan to engage directly with communities to produce the best possible design for the cooling structures and choose the best possible locations. Among the elements that helped the project stand out: its focus on equity and community engagement, and its use of devices other than shade and trees to provide cooling for local hot spots.
“What’s unique right now is that we have access to a portfolio of solutions and technologies that hadn’t been either thought of as plausible solutions or, frankly, available even just a few years ago,” said Aaswath Raman, a member of the Heat Resilient L.A. team and an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. Raman, who is designing the cooling structures using technology that has been developed in recent years at UCLA and elsewhere, said the project is an opportunity to explore the real-world use of emerging cooling technologies and materials.
That should not only help Los Angeles communities but also provide insights that he and others can use to continue building better technologies.
‘We wanted to bring together brilliant minds at UCLA who had never collaborated before, and push them to bring fresh ideas to the table.’ — Cassie Rauser, executive director of the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge
The winning project was chosen through a new UCLA initiative that upended the traditional model for conceiving and funding research projects. The program, called the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge Sandpit, emphasized connection, experimentation and blue-sky thinking.
In all, eight teams made up of more than 60 faculty members from 27 UCLA departments participated.
The program culminated in December with an online pitch event that worked more like the TV show “Shark Tank” than a typical call for proposals. Instead of preparing dense written submissions, the teams had to sell their research projects — all focused on sustainability — to a panel of jurors that included UCLA deans as well as chief sustainability officers from the city and county.
The Heat Resilient L.A. pitch was led by Raman; V. Kelly Turner, an assistant professor of urban planning at UCLA Luskin; and David Eisenman, a professor in residence at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
The other members of the winning team are Cara Horowitz, co-executive director of the UCLA Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment; Sungtaek Ju, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and of bioengineering; Travis Longcore, associate adjunct professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability; Juan Matute, deputy director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies; Gregory Pierce, associate director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation; Kirsten Schwarz, associate professor of urban planning; and Walker Wells, lecturer in urban planning.
“The sandpit was definitely not business as usual, and that was the point,” said Cassie Rauser, executive director of the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, a campuswide initiative to help transform Los Angeles into the world’s most sustainable megacity by 2050. “We wanted to bring together brilliant minds at UCLA who had never collaborated before, and push them to bring fresh ideas to the table. This type of interdisciplinary problem-solving is absolutely critical for addressing Los Angeles’ complex sustainability challenges.”
Competitors were invited to develop projects that directly address goals outlined in sustainability plans put forward by Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles, while paying particular attention to environmental justice and equity. The “sandpit” name was meant to encourage participants to bring a childlike sense of curiosity, openness and possibility into the process.
Teams and research concepts formed over the course of three months of online workshops designed to push participants out of their disciplinary bubbles and intellectual comfort zones — a critical aspect of the experience, according to Turner, who has studied what makes interdisciplinary collaborations work.
“So often it is about the informal interactions that get folks comfortable with being uncomfortable with each other, so that they can come up with the really innovative ideas,” she said.
The seven teams that did not win the grand prize will each receive $25,000 in seed funding from the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, which will also provide continued research development support to help the teams further develop their ideas and pursue full funding from external organizations.
“One of the most exciting aspects of the sandpit is that we heard eight fantastic pitches,” said Eric Hoek, a UCLA professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge. “Any of those projects could make a significant, tangible contribution toward our city’s and county’s sustainability goals, and we’re excited to help them all realize their potential.”
By Stan Paul
Faculty hires in UCLA Luskin Social Welfare and Urban Planning for the new academic year bring a wealth of new research and teaching, reinforcing the School’s commitment to the health and well-being of individuals and communities.
Assistant Professor Brian Keum has joined Social Welfare. His general research emphasizes the reduction of health and mental health disparities among marginalized identities and communities. In particular, Keum studies the impact of online racism – and online racial violence – on psychosocial outcomes and health disparities. Drawing on his clinical experience, he looks at mental health issues, offline attitudinal and behavioral changes, and risky health behaviors that include substance abuse. A second area of his research is Asian American mental health, as well as multicultural and social justice issues that relate to how mental health counseling is provided.
“As a scientist-practitioner, I am excited to teach both practice and research courses,” said Keum, who will be offering graduate instruction in advanced social work practice and applied statistics in social work.
Judith Perrigo, an infant and early childhood mental health specialist, is also an assistant professor of social welfare. Amid the unusual circumstances of this academic year, Perrigo looks forward to exploring innovative teaching methods while providing meaningful learning experiences in both foundational and advanced social welfare practice courses. This includes sharing some of her recent research on how parents of low socioeconomic status with children in grades 3 to 6 are coping with the unexpected educational demands during the pandemic.
“Our findings suggest that the closure of schools and stay-at-home orders initiated by the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated pre-existing parental involvement challenges,“ Perrigo explained, noting that families of lower socioeconomic status were more negatively impacted because they “had fewer affordances to buffer the new stressors.”
Perrigo draws from her personal background as a Salvadoran immigrant and 15 years of applied clinical work with children and families to inform her scholarship. Specifically, her research focuses on the well-being of young children — birth to 5 years old — with emphasis on holistic and transdisciplinary prevention and early intervention initiatives with underserved, vulnerable and marginalized populations.
José Loya joins Urban Planning as an assistant professor after recently completing his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. At UCLA Luskin he will teach quantitative analysis in urban planning and a seminar on Latino urban issues in the spring.
“My research focuses on ethno-racial disparities in the mortgage market, before, during and after the Great Recession. More generally, I am interested in the barriers minorities face in the homeownership market,” said Loya, who is also a faculty associate at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.
“I am excited to join UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs and working and engaging our students in the community,” added Loya, who worked for several years in positions related to community development and affordable housing in South Florida. He then earned a master’s in statistics from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’ve already moved to Los Angeles, so I’ll be here locally even if courses are online,” Loya said.
Kirsten Schwarz, who holds a joint appointment as an associate professor of urban planning and environmental health sciences, started at UCLA by co-teaching policy analysis for environmental health science in the spring 2020 quarter.
“Virtually teaching my first class during a global pandemic and social uprising was not how I expected to kick off my career at UCLA,” Schwarz said. “But I was so impressed, and encouraged by, the flexibility, compassion and integrity that the students brought to the experience. It was certainly memorable.”
Schwarz is an urban ecologist working at the interface of environment, equity and health. Her research focuses on environmental hazards and amenities in cities and how their distribution impacts minoritized communities. She recently led an interdisciplinary team through a community-engaged green infrastructure design that integrated participatory design and place-based solutions to achieve desired ecosystem services.
“I’m interested in connecting those areas right between urban planning and environmental health sciences,” said Schwarz, whose work on lead-contaminated soils has helped document how bio-geophysical and social variables relate to the spatial patterning of lead in soils.
Most recently she received a transdisciplinary research acceleration grant from UCLA’s Office of Research and Creative Activities in conjunction with Jennifer Jay, a professor in UCLA’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Their proposal, “Multimedia Assessment of Children’s Lead Exposure in Los Angeles,” will involve work with graduate students in Civil and Environmental Engineering.
Schwarz also has expertise in science communication and in engaging communities in the co-production of science. She has been recognized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which named her a 2018-2019 Fellow in the Leshner Leadership Institute in the Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. Prior to
joining UCLA, she was an associate professor of environmental science at Northern Kentucky University, where she directed the Ecological Stewardship Institute.
Several other faculty searches have been completed, with four additional faculty members set to join Social Welfare and Urban Planning in the coming year. Those new additions include Adam Millard-Ball, who will arrive in January as an associate professor of urban planning, coming from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Millard-Ball holds a doctorate from Stanford University’s School of Earth Sciences and was selected in the urban data science search. He studies environmental economics and transportation, “adding to our strengths in those fields,” said Dean Gary Segura in a memo announcing his appointment.
Mark Vestal, also starting in January, was selected as an assistant professor by UCLA Luskin Urban Planning in a search on critical Black urbanism, Segura announced. A historian by training, Vestal’s work looks at the history of discriminatory planning and housing policy in Los Angeles and beyond.
Fall 2021 newcomers will include Margaret “Maggie” Thomas in Social Welfare and Veronica Terriquez in Urban Planning.
Thomas is a scholar of family and child well-being and is completing her Ph.D. in social work at Boston University this year. She previously earned an MSW degree from the University of Illinois. Her work focuses on young children in families facing serious economic hardship, as well as children and youth from minority communities and with LGBTQ identities.
Terriquez has been jointly appointed to Urban Planning and UCLA’s Department of Chicano Studies where she will take on the leadership of the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA. Terriquez, who earned a Ph.D. in sociology at UCLA, returns to the Westwood campus from UC Santa Cruz. Her work is principally focused on youth and young adult social development, leadership and intergroup relations, and how they are affected by various public policies.