Planning a New Future for Tacubaya UCLA Luskin Urban Planning students use their capstone project to provide guidance to Mexico City as it re-envisions one of its neighborhoods

By George Foulsham

Within the heart of Mexico City sits the bustling neighborhood of Tacubaya, population 5,000. Centuries ago, the area was considered rural, but in the mid-19th century urban growth in Mexico City swallowed Tacubaya and it became one of the poorer neighborhoods in a giant metropolis.

Tacubaya of today is defined by intersecting transportation lines that transformed the once-sleepy neighborhood into a central transit hub for thousands of commuters who swarm the area at various times of the day and night. Crime, poverty, unemployment and informal housing are all painful evidence of a community that has suffered from neglect and a lack of investment. Freeway development and an absence of a cohesive community plan have led to a dearth of public amenities as well.

It’s a town that could use help — the kind of help that urban planners could provide.

To address Tacubaya’s issues, the Secretaría de Desarrollo Urbano y Vivienda (SEDUVI), an agency within the Mexico City government, hired international consulting company CTS EMBARQ to help design a new development tool, El Sistema de Actuacion por Cooperacion (SAC). Translation: a performance system by cooperation. The hope is that EMBARQ’s SAC will help revitalize Tacubaya by providing incentives for developers, thus stimulating new affordable housing development and improving transportation while avoiding pitfalls such as congestion, gentrification and displacement.

Enter the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, specifically master’s students from the Department of Urban Planning. Luskin student David Leipziger worked at the World Resources Institute and established a relationship with several EMBARQ offices. Leipziger asked EMBARQ if there might be an opportunity to work with one of the company’s offices around the world. They suggested Mexico City.

“Mexico City seemed to make the most sense for us because of the proximity, and the students just had a lot of interest in what we could be doing,” said Shafaq Choudry, who graduated in June with her Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning (MURP). “There are a lot of parallels that run between the congestion issues that Mexico City faces and L.A.”

Out of this inquiry came a “really fruitful partnership,” according to Choudry, and a 2015-16 capstone project for 16 Luskin MURP students. EMBARQ and Mexico City officials agreed to work with the Luskin students, who studied Tacubaya in the fall 2015 and winter 2016 quarters and provided a detailed report on recommendations that could help officials design a road map for the future of the neighborhood.

The research initiative was arranged by Leipziger and sponsored by Stephen Commins, a lecturer in Urban Planning and associate director of the Global Public Affairs program at UCLA Luskin.

“The capstone projects provide the students with the opportunity to apply the different analytical and research skills that they have learned in the program to a practical, complex set of problems that are similar to what they face as planners,” Commins said. “A key goal is to have applied knowledge and this is what this project entailed.”

Once the details were finalized, the Luskin students conducted extensive research about the context and history of Tacubaya.

“We then took the steps to identify what areas of expertise that CTS EMBARQ provides, and how we could fill in the gaps,” Choudry said. “It worked out well because we’re a group of 16 and everyone is coming with their own interests. And they want to take ownership — what section am I going to be contributing to? And when it’s your thesis project, you really want it to be a reflection of your own interests and your unique research that you want to put out there into the world.”

So 16 students divided into four groups. The teams broke down their daunting task (most capstone projects require a full academic year, not just two quarters) into four categories: incentivizing inclusive housing development; integrating informal housing (any form of shelter outside of government regulation); enhancing mobility and access; and revitalizing public space.

All capstone projects can be challenging, especially when the focus of the research is several thousand miles away, Commins said. “There is a struggle to get focus early as well as the challenge of working remotely,” he said. “As the work progresses, there is a tension between wanting to be thorough and having limited time.”

Choudry said the students very quickly realized that the project would offer important educational and life lessons.

“As the project started to progress, we had to make sure that whatever we were researching and recommending in our findings, that they complemented one another,” Choudry said. “Then, at the end, we’re not producing four separate reports. That was a process in itself. I found it fascinating.”

Another challenge: Only four of the 16 students could fluently speak and read Spanish. “Google translate is a very good tool,” Choudry said.

The students traveled to Tacubaya in shifts, one group going in early December and the others during the second week of January.

“It was intense,” Choudry said. “That was our only opportunity to see the site, start documenting it, talking to as many people as we could.”

The students arranged interviews and established workday schedules with EMBARQ. “At the end of all of this,” Choudry said, “we had to determine what deliverables we would be able to bring to them in the next 10 weeks. It put the pressure on all of us.”

After two visits, countless meetings and hundreds of hours of research, the UCLA Luskin students produced an executive summary and a set of recommendations designed to inform and assist CTS EMBARQ and Mexico City officials with the task of improving life in Tacubaya.

Among the students’ recommendations:

  • Creating a more participatory process that includes Tacubaya residents in housing development decisions.
  • Establishing cooperative methods of ownership in informal housing developments to prevent future displacement.
  • Investing in bicycle paths and traffic-calming measures to help ease congestion caused by heavy traffic surrounding the transit hub.
  • Developing public spaces that fit the community’s needs and desires while designing a future that embraces environmental sustainability.
  • Creating a tiered public benefit zoning system to provide an incentive for development.

The students’ final recommendations have been submitted to CTS EMBARQ. “They were very pleased with the report,” Choudry said. “Our hope was that this could help inform their work, moving forward. That’s how we thought the implementation of this report could be seen. What we’ve done is handed it all off to EMBARQ, with the trust that they may carry it forward to the officials in Mexico City.

“As students, we get to play this role of, this is our client, but we have this opportunity for them to hear a voice that they might not be able to incorporate as easily, given the relationship they have with the city,” she added. “What we realized as a class was that we can push the bar further. And whether or not EMBARQ incorporates this into their final recommendations, at least we gave them some food for thought.”

Commins said the Tacubaya Capstone project is a great example of how students can fulfill the UCLA Luskin mission.

“Their presentation was indeed representative of the commitment of our students to engage in real-world questions, to dig into the complexities of urban planning in Mexico City, and to propose specific approaches that are both attuned to the needs of a diverse population and grounded in the specific political/regulatory/environmental context of Tacubaya,” Commins said.

Read the students’ full report.

Stephen Commins

Stephen Commins works in areas of regional and international development, with an emphasis on service delivery and governance in fragile states. Commins was Director of the Development Institute at the UCLA African Studies Center in the 1980s, and then worked as Director of Policy and Planning at World Vision International in the 1990s.

Dr. Commins was Senior Human Development Specialist at the World Bank from 1999-2005. His work at the World Bank included “Managing Dimensions of Economic Crisis: Good Practices for Policies and Institutions,” the establishment of the Bank’s children and youth cluster, and a survey of service delivery programs implemented by civil society organizations. Commins was one of the co-authors of the World Bank’s World Development Report 2004, Making Services Work for Poor People.  Following the report’s publication in 2003, he managed several initiatives on service delivery in post-conflict countries and the relationships between political reform and improved services.

Over the last decade, he has continued to work on service delivery programs, including the major study, “Service Delivery in Fragile States: Good Practice for Donors,” for the Fragile States Group of the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2006.  Some of his fragility and disaster work has included “testing the DFID state building” framework in Lao PDR and Cambodia, managing studies on disasters and safety nets for the World Bank in Bangladesh, a co-authored paper on participation, accountability and decentralization in Africa, and producing studies on health systems strengthening in fragile states for World Vision Canada and on sub-national fragility in India and Pakistan for the HLSP Institute.   He also led a team of policy researchers for the UK government, who produced a policy note and guidance resource for designing Multi-Donor Trust Funds or “Pooled Funds” in fragile states.

He has worked for five years in support of a long-term study of livelihoods and post-conflict reconstruction in Pakistan, as part of a seven-country project with the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad and the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium at ODI in the UK..  For academic years 2013-15, he worked as the consultation and dissemination coordinator for the World Bank’s World Development Report 2015 (Behavior, Mind and Society). His other projects at that time included a four-country study with the Overseas Development Institute on community-driven development and livelihoods in four South Asian countries, support for World Development Report 2017 (Governance and the Law), and a project on designing long-term urban programs for urban areas affected by the Syrian refugee diaspora (Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey).

His recent work has included designing two workshops, one on urban water and displaced populations and another on municipalities and livelihoods for city officials from Middle Eastern countries impacted by the Syrian diaspora. He also has been involved with the World Development Report 2018 (Education: The Learning Crisis), an assessment of education systems and needs in South Sudan, a study on providing digital skills for young women in low-income countries, and the second phase of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium.

At UCLA, Dr. Commins teaches courses in regional and international development. His current courses are on urbanization in developing countries, climate change, water and health, and disaster management. He is the Associate Director for Global Public Affairs at the Luskin School.

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What is ‘Post” About “Post-Conflict’?

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By Steve Commins, Associate Director of GPA@UCLA Luskin, and Urban Planning Lecturer

Nepal is a country that is currently labeled ‘post-conflict’. But after two civil wars, one driven by an armed insurgency which later allied with a non-violent democratic movement, and the second spurred on by ethnic tensions in communities bordering India, the Nepalese still struggle with the daily tasks of building a new political system. The label ‘post-conflict’ is a designation that belies the complexities of the country’s status and what is required for a long term, peaceful, political settlement.

Nepal currently faces both deeply rooted forms of poverty and economic exclusion. India, which borders the country, has had a major hand in its economic options, and the country receives a significant amount of international ‘aid.’

Nepal occupies a particular niche in the “aid business”, as it is not a ‘strategic’ conflict like Afghanistan, it is not an aid orphan like the Central African Republic nor is it an aid darling like South Sudan recently. As a result, Nepal exists within the broad sweep of countries that have been labeled ‘post-conflict’ by the United Nations and other agencies, and, in the current jargon, a ‘Fragile and Conflict Affected State’.

In the late 1990s, chastened by the failure of the UN and major political powers to effectively address the human catastrophes of the civil wars in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia, as well as the limits of ‘democratization’ and ‘good governance’, a number of international agencies began to give more serious attention to what eventually became labeled ‘Fragile and Conflict Affected States’.

The premise of this approach is that there are complex, historic reasons why states have different forms of violent political conflict and political fragmentation, and there are also situations where states may experience the decay of public institutions even without overt violent conflict. This means that the UN and donor agencies have to address the underlying causes of ‘fragility’ rather than just provide humanitarian (neutral) aid – or as one observer put it, a ‘humanitarian fig leaf’.

Much literature has been devoted to debating ‘fragile’, ‘failed’ and ‘failing states’.  Frequently it misses the mark by not delving into the historic specifics of a country or region, or descending into superficial explanations like ‘these communities never got along’ or the government was doomed from the start’ – explanations that lack depth or insight into the nuances of the specific reasons and dynamics of fragility.

At the same time, the role of international agencies, which sometimes (but not always, hence the term ‘aid orphans’) provide large amounts of finance for both short-term ‘humanitarian’ assistance and longer-term ‘post-conflict’ reconstruction, poses another challenge. The problem with this approach is that donor agencies are making decisions on what to label a specific situation rather than the messy realities of politics (again, sadly, South Sudan’s collapsed political settlement comes to mind). Donor time frames and real politics rarely cohere.

As part of a four-country study on the impact of Community Driven Development projects on livelihoods in FCAS (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal), I worked with the lead Nepalese researcher on the initial interviews and inception for the country study.

Landing in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu provides no haunting images of war or political turmoil. On appearance the country is back in business. Indeed, fortunately for the country, the Maoists involved in the first civil war did not engage in the level of violence or social destruction found in some other countries (up to 20,000 people died, so ‘level’ is a sadly relative term). The Maoists currently function as a political party similar to the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) in El Salvador or FRELIMO (Mozambique Liberation Front), which moved into the political process after the peace agreements in their countries.

But talk for any amount of time with Nepalese and a complex picture of hopes and aspirations as well as uncertainties about a very nascent political system emerges. The politics of geography, as it were (Mountains, Hills, Terai), the debates about federalism (too much or too little depending on the individual) and the problematic aspects of nation state building and agreeing on the ‘imagined community’ that remain unresolved.

In the end, whatever label is applied by international donors, Nepal remains a country that has an evolving, contentious and sometimes fraught political process. Perhaps the label should be changed to ‘post-violent conflict’ (though different forms of violence frequently morph into criminality after the overt political violence has been reduced) as in reality all effective political settlements do not end conflict, rather they provide mechanisms that at best may achieve general acceptance for ways of addressing inevitable disagreements in non-violent, democratic and equitable ways.

This can only be seen from the ground up, as each violent conflict or manifestation of state fragility has its own history, meaning and narratives.

‘Post’ is a label of hopefulness about a better future, a short-hand for donors to change how they give aid, and, perhaps, a step towards a political settlement that works better for more people than the previous one.

Original post at http://global.luskin.ucla.edu/

Global Public Affairs’ Stephen Commins Contributes to World Bank Report Urban Planning lecturer Stephen Commins was one of the researchers that put together the 2015 World Development Report.

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By Alejandra Reyes-Velarde
UCLA Luskin student writer 

Urban Planning lecturer Stephen Commins was part of a team of researchers that wrote the World Bank’s new World Development Report for 2015, Mind, Society and Behavior, published on Dec. 4.

The report focuses on understanding human behavior for economic development, psychological and social perspectives on policy. It aims to capture how the processes of the mind and the influence of society can improve implementation of development policies and interventions that target behavior.

Commins said he thinks the report asks very different questions about the nature of public policy and the role of government and the way we understand poverty and power than what has been the standard approach to development.

“People are social beings and have a sense of social bonding. This is not surprising but it’s surprising that it hasn’t been taken into account more frequently,” he said. Commins also wrote a piece about the report for Public World blog.

Though it is typically assumed in economic policy making that people think rationally, the report finds more complex and thorough information about how people make decisions. It finds that people think automatically, socially and with mental models which are drawn from social networks, norms and shared history and society.

The goal is to integrate these findings into policy making and practice and make them available for systemic use by organizations and professional staff working in diverse countries and communities. The findings apply both to these professionals and to individuals in developing countries.

Commins said there has been huge international interest in the report. His role is to bridge the gap between the external audience and authors. He does this by managing events with professionals and government officials around the world to discuss the report’s main ideas and helping them think through what it means for practice and implementing policies in different countries.

Commins also worked with the report’s authors to discuss key issues and think about the larger puzzles with a small group of experts on the subjects. Since he was not an author himself, Commins played the role of a neutral party to give suggestions about what could be improved, what ideas to include. He had the most input in the health, development professionals and policy implementation chapters.

“With any author, they can get tied into the subject and not think about who’s going to use it. I tried to think about the external audience and how to make the report easier to implement,” he said.

Commins said he particularly enjoyed the subject of the behavior of development professionals and that it was a critical chapter.

“It would be easy to read the report and say poor people have certain behaviors or are limited in perspective, but the flipside is that actually everyone has limited perspectives and bias,” he said. “How academic and development professionals look at their work and how they criticize themselves is important as well.”

Commins is also the associate director of Global Public Affairs at UCLA Luskin, which addresses problems and processes of global public affairs through teaching, research, and partnerships and offers preparation for students seeking international careers.

He said the world report can help students in GPA to prepare to become insightful and competent professionals by helping them learn how to ask good questions, be self critical and understand the culture and context of their work.

 

International Practice Pathway Program Sends Seven Students Abroad

By Adeney Zo, UCLA Luskin Student Writer

Seven students from all three departments at UCLA Luskin are going abroad this summer to do internships through the Global Public Affairs Initiative’s International Practice Pathway program.

The IPP program is an integral part of the Global Public Affairs initiative and offers the unique opportunity for Luskin students to intern abroad as a part of their coursework. Through IPP, Luskin students can study international affairs and apply their studies firsthand in under-served communities around the world. Before going overseas, students attend lectures in cross-disciplinary studies such as urban planning, social welfare, public policy, economics, administration, public health and environmental sciences in order to prepare for a future in global careers. After a year-long preparation period, students then apply for summer internships through well-established international organizations in order to conduct research and fieldwork abroad.

“We wanted to give a structured program to students who want to be exposed to the career side of international work,” says Stephen Commins, Urban Planning professor and co-founder of the IPP program. “It’s important for students to have career talk and not discuss academic subjects only, and this program exposes students to what career paths are available for international work.”

From the start of the program in 2011, IPP has expanded greatly and will be sending seven students abroad to various parts of the world this year. “Our two main goals for IPP are to keep growing the summer fellowship program and provide more structured career counseling for students,” says Commins.

Public Policy student Jonathan Slakey is currently preparing to go abroad with IPP next year. “I knew I wanted to travel to India and help in development work, specifically with the human rights NGO, the Association of Relief Volunteers (ARV),” says Slakey. The ARV serves impoverished communities in Andhra Pradesh, India, and Slakey will be traveling to their headquarters to help the NGO with expansion and publicizing in order to receive necessary funding.

“There are so many excellent development programs in the world that lack coverage in developed countries, which are major potential sources of funding for charitable organizations,” explains Slakey.

Though IPP does not have a set of required courses, only lectures, students apply the skills and knowledge they have gained in their degree coursework to their work abroad. One of Slakey’s courses on Education Policy, taught by Professor Meredith Phillips, will play directly into his work with ARV. “I have had to work with data all quarter, and I have a better understanding of how to organize data effectively and what to look for in a dataset, all skills I hope to use with ARV’s data in India,” he says.

As IPP continues to expand, more Luskin students may also have this unique opportunity to witness firsthand how the theories and data from their coursework operate in organizations and communities around the world.

To see a list of the countries students are going to and follow along with them on their travels, visit the Luskin Abroad blog here. Urban Planning students going on a summer exchange program to China and Jon Baskin, a student traveling to Canada on the Dr. Edwar Hildebrand Fellowship for Canadian Studies, will also be contributing to the blog.