A New York Daily News opinion piece about communities that choose to retreat from coastal areas threatened by climate change highlighted the research of Liz Koslov, assistant professor of urban planning. The world is witnessing storms that are increasing in frequency and severity, as well as a dramatic rise in sea levels as massive ice sheets melt. As a result, some coastal communities are considering relocation. Koslov noted that some Staten Islanders who participated in a buyout of their property after 2012’s Superstorm Sandy viewed retreat not as surrender but as a form of resilience. “They spoke of retreat very differently — as a moral achievement, a sort of sacrifice for the greater good,” she said. “They felt that that was a very profound and meaningful act.” Koslov shared her research at a conference on “managed retreat” at Columbia University’s Earth Institute this summer.
By Claudia Bustamante
For the next year, the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin will benefit from the research and expertise of a climate adaptation specialist.
Mikhail Chester, an associate professor of civil engineering at Arizona State University, has joined the institute as a visiting scholar, focusing his yearlong appointment on studying infrastructure vulnerabilities in a changing environment.
Specifically, Chester will study how roads are vulnerable to wildfires.
“Roads are not designed for the worsening conditions of climate change,” Chester said.
The old, conventional thinking about this problem was to map the hazards: Where will it be hotter? Where will it flood? Where do the roads and bridges intersect?
“Infrastructure are not fragile, brittle things. They’re tough,” he said. “What I’ve been trying to do is shine a light on how we can think more critically about what ‘vulnerability’ means.”
Last year, California experienced its largest and deadliest wildfire season. And despite a wet winter, the state is again braced for an active wildfire season spurred by rising heat and driven by winds.
In recent years, Californians have seen wildfires burn near, and eventually cross, freeways.
And yet, “for the most part, the asphalt is OK,” Chester said. “It turns out the biggest danger to roads is after the wildfire.”
‘As infrastructure professionals ― planners and engineers ― if we can’t recognize issues and make changes, we’re going to be irrelevant.’
— Mikhail Chester
A fire will burn up vegetation, creating ground debris. It will also shift the soil chemistry, making it less likely to absorb water. The two can combine to disastrous effects following heavy rains. In what has become a routine post-wildfire concern, rocks, mud and other debris flow down hillsides left barren from recent fires and wreak havoc on roadways and other infrastructure.
While at UCLA, Chester ― who hopes to engage with professionals across multiple campus disciplines, such as urban planning, engineering, climate science and public health ― plans to connect the state’s fire forecasts and transportation infrastructure with various environmental indicators, like terrain, vegetation and soil characteristics.
“When you connect the dots and put all these things together, ideally, you come up with a better way of characterizing vulnerability,” Chester said.
Once the risks are identified, local officials and policymakers can draft an array of responses ranging from strengthening infrastructure and managing forests to detouring traffic away from vulnerable roadways.
A civil engineer with a public policy background, Chester is a leading researcher on the interface between infrastructure and urbanization. His work on the environmental impact of transportation looks beyond tailpipe emissions to assess the role of roads, fuel supply chains and manufacturing.
In Arizona, with high temperatures and flash flooding, he has explored climate adaptation and resilience. He is also currently involved in an interdisciplinary study with UCLA on the sun and heat exposure a person experiences in their day-to-day travels.
All of this work, as Chester explains, is the groundwork for a larger question: How will we manage infrastructure for the next 100 years?
The world is rapidly changing and new technology constantly emerging. People will continue to demand more from an infrastructure that is rigid and not designed to quickly and efficiently accommodate changes such as, for example, autonomous vehicles.
“I think we are woefully unprepared for how we manage infrastructure or how we think about the problem,” said Chester, whose work aims to reimagine these concepts for the 21st century and beyond.
“We are so stuck with the status quo that I’m worried whether or not we can make substantive change fast enough. I think as infrastructure professionals ― planners and engineers ― if we can’t recognize issues and make changes, we’re going to be irrelevant.”
A mural in South Philadelphia chronicles stories of immigration, the subject of one of 10 faculty research grants from the Institute on Inequality and Democracy. Photo by Amada Armenta
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.
Liz Koslov, assistant professor of urban planning, spoke with the New York Times about a new study on “managed retreat” as an option for communities threatened by climate change. The study, published in the journal Science, found that choosing to relocate rather than rebuild can create new opportunities for communities damaged or threatened by climate disaster. Strategic, orderly and equitable relocation plans should be one of several options available to these communities, the researchers said. They added that regularly updated climate hazard maps should be provided to citizens so that they can make informed choices. “I’m so glad that these kinds of pieces are getting written,” said Koslov, noting that the debate over managed retreat is “inevitably thorny and conflictual.” She added that decisions about whether retreat is the best option should factor in social, economic and cultural considerations, not just physical geography.
R. Jisung Park, assistant professor of public policy, spoke with KPCC’s “Take Two” about his research linking extreme heat with the racial education achievement gap. Students who experience more hot days during the school year perform worse on standardized exams, Park and his colleagues found. In addition, black and Hispanic students are 9 percent less likely than white students to attend schools with functioning air conditioning, they found. “We know that that can have effects on the economic opportunities that these students can have access to,” Park told “Take Two” in a segment beginning at minute 23:40. Park, associate director of economic research for the Luskin Center for Innovation, advocates for air conditioning powered by clean energy. “In the meantime,” he said, “we need to protect the most disadvantaged communities from the effects of climate change that are already coming down the pike.” Park’s research was also highlighted in USA Today and the Washington Post.
Colleen Callahan, deputy director of the Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about an L.A. City Council runoff election that highlights the debate over the “Green New Deal.” John Lee and Loraine Lundquist are vying for the seat representing the northwest San Fernando Valley — site of the massive Aliso Canyon methane leak that pushed thousands of people out of their homes. Lundquist has endorsed Mayor Eric Garcetti’s package of environmental proposals; Lee says the mayor’s plan is too costly, and his supporters have called Lundquist’s agenda “extremist.” The Valley campaign is “a little bit of a microcosm of what’s happening on the national stage around the Green New Deal,” Callahan said.
Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning, spoke with Curbed LA about a proposal to eliminate parking requirements for newly constructed apartment and condo buildings in downtown Los Angeles. Parking minimums have been “an unmitigated disaster,” Manville said. “Right now, it’s illegal to build for a tenant who doesn’t care if their car is in the same building with them” or who doesn’t own a car at all, he said. The requirement to include parking spots in residential buildings has been blamed for higher housing costs, the construction of unsightly garages and the exacerbation of climate change. “When you require parking, you really do encourage driving,” Manville said. Removing the parking requirement is an “absolutely necessary” step, one of many needed to help Angelenos drive less, he said.
Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Liz Koslov spoke to Vice about “managed retreat” as a strategy for coping with climate change — and perhaps creating a better quality of life. Faced with rising sea levels, some communities lobby for protection from walls and levees. Staying in place is seen as a sign of resilience, moving away a sign of surrender. Koslov noted that walling off cities could create “provinces of the wealthy” that bring about environmental and social havoc. “You could end up with these walled city-states and then everyone else is just left to fend for themselves,” she said. Managed retreat — moving populations away from an environmental threat in a carefully planned strategy — can be empowering and restorative if the people involved have a voice in the move, she said. Koslov, who has a joint appointment with UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, is currently working on a book based on her fieldwork on Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy.
Jisung Park, assistant professor of public policy and environmental health sciences, spoke with Marketplace about the impact of climate change on economic productivity. The International Labor Organization predicts that heat stress linked to global warming could drain more than $2 trillion from the world’s gross domestic product. In hot weather, people work more slowly, need more breaks and make errors, studies have found. “If you work outdoors, it’s much harder to protect yourself from either the productivity or the health impacts from extreme heat,” said Park, who has conducted research showing that student test scores decline in hot weather. The effect of rising global temperatures on cognitive development is particularly acute in low-income areas where air conditioning is not available, Park has found.
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.