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A New Role for a Climate Justice Expert  As associate faculty director at the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, Kian Goh brings a global perspective on environmental issues

By Les Dunseith

UCLA’s Kian Goh, who studies the politics around cities’ responses to climate change, becomes an associate faculty director as of the fall quarter at the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy.

She said the institute is a leader in working with and alongside movement-based organizations fighting for change.  

Goh, an assistant professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, noted that the typical presumptions of objective research in the social sciences sometimes conflicts with the desire to see the problem from the point of view of oppressed groups, in order to challenge unjust systems and promote greater equity in decision-making in cities. Overcoming this hurdle as it relates to urban responses to climate change is one of the objectives of her recently published book, “Form and Flow: The Spatial Politics of Urban Resilience and Climate Justice.”

“This type of positional research is more attuned to how structural power actually works,” Goh said. “And it’s what I think the Institute on Inequality and Democracy does incredibly well. I’m so excited to be part of it.”

Ananya Roy, the inaugural director of the Institute which was founded in 2016, said Goh’s global perspective and her expertise in community responses to environmental problems are ideally suited to bolster the institute’s efforts to pair critical thought with social movements and activism in the interest of combating societal inequalities.

“Climate justice is of central concern to the institute’s current research priorities, from housing justice to abolition,” said Roy, professor of urban planning, social welfare and geography at UCLA. “It undergirds all of the ways in which we must understand racial capitalism and make change in the world and professor Goh is precisely the scholar whose rigorous research and capacious vision allows us to do so at the institute and beyond.”

Goh sees her new role as the next step in a progression from working architect to urban planning scholar.

While working as an architect in and around New York City in the early 2000s, Goh found her interests expanding beyond the buildings she was designing, especially regarding urban inequalities and the impacts of climate change.

“I would also be really interested in the history of that neighborhood — how it got to be in the condition that it was in,” she said. 

Goh witnessed first-hand the benefits of community involvement in recovery efforts in Brooklyn following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and that experience contributed to her decision to focus on the topic while pursuing a doctorate in urban and environmental planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her varied academic career began as an undergraduate at the College of Wooster in Ohio and continued at Yale, where she earned her Master of Architecture degree. She previously taught at Northeastern University in Boston, the University of Pennsylvania, the New School in New York and Washington University in St. Louis. 

Goh’s book focuses in part on the Rebuild by Design competition in New York City after Sandy as part of an examination of power relationships and civic activism. The book examines the conflicts that can arise when cities respond to climate change. She looks not only at initiatives in New York but also at the Rotterdam Climate Proof program in the Netherlands and the Giant Sea Wall plan in Jakarta, Indonesia, and analyzes the interconnections of ideas and influence among them.

Her scholarship is firmly grounded in participant observation. 

“When I look at environmental conflicts that are happening in Jakarta, for instance, I will look at what community activists working in the informal kampung settlements there are doing to protect their neighborhoods — from floods but also from eviction and displacement by the city, which claims that they are in overly vulnerable places that need to be cleared,” Goh explained. “This type of close, on-the-ground participatory research, plus a global lens, fits very well with how the institute sees its work.”

At the heart of Goh’s scholarship are people struggling with crisis, whether it be longer-term threats such as rising sea levels or more immediate dangers like wildfires or floods. Joining the faculty at UCLA Luskin five years ago has encouraged Goh to think about the types of environmental justice issues often seen in California, including water use. 

Goh noted the long history of proposals to revitalize the L.A. River from its current existence as a concrete channel whose primary purpose is flood control. 

“Oftentimes, we see some really ambitious ideas to make the river more ecological, more sustainable,” Goh said. Unfortunately, some of those grand ideas fail to contemplate how neighborhoods near the L.A. River would be impacted.

“So, we have projects that are ostensibly for sustainability and for climate protection,” Goh said. “But if they’re not done in a way that takes into account the voices on the ground, the communities that have previously been marginalized and pushed into some of these neighborhoods, then these people stand to be even further marginalized and potentially displaced.”

Thankfully, she is witnessing a greater acceptance among policymakers to look to community organizers and social movements for answers. 

“What I have seen in New York and also in Los Angeles is more government officials who are saying, ‘We need to look more toward what’s happening on the ground,’” Goh said. “What I think hasn’t happened enough is … how does that actually become part of the plans? There are folks who are doing all these focus groups and talking to people, trying to learn. But sometimes it just becomes a report that lies around somewhere.”

At the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, Goh sees a shared commitment to translate ideas into action. She describes her ideas about a research project around climate justice and cities:

“It revolves around two things — climate and power,” she said. “That the issue of climate change in cities is always a matter of who has the power in cities and who doesn’t.”

Goh intends to investigate how climate justice organizers build social movements in cities. She said researchers have shown that inequality matters in environmental planning — poorer people suffer most from environmental harms in cities. 

“It is not enough simply pointing out inequality without taking on the power relationships that are causing that inequality,” Goh said. She plans to work with colleagues at the institute to model a more democratic process in which urban governance decisions are made in cooperation with movement builders.

“These organizers and activists on the ground need to be seen as a necessary and integral part of how we think about planning for climate change,” she said. 

Koslov on Mobilizing to Combat Climate Change

Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Liz Koslov was featured in a Katie Couric Media article about the growing threat of climate change. Many regions are already experiencing the consequences of climate change through frequent wildfires, long periods of drought, and increased frequency and severity of tropical storms. Rising temperatures and humidity have also prompted concerns about the health risks associated with climate change, including heat stroke and heat illness as well as exacerbation of chronic illness. While some changes such as rising sea levels are irreversible, there is still time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report describing five different climate futures depending on human action to reduce emissions and shift away from fossil fuel use. “There’s so much action happening to try to really transform these conditions,” Koslov said. “If anything, COVID showed us the power of mobilizing on a vast scale.”


Taylor Encourages More Responsible Driving

Brian Taylor, director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies, spoke to Vox about how to end the American obsession with driving. The transportation sector is one of the biggest sources of pollution, but many U.S. cities are built for drivers. Taylor explained that parking is often capitalized into the costs of the goods you buy, as opposed to selling parking spaces at their true value. “The default is that the storage of private vehicles tends to get priority if you look at how we’ve allocated curb space, and that creates all sorts of problems,” said Taylor, a professor of urban planning and public policy. To disincentivize street parking, Taylor suggested that municipalities raise the price at meters, manage curbs differently or remove parking altogether in some areas, allowing only for loading, unloading, and scooter and bike traffic. He imagined a future where drivers are more responsible for these costs and are more judicious of their car use.


Manville on Environmental Consequences of Driving

Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville was featured in an article in the Cut discussing ways to combat climate change at an individual level. “The thing that is heating up the planet is that people get into cars, turn the key and start burning fossil fuels,” Manville said. According to the EPA, personal vehicles account for about one-fifth of the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions. Manville and other experts recommended reducing driving time by shopping local, consolidating errands into single trips and avoiding driving during rush hour. Manville also expressed support for policies that make driving less convenient and more expensive, such as raising parking fees, increasing gas taxes or implementing congestion pricing. Manville called zoning codes that require new construction to include parking “one of the biggest subsidies to car ownership and use that exists” and recommended getting rid of them in order to encourage more sustainable transportation habits.


Park on the Complexities of Heat-Related Work Injuries

Assistant Professor of Public Policy R. Jisung Park was featured in an LAist article discussing his research on the effects of rising temperatures on the labor force. California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) requires employers to give employees water, rest and shade while working in the heat, but the agency is chronically understaffed and underfunded. Meanwhile, reports of heat-related illness and death continue as temperatures rise. Using a computer model of temperature increases over 20 years and workers’ compensation claims, Park estimated that heat contributes to illness or injury among at least 15,000 California workers each year. He explained that many injuries are misclassified and are not necessarily categorized as heat-related, even if they should be. Park added that heat illness can occur at lower temperatures than expected, and that workers have reported experiencing heat exhaustion on days with temperatures as low as 75 degrees.


Vulnerable Populations Need Cooling, Turner Says

Assistant Professor of Urban Planning V. Kelly Turner spoke to the Guardian about the role of air conditioning and shade as a response to climate change. As temperatures rise, new technologies are emerging as an alternative to air conditioning, which itself is a contributor to the climate crisis. It’s necessary to tackle the fundamental problems that make cities hotter, said Turner, but in the meantime, “we will need some air conditioning because [without it], you can’t get your core temperature cool enough if you’re exposed to really extreme heat.” Air conditioning is especially important for vulnerable populations including outdoor agricultural and construction laborers, children, elderly people and low-income renters, said Turner, who is co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. She added, “If you want to cool people, you have to provide shade” to protect people’s bodies from the direct heat of the sun. 


Turner on Starting Climate Conversations With Art

Assistant Professor of Urban Planning V. Kelly Turner spoke to Smart Cities Dive about how to combine art with climate change action and awareness. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council in Boston recently published a guidebook that encourages communities and artists to develop creative approaches to shade and cooling infrastructure. “When we talk about heat, a portion of it is climate change, but a portion of it is how we choose to build and divide a city,” said Turner, who studies how the urban heat island effect makes cities without green spaces hotter. She developed the idea of using cooling reflective paint in a public art project and rallied community partners to create an enormous cool-paint mural of Zeus in South Los Angeles. Turner said the mural was designed to start a conversation about climate change. “You can show people statistics, but they feel art,” she said. “I think there’s power there.”


Turner on Building Heat Resilient Communities

Assistant Professor of Urban Planning V. Kelly Turner joined the America Adapts Podcast and the Smart Community Podcast to discuss ways to build heat resilient cities and address heat inequity. According to Turner, heat governance is in its infancy. “We don’t have institutions that are responsible for regulating heat at the local, state or federal level,” she said. Turner explained that there is a difference between the acute problem of extreme heat risk and the chronic problem of the urban heat island effect. “Not all urban heat is extreme, and not all extreme heat is urban, and you can’t necessarily solve both at the same time,” she said. Turner also discussed the tradeoffs of different heat interventions such as cool pavement, which effectively combats the urban heat island effect but is “not a substitute for shade.” She recommended engaging with communities to learn how people experience heat in order to make cities better places for people to live.


Pierce on Safety Hazard of Mobile Homes

Greg Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to ProPublica about the climate gap, which refers to the disproportionate and unequal impacts of the climate crisis. Across the United States, people of color, the poor and the undocumented are more likely to live in hotter places and less likely to have access to potable water. In Thermal, California, the population is 99% Latino, and many residents live in mobile trailer homes without clean running water or air conditioning. How mobile homes are going to fare in the climate crisis is, “quite frankly, not the sexiest to academics,” said Pierce, noting that residents of older manufactured housing are at great risk. In California, mobile homes are disproportionately located in the hottest census tracts, and poor insulation can drive up cooling costs. Furthermore, mobile homes built before 1976 are not up to date with new building and safety standards, creating additional safety hazards.


Park on the Impact of Extreme Heat on Human Behavior

A Science News article on the effects of extreme heat on human behavior cited research by R. Jisung Park, assistant professor of public policy. As temperatures rise, violence and aggression also go up while focus and productivity decline, the article noted, adding that lower-income people and countries are likely to suffer the most. “The physiological effects of heat may be universal, but the way it manifests … is highly unequal,” Park said. The article described Park’s research into the impact of hot days on student performance on standardized tests. One of his studies found that students in schools without air conditioning scored lower than would have been expected, and that Black and Hispanic students were more likely to attend school and test in hotter buildings compared to their white counterparts. A separate study by Park, described in Safety+Health magazine, found that hotter temperatures are linked to a significant increase in the risk of workplace injuries and accidents.