Pierce Explores Inequitable Access to Drinking Water

Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to Capital & Main about how to help communities facing water quality challenges. A newly updated tap water database by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group includes drinking water data between 2014 and 2019 across all 50 states, illustrating wide disparities in water quality across systems. People living in underserved communities, especially in areas with high Black and Latino populations, face a disproportionate risk, the data showed. Pierce said the database provides an impressive translation of federal and state data and also raises wider questions, such as what alternatives are readily available to vulnerable communities facing water quality challenges. He noted that clear-cut answers are not always easy to come by, since bottled water is also associated with high costs and loose regulations. “Unless a system’s failing to meet the basic regulatory standards, I don’t think there’s a good case to say that bottled water is better,” Pierce said.

Gas Bill Debt Disproportionately Burdens Low-Income Neighborhoods As California’s utility shutoff ban ends, UCLA research shows where unpaid gas utility bills proliferated amid the pandemic

By Lauren Dunlap

Unpaid bills for heating and cooking gas are unevenly distributed among Californians, according to a new report from the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA Luskin in partnership with the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative (LPPI) and the Luskin Center for Innovation.

Since Oct. 1, customers who are behind on utility bills are no longer protected from shutoffs by a statewide order enacted in April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The study reveals clear patterns of inequity: Neighborhoods with high gas bill debt rates also have higher poverty rates, lower incomes, more renters than homeowners and higher proportions of Black and Latinx residents than the average neighborhood served by Southern California Gas.

The research team analyzed data from the utility, which provides gas service to about 50% of California residents. The team found that, as of February 28, 2021, 1 in 5 customers were at least 30 days behind on their gas bill payments, and almost 1 in 10 were at least 90 days behind. 

The report provides several lessons for policymakers to equitably relieve the burden of utility debt on customers. The authors recommend improving the data available on utility debt and shutoffs to lead to better-informed decisions. They also note the importance of targeting relief aid at the most affected, lowest-income households. 

The co-authors also emphasize a connection between their findings and the growing movement toward building electrification. Transitioning residential buildings to run on electricity alone is significant to avoid greenhouse gas emissions — especially since natural gas is composed primarily of methane, a major contributor to climate change. But this transition may impose high costs on people who already face utility debt. 

“When higher-income households stop using gas, lower-income households may be saddled with higher and higher gas costs,” said Silvia González ’09, MURP ’13, UP PhD ’20, director of research at LPPI. “It is essential to make electrification equitable, which means households don’t get left behind or stuck with increasingly unmanageable energy costs.” 

Because lower-income households could be negatively impacted by the fixed costs of gas service — the costs that don’t go down when there are fewer customers — the researchers advise that more research is needed to understand and mitigate this impact. 

This study is the third and final in a series examining utility debt inequity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Previous policy briefs focused on unpaid utility bills among Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Pacific Gas and Electric Company customers. 


Koslov on Social Causes of Climate Vulnerability

Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Liz Koslov was featured in The City discussing a proposed voluntary buyout program for flood-prone houses in New York City. After Hurricane Sandy, many homeowners sold their properties back to the state through the Oakwood Beach buyout program. That successful effort was community-led and the housing stock was mostly single-family homes, Koslov said. Going forward, “a lot of the homes in the places that we now see are most at risk are also the most affordable,” she noted. Koslov pointed to social causes of climate vulnerability, including redlining and disinvestment, that cause people to live in those risky places in the first place. “If you’re just trying to un-build places that seem to be the most at risk, but you’re not addressing the underlying causes of that risk, which go far beyond climate change, it’s never going to satisfactorily or equitably reduce the risk that exists,” she said.

Turner Calls for Equitable, Coordinated Approach to Extreme Heat

Extreme heat events — such as the road-buckling, record-smashing temperatures seen throughout the West this past summer — are becoming more deadly and common in a rapidly changing climate. Assistant Professor of Urban Planning V. Kelly Turner, who also serves as the co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, co-authored a new article in Nature dissecting the issue of extreme heat and outlining the necessary components of an equitable strategy to address the crisis. Unlike with fires and floods, no single government body is responsible for managing extreme heat, making it difficult to implement effective strategies that protect communities. “Protecting people from extreme heat will require a coordinated and well-researched government approach,” Turner said. “This is especially crucial for advancing equity and reducing the disproportionate effect heat has on people of color and low-income communities.” The authors of the paper laid out several key actions to address the issue of extreme heat. First, they recommended advancing heat equity by investigating how communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by extreme heat events. Next, they recommended expanding research on the effectiveness of different interventions as well as associated risks and tradeoffs of different strategies. They also suggested that governments work together to integrate and coordinate plans for measuring and combating extreme heat. Finally, they proposed building programs and institutions dedicated to heat management and expanding research in the field. Turner and her colleagues emphasized the importance of coordinated, strategic and equity-focused action in order to manage extreme heat.

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. 

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.

Transportation Equity Scholar to Join Public Policy Faculty Tierra Bills, an expert on the socioeconomic impacts of transportation decisions, will hold a joint appointment at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering

Tierra Bills, an expert on the socioeconomic impacts of transportation decisions, will join the UCLA Luskin Public Policy faculty in January.

Bills’ research interests include equity analysis, travel behavior modeling, community-based data collection and transportation-performance measurement. In a joint appointment with the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, she will teach two courses, “Transportation Equity” and “Travel Behavior Analysis and Forecasting.”

“Too often in the past, political expediency led to the routing of transportation systems like freeways and rail lines without adequate concern for their negative impacts on poorer, mostly ethnic neighborhoods,” UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura said. “The health and economic fallout of those decisions continues to have severe societal impacts, especially in congested urban areas. Future city planners and civil engineers alike will benefit from the expertise of Professor Bills in learning how to create more equitable transportation systems that avoid repeating past mistakes.”

Bills’ appointment as an assistant professor of public policy and civil and environmental engineering is part of a UCLA-wide “Rising to the Challenge” initiative spearheaded by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies to expand the scope and depth of scholarship that addresses racial equity issues. Announced in June 2020 by Chancellor Gene Block and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emily Carter, the program was established to help UCLA advance diversity, equity and inclusion. The plan includes the recruitment of 10 new faculty members over five years whose scholarly work addresses issues of Black experience.

“In order to help our students achieve technological breakthroughs that will improve the quality of life and society, we need to recruit faculty who understand the complex and entrenched inequities along racial and socioeconomic lines and address them in their research and teaching,” UCLA Samueli Dean Jayathi Murthy said. “Professor Bills brings the expertise at the nexus of engineering and public policy, which will greatly benefit our students as they tackle challenges in designing more equitable transportation systems.”

Bills is currently an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University in Detroit. Prior to that, she was a Michigan Society Fellow and an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She has also served as a lecturer at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya, and as a research scientist at IBM Research Africa, where she used data from smartphones to analyze the quality of transportation. Bills is a co-principal investigator on two current studies, funded by the National Science Foundation, focusing on transit issues in resource-constrained communities.

Bills received her B.S. in civil engineering technology from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and her M.S. and Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering and transportation engineering from UC Berkeley.

Yin on National Burden of Medical Debt

Associate Professor of Public Policy Wesley Yin spoke to Verywell Health about the results of his research on the burden of medical debt in the United States. “Medical debt has become the largest source of debt and collections than all other sources combined,” Yin said, referring to recent research he co-authored that found 17.8% of individuals in the U.S. had medical debt in collections as of June 2020. “It just speaks to how important the expansion of Medicaid has been towards financial security, financial well-being, as well as reducing disparities in these communities,” he said. When medical bills are left unpaid, it can negatively impact an individual’s credit score and make it more difficult to qualify for loans. In order to curb medical debt, Yin recommended extending subsidies that would allow patients to purchase more affordable insurance plans with a smaller deductible. He also suggested expanding Medicaid, an approach that has been shown to reduce state spending.

Read the article

Water Should Be Affordable for All, Pierce Says

Gregory Pierce, an adjunct assistant professor of urban planning, spoke to KQED about his concerns about equity in the attempt to provide clean drinking water to California cities. In response to the drought, Marin County is considering building a desalination plant and pipeline that would draw in water from the San Francisco Bay. After studying the impact that desalination could have on low-income and marginalized communities, Pierce concluded that “desalination can be part of the answer [in California], but it’s not the best answer right now or in the near term.” Using desalination to produce drinking water from seawater fails to encourage people to adopt habits that conserve freshwater resources, and it can also negatively impact the environment. Instead, Pierce argued that recycling water or fixing infrastructure is a faster and less-expensive solution than constructing a desalination plant. “As a concept, desalination sounds good, but it’s not usually delivered equitably,” said Pierce, co-director of the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA. “If water is truly a human right, it should be affordable to everyone.”

Read the article

Hill Finds Lack of Diversity in L.A. Tech Industry

Assistant Professor of Public Policy Jasmine Hill spoke to Dot LA about the findings of PledgeLA’s survey of Los Angeles technology companies and venture firms. While the tech industry in Los Angeles has made efforts to increase the diversity of its workforce, the survey highlighted the disparities that still exist in pay and representation. “Tech oftentimes likes to think of itself as a very equal, egalitarian space,” said Hill, who helped analyze the data for PledgeLA. “But the data shows something different.” The report found that Black and Latino workers make less money than their peers, and women earned an average of $20,000 less than men regardless of role or experience. PledgeLA was able to break down earnings data by race as a result of an increased participation rate from PledgeLA companies in the survey, but Hill noted that the report is not representative of the entire L.A. tech scene because it only includes data from the participating PledgeLA companies.

Read the article


Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. Chair in Social Justice

Celebrating a new endowed chair that recognizes the important contributions of our faculty to the cause of social justice and equity in the United States and around the world.

Honoring us with their presence:

  • Jacquelean and Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr., chancellor of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and our former dean
  • Meyer and Renee Luskin, who established the endowed chair as part of their naming gift to the Luskin School in recognition of Frank Gilliam’s long and successful deanship

6-8 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 9

Luskin School of Public Affairs Rooftop Terrace

BY INVITATION ONLY. Please look for an email invitation in your inbox.

Contact for more information.

Discussion of Qualified Immunity and Police Violence

A panel of guest speakers from UCLA and the field of criminal justice will discuss qualified immunity and police violence in America.


Emily Weisburst, assistant professor of public policy, criminal justice expert and researcher

Connie Rice, civil rights lawyer and co-director of Advancement Project of Los Angeles

Joanna Schwartz, law professor and a leading expert on police misconduct

Steven Zipperstein, public policy lecturer, and a lawyer on criminal justice policy


Career Talk: What is Your Personal Mission?

Community leader Marcia Choo discusses issues of equity, social justice and how they align with career decisions. Choo is vice president of community development at Wells Fargo Bank. Her experience includes facilitating policy initiatives between the city of Compton and the Samoan community following a double police shooting. She also engaged in training and community building efforts around boycotts, protests and public policy disputes in the aftermath of the 1992 riots and civil unrest in Los Angeles. Click here for full bio.

RSVP HERE by July 3 to receive ZOOM link.