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A Nexus of Latin Cities New initiative Ciudades finds common ground in urban spaces across the Western hemisphere

By Mary Braswell

They came from Sacramento in the north, Mexico City in the south and points in between, drawn to the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs by a common pursuit: increasing access to high-quality housing in urban areas where opportunities abound.

It’s a worthy goal, shared across borders but beset by a lack of consensus on how to achieve it. So planners, professors and government officials from throughout Mexico and California gathered to share their insights on moving forward, invited by one of UCLA Luskin’s newest ventures, the Latin American Cities Initiative.

The workshop visitors — along with urbanists throughout the region — have much to learn from one another, said Paavo Monkkonen, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, and founding director of the initiative, known as Ciudades.

“Los Angeles is home to millions from across Latin America,” Monkkonen said. “Because of this shared history and present, and because of the potential for urban learning across the region, we established Ciudades to deepen our connections and intellectual exchanges.”

Launched in early 2019 with the support of UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura, the initiative is just the latest example of the School’s global ambitions and outreach.

With the international city of Los Angeles as a home base, faculty have spearheaded research into HIV-infected youth in sub-Saharan Africa, mass protests in Ukraine, sex markets in Indonesia and degradation of the Amazon rainforest, among many other pursuits.

The School’s Global Public Affairs program brings graduate students into the mix, preparing them to navigate an increasingly integrated world. GPA students choose from a wide array of concentrations, including political dynamics, health and social services, the environment, development, migration and human rights.

Ciudades zeroes in on the Western Hemisphere. The binational, bilingual workshop on urban housing was just the type of cross-pollination of ideas that the initiative was created to foster.

In cities across Mexico and California, low-density sprawl has limited access to jobs, transit, retail and parks, creating roadblocks to prosperity. But federal and state programs to remedy this with denser urban development have met with resistance from municipalities, which often face political blowback.

Bridging this divide was the aim of the Ciudades workshop. Planners, academics, students and officials from all levels of government, including the cities of Tijuana, Ensenada, Compton and Los Angeles, came together to share data, resources and cautionary tales. Among them was Haydee Urita-Lopez MURP ’02, a senior planner with the city of Los Angeles.

“I’m just very happy today that we’re able to collaborate at this academic and practical level,” Urita-Lopez said, inviting her colleagues to continue the conversation in the weeks and months ahead. “We share an integrant political, social and cultural history. … Geopolitical lines on a map have not erased our cultural ties.”

Ciudades focuses on urban spaces in the Americas, but the topics it embraces are unlimited. Local democracy, public finance, indigenous populations and historical preservation will steer the dialogue in a knowledge network that reaches across disciplines as well as borders, Monkkonen said.

He envisions field visits by faculty and students from each of UCLA Luskin’s graduate departments, Public Policy, Social Welfare and Urban Planning. Grants and internships will promote Latin-focused student research.

Monkkonen’s studio courses in Baja California provide one model for learning: Students identify a problem, define the scope of their analysis, then conduct interviews, site visits and scholarly readings to develop practical solutions.

Ciudades also brings voices from across the Americas to campus. Over the 2019 winter quarter, students and the public heard from experts on social mobility in São Paulo, indigenous groups in Cancun, sustainable development in Bogotá and many other topics as part of the weekly Ciudades Seminar Series.

“Academia and professional practice can benefit a lot from greater levels of communication,” and that interplay creates a spirited learning environment, Monkkonen said. When students speak with practitioners, both sides ask questions that professors may not have thought to ask, he added.

The connections that Ciudades is forging will make UCLA Luskin a draw for graduate students, planners and policymakers from across the region, Monkkonen predicted. Looking ahead, he envisions quarter-long exchange programs with universities in South America and Central America.

“Our student population is so Latin-descended, and many want to study in the places their parents are from,” he said.

Monkkonen has been interested in the Spanish-speaking world since he can remember. Enrolled in a Culver City elementary school that offered one of the first language immersion programs, he became fluent as a child. As a young man, he taught English as a second language in Spain and Mexico. His wife is from Mexico and his daughter is a dual citizen. Monkkonen is a permanent resident of Mexico and is currently applying for dual citizenship.

Much of Monkkonen’s long-term research is based in Mexico, but he has also conducted studies in Argentina, Brazil and across Asia. UCLA Luskin, he said, is an ideal laboratory for urban studies in the region.

In March, Ciudades posed the question “Is L.A. a Latin American City?” Author and journalist Daniel Hernandez and UCLA’s Eric Avila debated the question at a forum moderated by Monkkonen.

The answer, they concluded, was both yes and no.

Los Angeles “is developing in a way that only benefits the people who already have money,” a familiar pattern in Latin American cities, Hernandez said.

Avila, a professor of Chicano studies and urban planning, said the city’s population and built environment are very Latin but “Los Angeles is not a Latin American city in regard to the historically sustained efforts to whitewash and erase the Spanish and Mexican past.”

The panelists touched on racial hierarchies, environmental justice, gentrification, food, art and identity. It was merely one of many conversations Ciudades intends to spark.

“We hope that this initiative is just the beginning of something larger that deepens ties across South, Central and North America,” Monkkonen said.

Zoe Day contributed to this report.

Forum Explores Latin American Identity of Los Angeles

Author and journalist Daniel Hernandez and professor Eric Avila explored the Latin history, features and identity of Los Angeles at a March 14, 2019, forum hosted by the Latin American Cities Initiative at UCLA Luskin. Initiative director Paavo Monkkonen, an associate professor of urban planning and public policy, moderated the forum on “Los Angeles as a Latin American City.” Hernandez, editor and host of L.A. Taco and the author of “Down & Delirious in Mexico City,” commented on corruption and infrastructure in Los Angeles, explaining that “there are things from Latin America that we should not import, [such as] the way political offices are doled out.” He noted that Los Angeles “is developing in a way that only benefits the people who already have money,” a pattern that is all too familiar in Latin American cities like Buenos Aires, Argentina. Avila, professor of Chicano studies and urban planning, researches the intersection of racial identity, urban space and cultural representation in 20th century America. According to Avila, Los Angeles is a Latin American city “in terms of population, the built environment, present-day demography, and the regional design and infrastructure.” However, he said, “Los Angeles is not a Latin American city in regard to the historically sustained efforts to whitewash and erase Spanish and Mexican past, including informal and formal practices of racial segregation, the creation of a subordinate labor force, racial hierarchies and white supremacy as a principle of urban development.” — Zoe Day


A New Network for Urbanists From Across the Americas Ciudades, as the Latin American Cities Initiative is known, brings urban planning students, educators and practitioners into a multinational conversation

By Mary Braswell

A new initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs is strengthening connections among urban planning students, educators and practitioners from across the Americas.

Ciudades, as the Latin American Cities Initiative is known, taps into the expertise of scholars and professionals whose cultural, historical and geographical ties run deep, said Paavo Monkkonen, director of the venture and associate professor of urban planning and public policy.

“Los Angeles shares an early history of urbanization with many cities across the Americas,” said Monkkonen, whose research into housing, land use and sprawl in Mexico and other countries inspired him to establish Ciudades, with support from UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura.

“Academia and professional practice can benefit a lot from greater levels of communication,” and that interplay creates a spirited teaching environment, Monkkonen said. “Planners in Los Angeles and across California’s cities can learn a lot from the urbanism of Latin America.”

The mission of Ciudades is expansive, Monkkonen said.

“Urbanists can learn from one another’s experiences with issues ranging from public space, mobility, historical preservation and redevelopment to indigeneity, local democracy, integration and local public finance,” he said.

Since its launch in January, Ciudades has pursued an ambitious agenda: a weekly speaker series; a binational workshop bringing together city, state and federal leaders from California and Mexico; creation of an inclusive website, with translations in Spanish and Portuguese; and an effort to fund student research and internships.

Monkkonen is also exploring partnerships with Latin American universities, to augment the international opportunities Urban Planning already offers in Germany, France and China. And he envisions annual field visits to Latin American cities, with faculty from all three Luskin School graduate departments — Public Policy, Social Welfare and Urban Planning — invited to participate.

The connections that Ciudades is forging will make UCLA Luskin a draw for graduate students, planners and policymakers from across the region, Monkkonen said.

“We hope that this initiative is the beginning of something larger that deepens connections and intellectual exchange with students, educators and professionals across South, Central and North America,” he said.

Hecht Awarded Medal by American Geographical Society

Susanna Hecht, professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, was recently awarded the prestigious David Livingstone Centenary Medal by the American Geographical Society. Hecht is a geographer who also holds appointments in UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, and the UCLA Department of Geography. She was honored by the institution, established in 1851, for her nearly three decades of pioneering research focused on land use change in the tropics, primarily in the Amazon rain forest. “Dr. Hecht is widely recognized as a preeminent authority on forest transitions and sustainable agriculture,” according to an AGS press release. “She is one of the founding thinkers of the field of political ecology, which integrates humanities, policy and social justice in its approach to issues.” The organization also noted Hecht’s “sophisticated comprehension of deforestation” and how it interacts with migration, the ecosystem and the possibilities of alternative economies. Hecht, who is also professor of international history at the Graduate Institute of International and Developmental Studies in Geneva, is the author of a number of books on the Amazon. Her 2013 work, “The Scramble for the Amazon and the Lost Paradise of Euclides da Cunha,” won the 2015 American Historical Association’s Best Book in Environmental History Award. “Susanna’s work on the Amazon exemplifies geography’s contributions to changing tropical conditions. She understands how economics, culture and land use operate in a society to reflect and change the environment,” said Deborah Popper, AGS vice president and chair of the Honors and Exploration Committee, which bestowed the award.