“A Landmark Opportunity for Park Equity,” the fourth webinar in the 2021 Luskin Summit series, focused on the importance of public parks and other outdoor spaces for the physical, mental and environmental well-being of communities. The Feb. 17 panel was moderated by Jon Christensen, an affiliate faculty member of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. Angela Barranco, undersecretary at the California Natural Resources Agency, explained that the “COVID-19 pandemic has elevated and revealed the importance of access to the outdoors for all.” She noted that 1 in 4 Californians has zero access to parks within walking distance, and 6 in 10 Californians live in park-poor neighborhoods. These inequities can lead to severe health consequences and in some cases could be the difference between life and death, she said. California voters have approved multiple statewide environmental bonds recently, making this a “watershed moment for park access,” said Alfredo Gonzalez, Southern California director of the Resources Legacy Fund. Norma García-Gonzalez BA ’95 MA UP ’99, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, highlighted the important role that the public park system has taken on during the pandemic, including serving as winter shelters and vaccination sites, and providing 40,000 households with food through a partnership with Los Angeles Food Bank. “Investing in parks for Black and brown youth is justice reform,” García-Gonzalez said. “This is a call to action that we must work with local and state leaders to make critical investments to support Black and brown students and their futures.” — Zoe Day
A new book by Assistant Professor of Urban Planning V. Kelly Turner highlights contributions to urban sustainability scholarship made by geographers in the 21st century. Co-edited by Turner and Professor David Kaplan of Kent State University and published by Routledge in December, “Geographic Perspectives on Urban Sustainability” delves into issues of transportation, green infrastructure and gentrification and analyzes the intersections of social theory, spatial science and geography. Exponential and uneven growth of urban areas and the growing threat of climate change have prompted concerns that current urbanization patterns are unsustainable. Experts in the field have recognized the need for increased scholarship on urban sustainability, including human-environment interactions and emerging urbanization patterns. Through chapters originally published in the journal Urban Geography, Turner and Kaplan raise questions of urban resilience, environmental justice, political ecology and planning from a geographic perspective. “Contributions [to the field of urbanization science] should embrace systems thinking, empirically connect social constructs to biophysical patterns and processes, and use the city as a laboratory to generate new theories,” they write. The book is a resource for scholars, students and policymakers interested in urban and city planning, political ecology and sustainable urbanism.
A team of 10 UCLA professors has earned a $956,000 award for a project that will combine their expertise in engineering, urban planning, public health and environmental law to address the rapid increase in the number of extreme heat days in Los Angeles.
The prize is funded by a 2015 donation from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation.
The project, called Heat Resilient L.A., will over the next two years determine where and when people moving around the city are most vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat — a problem being caused by climate change — and assess which communities most need cooling interventions.
Based on their findings, the team will design new cooling structures and work with local stakeholders to determine where they should be installed. The team has designed a prototype structure that resembles a bus stop shelter, but in addition to a roof that provides shade, it also uses a combination of radiant and evaporative cooling technologies to provide “passive cooling” for those nearby.
Throughout the project, the researchers plan to engage directly with communities to produce the best possible design for the cooling structures and choose the best possible locations. Among the elements that helped the project stand out: its focus on equity and community engagement, and its use of devices other than shade and trees to provide cooling for local hot spots.
“What’s unique right now is that we have access to a portfolio of solutions and technologies that hadn’t been either thought of as plausible solutions or, frankly, available even just a few years ago,” said Aaswath Raman, a member of the Heat Resilient L.A. team and an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. Raman, who is designing the cooling structures using technology that has been developed in recent years at UCLA and elsewhere, said the project is an opportunity to explore the real-world use of emerging cooling technologies and materials.
That should not only help Los Angeles communities but also provide insights that he and others can use to continue building better technologies.
‘We wanted to bring together brilliant minds at UCLA who had never collaborated before, and push them to bring fresh ideas to the table.’ — Cassie Rauser, executive director of the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge
The winning project was chosen through a new UCLA initiative that upended the traditional model for conceiving and funding research projects. The program, called the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge Sandpit, emphasized connection, experimentation and blue-sky thinking.
In all, eight teams made up of more than 60 faculty members from 27 UCLA departments participated.
The program culminated in December with an online pitch event that worked more like the TV show “Shark Tank” than a typical call for proposals. Instead of preparing dense written submissions, the teams had to sell their research projects — all focused on sustainability — to a panel of jurors that included UCLA deans as well as chief sustainability officers from the city and county.
The Heat Resilient L.A. pitch was led by Raman; V. Kelly Turner, an assistant professor of urban planning at UCLA Luskin; and David Eisenman, a professor in residence at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
The other members of the winning team are Cara Horowitz, co-executive director of the UCLA Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment; Sungtaek Ju, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and of bioengineering; Travis Longcore, associate adjunct professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability; Juan Matute, deputy director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies; Gregory Pierce, associate director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation; Kirsten Schwarz, associate professor of urban planning; and Walker Wells, lecturer in urban planning.
“The sandpit was definitely not business as usual, and that was the point,” said Cassie Rauser, executive director of the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, a campuswide initiative to help transform Los Angeles into the world’s most sustainable megacity by 2050. “We wanted to bring together brilliant minds at UCLA who had never collaborated before, and push them to bring fresh ideas to the table. This type of interdisciplinary problem-solving is absolutely critical for addressing Los Angeles’ complex sustainability challenges.”
Competitors were invited to develop projects that directly address goals outlined in sustainability plans put forward by Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles, while paying particular attention to environmental justice and equity. The “sandpit” name was meant to encourage participants to bring a childlike sense of curiosity, openness and possibility into the process.
Teams and research concepts formed over the course of three months of online workshops designed to push participants out of their disciplinary bubbles and intellectual comfort zones — a critical aspect of the experience, according to Turner, who has studied what makes interdisciplinary collaborations work.
“So often it is about the informal interactions that get folks comfortable with being uncomfortable with each other, so that they can come up with the really innovative ideas,” she said.
The seven teams that did not win the grand prize will each receive $25,000 in seed funding from the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, which will also provide continued research development support to help the teams further develop their ideas and pursue full funding from external organizations.
“One of the most exciting aspects of the sandpit is that we heard eight fantastic pitches,” said Eric Hoek, a UCLA professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge. “Any of those projects could make a significant, tangible contribution toward our city’s and county’s sustainability goals, and we’re excited to help them all realize their potential.”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, understanding the rapid evolution of green building practices and integrating those approaches into affordable housing may be more critical than ever, according to Walker Wells, a UCLA Luskin Urban Planning lecturer. In “Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing,” Wells and co-author Kimberly Vermeer, a Boston-based sustainability consultant, argue that the best way to meet health and climate challenges is by providing society’s most vulnerable people with housing stability while reducing the environmental, health and climate impacts of constructing and operating buildings. In this fully revised edition of a book first published in 2007, the authors provide guidance on innovative green building practices and green building certifications available for affordable housing. To help builders align design decisions with environment-friendly goals, the authors explain the integrated design process. They also detail best practices for green design, from water management to renewable energy. Acknowledging the complexity of financing green affordable housing projects, Wells and Vermeer also discuss funding sources and the latest financing strategies. New case studies span high-desert homeownership, supportive housing in the Southeast and net-zero family apartments on the coasts. “Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing” seeks to provide information for everyone in the affordable housing industry, including housing development project managers, designers, engineers, funders and housing advocates. Wells is a principal at Raimi+Associates, a consulting service with offices in Los Angeles, Riverside and Berkeley, California. Vermeer founded and leads Urban Habitat Initiatives, a consulting practice that advances sustainability and climate resilience.
By Colleen Callahan
A new report by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation (LCI) that highlights impacts of plastic production and waste in Los Angeles County will benefit the county in drafting an ordinance addressing plastic waste.
“One of the findings from the report that may surprise Angelenos is that a majority of plastic waste in L.A. County is not currently recycled,” said Gary Gero, the county’s chief sustainability officer. “This is just part of the problem behind the environmental, economic, energy and human-health-related impacts associated with plastic production and waste in L.A. County, which this study clearly reveals.”
The report also analyzes alternative options in food service and singles out single-use plastic food service waste for its outsized representation in litter and its low recycling potential. No facility in L.A. County currently recycles plastic food service ware because of concerns about food contamination and other issues. After a policy change from China in 2018 to limit recyclable waste materials accepted by that country, only #1 and #2 plastics are commonly recycled.
“Fortunately, there are alternatives to plastic containers, cups, straws and ‘sporks’ that make practical and economic sense,” said JR DeShazo, the principal investigator on the study and director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. “Solutions are on hand, as the report makes abundantly clear.”
Researchers found that compostable ware can reduce environmental impacts as compared to plastic. But the report also explains that a full transition to compostable ware across the region would need to be approached carefully.
For one, it would require an expansion of the currently limited composting infrastructure in L.A. County. Fortunately, state regulations are in place to mandate this expansion over the next few years and the county is actively working toward meeting those state targets. In addition, a larger transition to compostable ware would require thoughtful consideration of materials in order to select products with a lower lifetime environmental impact as compared to plastic. Compostable products that are 100% fiber-based without chemical treatment produce the best environmental outcome.
No disposable ware can beat the environmental footprint of reusable food service ware, researchers found. Moving to reusables in place of disposables represents a large shift for many food vendors, with higher up-front costs but lower expenditures over time.
The fiscal break-even point for businesses can generally occur within the first year of transition, with direct cost savings for businesses afterward totaling thousands of dollars per year, according to the study.
“It was heartening to see the conclusions related to economic impacts of moving our businesses to more sustainable materials,” Gero said. “It’s also relatively easy for us, as individuals, to do something about it — like bringing our own cups, straws and utensils when we dine at a fast-service type of restaurant.”
In California, 135 cities and counties have adopted ordinances related to single-use plastic reduction. Researchers interviewed officials from eight of those cities, mostly in L.A. County.
The experiences of these jurisdictions indicate that policies restricting plastics have been effective at reducing the adverse impacts of plastic waste with no reported negative economic impacts. These jurisdictions have provided avenues for vendors to claim exemptions for financial hardship, but the rate at which vendors have applied for such exemptions is very low, the study notes.
The Los Angeles County Chief Sustainability Office commissioned the study, per a motion by county supervisors directing the office to contract with UCLA to study the issue of plastic waste, processing, recyclability and alternatives in the county. The motion came after supervisors earlier in 2019 approved the OurCounty Sustainability Plan, a comprehensive approach to help L.A. County transition to a more sustainable future through actions that include plastic waste reduction. The county plans to release its draft ordinance later in 2020.
By Colleen Callahan
Analysis by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation (LCI) is underway in support of Los Angeles’ goal to recycle all wastewater by 2035 and use it to replenish local groundwater and reduce the need to import water.
“Using recycled water is the next major step in Southern California to ensure needed resiliency against future droughts and earthquakes,” said Nicholas Chow MSc Civil and Environmental Engineering ’16, water engineering project manager for LCI. “Our study could inform construction of a pipeline that provides millions of customers with a new source of clean water.”
According to an announcement by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2019, the city will stop discarding wastewater to the ocean and instead recycle that water for beneficial use. The plan to meet this goal centers on the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, which is the largest wastewater treatment facility west of the Mississippi River. Hyperion receives the vast majority of the city’s total wastewater but currently recycles only 27%. The rest goes into the Pacific Ocean.
The LCI researchers are assessing a proposed Hyperion reuse and groundwater development project that would include construction of $2 billion worth of infrastructure over a decade in order to achieve the city’s 2035 implementation goal. Experts say this project may become the largest capital water project investment for Los Angeles during the 21st century.
In announcing the project, Garcetti framed the effort as L.A.’s next “Mulholland moment,” a reference to the legacy of water chief William Mulholland and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which opened more than 100 years ago and helped create modern Los Angeles by redirecting water from the Owens Valley hundreds of miles away. City leaders now have an opposite ─ reducing the amount of water imported from far-away.
“Maximizing L.A.’s recycling capacity will increase the amount of water we source locally and help to ensure that Angelenos can count on access to clean water for generations to come,” Garcetti said in his announcement.
The objective of the UCLA study is to estimate the project’s value — specifically, how investing now in recycled water might avoid future costs for rate-paying households and businesses. Researchers are factoring in droughts, seismic events and the rising price of imported water, all of which threaten L.A.’s water supplies.
Commissioned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the agency responsible for maximizing beneficial use of water treated at the Hyperion plant, the UCLA study is being conducted in collaboration with L.A. Sanitation and Environment, which operates the Hyperion plant.
In a National Geographic article exploring transit-oriented development in cities across the globe, Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville commented on the challenges facing Los Angeles. The article focused on architect Peter Calthorpe, who highlights the negative effects of car-oriented urban environments on climate, air quality and congestion, in addition to time and money wasted by drivers. Urban planners look to transit-oriented development to remake healthy urban spaces and reverse the damage caused by dependence on automobiles. Calthorpe imagines an urban utopia where cities would stop expanding, pave less and heat the air and the planet around them less. He recommends dense clusters of walkable communities around a web of rapid transit to support a growing population. Manville weighed in on the urban environment of Los Angeles, where residents continue to rely on cars despite efforts to improve public transit. The conundrum, Manville said, is that “driving’s too cheap [and] housing’s too expensive.”
Kian Goh, assistant professor of urban planning, was quoted in an article from CityLab on a speculative proposal for sustainable living in the face of our rapidly changing climate. The futuristic solution involves high-tech cities that float atop the surface of the ocean and are aimed at total self-sufficiency in terms of food and energy production. The floating city is designed to provide permanent communities for those displaced by rising sea levels. Goh encouraged bold, utopian thinking but said this idea was unrealistic, mainly because these cities — while certainly a beautiful vision — could never provide enough homes for the several million people threatened with displacement. According to Goh, ideas like the floating city “are oftentimes posed as solving some big problem, when in many ways [they’re] an attempt to get away from the kinds of social and political realities of other places,” she said.
Gregory Pierce, associate director of research at the Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke with 20 Questions About Water about access to clean water in the United States and around the world. Pierce, an adjunct assistant professor of urban planning, said the percentage of people with access to clean water has increased but the raw number has not due to population growth. Pierce believes the government should be responsible for providing water at the local level. When governments have insufficient resources or are beset by corruption, a coalition of private companies, NGOs, the government and the community should be formed to provide real solutions, he argued. In the next 100 years, Pierce believes, water will become more decentralized and investments in water resources and technology will pay off. He encouraged citizens concerned about access to clean water to pressure decision-makers to take action.
Los Angeles’ innovative food purchasing system, spearheaded by UCLA Luskin Urban Planning lecturer Paula Daniels, has been recognized by the United Nations for its impact in promoting sustainable agriculture. The city’s Good Food Purchasing Program creates a food supply chain guided by nutrition, environmental sustainability, animal welfare and impact on local economies. The program was honored for harnessing the buying power of all city departments and the Los Angeles Unified School District to benefit students, growers, distributors and entrepreneurs. Since its launch in 2012, the program has expanded across the United States with support from the Center for Good Food Purchasing. The non-governmental organization is a spin-off of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council founded by Daniels in 2011. The L.A. program was one of eight from around the world to be recognized by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Future Council and IFOAM Organics International. Daniels accepted the honor on behalf of the city at a ceremony in Rome in October 2018. On the same day, Daniels learned she had received an Ashoka Fellowship, awarded to innovators and entrepreneurs seeking creative solutions to the world’s biggest social challenges. “There’s so much interest, desire, will to make the food system more equitable and environmentally sound,” Daniels said in a Forbes article. “The fact that people are responding to our idea as a way forward for them is incredibly gratifying.”
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