UCLA Luskin | Using urban design to advance justice

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By Mary Braswell

An in-depth exploration of social justice as a guiding principle of urban design will turn into a book designed by UCLA Luskin faculty.

During the spring term, Urban Planning brought 10 prominent scholars to campus to shed light on public space in all its complexity. They spoke about the market forces, political calculations, environmental concerns and lifestyle trends that are transforming cities in Southern California and around the world, pushing some citizens to the margins. And they offered frameworks to put inclusion back at the center of urban design.

The speakers’ ideas will become the chapters of a book that bears the same name as the lecture series: “Just Urban Design: The Struggle for a Public City”.

“Cities are really the scene of inequalities, an inequality that has been steadily increasing over the last decade,” said urban planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, who organized the project with President Vinit. Mukhija and Assistant Professor Kian Goh.

“The larger question driving this series is whether we can do anything through physical planning and urban design to create fairer cities.”

Lecturers who have come to UCLA on the Harvey S. Perloff Lecture Series and the Meyer and Renee Luskin Lecture Series have brought decades of experience in both academic settings and on the front lines of urban upheavals.

Among them, Setha Low, described by Loukaitou-Sideris as “one of the most eminent anthropologists and ethnographers of our time”. A professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Low has worked with UN-Habitat and other institutions to develop global indicators of social justice for urban design.

“It’s a really important moment in time,” Low said during his April 23 visit to UCLA. “There is a push to create a society, at a time of great division, that is much more open and accessible and let’s say free. We need places to meet.

She said one of her biggest challenges is communicating these ideals to the general public.

“We really need to explain how public space creates thriving societies,” she said. “We really need to step out of ourselves and reach a much wider audience so they understand why this is important.”

Harvard professor Diane E. Davis’ April 25 talk was moderated by Goh, who noted, “The things I learned from her, mostly related to politics and scale, really enlightened the work I do now.

Davis, who earned her Ph.D. in sociology at UCLA and now holds the chair of urban planning and design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, has raised fundamental questions such as “What makes a city public?” and “What gives a city a strong democratic public sphere?”

“I’m really interested in the politics of how people and states interact or don’t interact with each other,” she said. “I think it’s a very important framework for thinking about the best urban design.”

The idea that public space transcends national borders guided a May Day lecture by Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman, professors at UC San Diego and partners in a studio specializing in urban planning, architecture and science policies.

“We believe that the convergence of geopolitical borders, climate justice and poverty is ultimately the challenge of our time,” said Cruz, explaining a project the two had created for the American pavilion at the Architecture Biennale in Venice this year. Entitled “MEXUS: a geography of interdependence”, the presentation presents the border region as a shared space intertwined with environmental, economic and cultural ties.

Forman has sounded the alarm over the ‘nativist mentality’ taking hold in the mainstream, ‘legitimizing an overt racism we haven’t seen since the mid-20e Century.”

“We see the San Diego-Tijuana border region as a microcosm of all the injustices that neoliberal globalization has inflicted on the world’s most vulnerable people: poverty, climate change, accelerated migration, gender-based violence, human trafficking, slow suburbanization, privatization, etc. on,” she said.

Forman said she and Cruz wanted to tell a very different story about life on the frontier.

“Our work reinvents the US-Mexico border as a fabric of social and spatial ecologies, a formidable laboratory of political, urban and architectural creativity. For us, conflict is a creative tool.

These other speakers also contributed to the series: Rachel Berney and Jeff Hou from the University of Washington, Alison Hirsch from USC, Kimberley Kinder from the University of Michigan, Matt Miller from the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Rios from UC Davis.

Loukaitou-Sideris, Mukhija and Goh will join ‘Just Urban Design’ speakers to contribute chapters to the planned book, which has attracted interest from several publishers.

Collecting guest speakers’ ideas into a single book is a model that UCLA Luskin Urban Planning has used with success in the past. In 2014, Loukaitou-Sideris and Mukhija invited guest speakers to write essays examining urban activities such as street vending, garage sales, and unauthorized housing to create the book “The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor,” published by MIT Press.

Stan Paul contributed to this article.

On Flickr:

See photos from the UCLA Luskin conference by Setha Low.

See photos of the Harvey S. Perloff Lecture by Diane E. Davis.

See photos from the UCLA Luskin conference by Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman.

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