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A New Blueprint For Public Life

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By Jack Feuer, Illustrations by William Duke

Published Apr 1, 2011 10:34 AM


The Price of Excellence

A doctoral student studying urban flooding in Senegal's capital city of Dakar couldn't afford thousands of dollars to rent satellite time to take pictures of the city. So he turned to a century-old technology and put a camera on a kite and made it work.

An acclaimed professor from Europe noticed that nobody walks in L.A. And that bus shelters were often badly lit. So she studied how something as simple as a sidewalk could make urban life better for everybody, and how design and physical changes could encourage bus ridership.

A doctor and Iraq War veteran saw that pressing public-policy issues like health care were going unresolved because of the ferocious polarization that afflicts the country. So he went into politics — to take politics out of the discussion.

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This trio of unconventional thinkers — Bruin Ph.D. graduate student John Scott-Railton (who gained national notice using Twitter and audio feeds to bring protestors' voices to the world when Egypt shut down the Internet and cell phones during the recent unrest), UCLA Professor of Urban Planning Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Manan Trivedi M.P.P. '07 — knows that sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to take the road less traveled.

But there is heated competition among top-tier academic institutions for agile minds like these, as well as other top public affairs experts such as spy-agency critic Amy Zegart or health and aging expert Fernando Torres-Gil, to name just two. Meeting that challenge is a critical need the Luskin gift will go a long way to filling.

Indeed, public affairs graduates are probably not going to accumulate mountains of money in their careers. For sure, the state is not going to ante up funds to keep public affairs competitive.

"Our students are working for the public good and not making big salaries like lawyers, doctors and M.B.A.s," says Loukaitou-Sideris. "Our alumni are extremely faithful, but all they can afford are small gifts."

Moreover, the very best graduate students typically are offered a free ride at institutions like Harvard, MIT and the other elite schools. A public university often cannot match that.

"I had one potential student in my office in tears because she desperately wanted to come to our school, but she did not come from a wealthy family and another university was offering her money," recalls Gilliam. "At the time, there was nothing we could do."

Now there is, and Gilliam predicts that the vast majority of the money will be used for endowments to support efforts to attract the best graduate students. Endowments will also go to recruitment and retention of public affairs faculty, also a juicy target for raiders as UCLA struggles to address an unprecedented budget crisis.

"This gift gives the university and all of us a chance to not only make the school preeminent, but attract excellent people, many of whom I hope, like me, will be practitioners," adds Michael Dukakis, the former governor of Massachusetts and the Democrats' standard-bearer in the 1988 presidential campaign, who is a visiting professor in public affairs. "We do that already with our senior fellows program, but this will give us an opportunity to bring people here for an extended length of time."

Dukakis notes that the gift has particular resonance here because of California's historic role as a model or, unfortunately now, a harbinger for the rest of the nation. Trivedi agrees that if one is going to power up the education and development of public policy experts, California is where you want to do it.

"Now more than ever, with 24-hour cable news and the constant rhetoric, there's a need for a clearinghouse, a place that can strip away some of the heat and bring the evidence to the table in an organized fashion," Trivedi says. "I spent a little bit of time politicking in California. There's politics and then there's California politics. So there's no better place than California and UCLA to bring in critical thinkers and teach proper policy analysis."

When he's not treading through flood waters in urban Africa or tweeting about the Cairo streets, Scott-Railton finds himself "tremendously impressed by the ethos that seems to be growing around the school. What I find most satisfying are the opportunities for collaboration within Public Affairs and other schools on campus. UCLA at its best is a kind of loose-jointed operation that opens up tremendous opportunities for collaboration, and I have confidence that this endowment will help support that."

Life, Like You've Never Seen It Before

Sheridan and Hawkes aren't resting on their L.A. 2.0 laurels. The two are busy "rethinking street space," as they describe it, and working with urban planning graduate students to develop toolkits that offer design strategies, ideas and resources for making incremental improvements in livability within cities.

Now that he's finished helping to bring democracy to Tahrir Square, Scott-Railton is returning to his dissertation, helping to prepare cities for the consequences of climate change. (And in case the kite can't fly because of lack of wind, his Plan B is a typical how-did-he-ever-think-of-that solution: a 10-foot balloon equipped with a camera rig. Or, as Scott-Railton calls it, "another technology to explore.")

Loukaitou-Sideris is back at work, researching a new way of looking at public life and such issues as housing affordability, safety and security, and other groundbreaking explorations into the urban experience.

All around us, in fact, the students, faculty and graduates of the School of Public Affairs are out there, working sometimes in public and sometimes behind the scenes to bring all of us a new vision of urban society.

A Better World

"Often, big-city planning agencies and politicians focus on flagship buildings and cathedrals," says Loukaitou-Sideris. "They give a city its visibility for marketing purposes. But for millions living in those cities, the everyday spaces, from sidewalks to neighborhood parks, are much more important. These small, everyday places are where you and I and most people in cities spend most of their lives."

And Trivedi is still determined to make politics deliver on promises. "How do we continue to make this nation even more prosperous, make our cities stronger and our businesses more competitive?" he challenges. "Let's put politics aside and think about real solutions. Because they are few and far between."

It's early morning, 2011, and you're standing on the corner of Union and Sixth. What do you see? If you're one of any number of nimble minds connected to the UCLA School of Public Affairs, you see the promise of a more workable city.

The potential for more livable neighborhoods.

The first faint glimmerings of a more civil civic culture.

And if you look hard enough, with ample imagination, maybe even the perfect place for a bike boulevard.

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