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A New Blueprint For Public Life

By Jack Feuer, Illustrations by William Duke

Published Apr 1, 2011 10:34 AM

A new shape for the city. New ideas for political discourse. New ways of thinking about social welfare. Armed with a $100-million gift from alumni Meyer and Renee Luskin — the second-largest ever received at UCLA — the School of Public Affairs is building a powerful new resource for reshaping public life in Los Angeles and the country.

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It's early morning in 2031 and you're standing on the corner of Union and Sixth in the urban heart of Los Angeles. Warm, yellow sunshine spills down, aided by building design that encourages the movement of light to street level.

There are benches and seats where your neighbors gather, speaking every imaginable language. You marvel at the bustling diversity of cultures, cuisines and couture. Around you, bikeways — there are more than 1,600 miles of them crisscrossing the City of Angels now — stretch out in every direction. Up and down the street, commuters hop onto shuttles that take them to clean, rapid buses that drive them to all parts of the city, where they disembark and take another shuttle to their offices.

Elsewhere, the city's Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan has restored and enhanced the neighborhoods, wildlife, environment and public spaces along the Los Angeles River. And everywhere, there are trees and little pocket parks to give the cityscape a shimmering emerald sheen.

Downtown. Westside. Mid-City. Every neighborhood is like this in 2031. Welcome to L.A.

Fantasy? Perhaps today. Tomorrow? Reality, if the innovative academics at UCLA's School of Public Affairs (SPA) make even some of their dreams come true.

"It's time to work between theory and practice and take beautiful ideas and confront them with ugly facts," declares Public Affairs Dean Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., "to work at the intersection where scholarship meets the street. We take up the big problems that confront society: health care, health policy, education, transportation, child welfare, housing, crime, and look at them locally, nationally and internationally. We can be coherent about it. We have our hands on it. We have people working on all of these problems. We have one of the world's great [urban] laboratories in our backyard and we have these problems at scale."

But ideas alone can't build a better tomorrow. You need considerable resources to bring ideas like our hypothetical 2031 street scene to life. Or to develop innovative social welfare programs that actually change things. Or even to break out of the shrill silos that currently imprison political discourse and construct a pathway to effective and meaningful policies.

Now Gilliam and company have those resources, thanks to an extraordinary $100-million gift from visionary philanthropists Meyer '49 and Renee '53 Luskin.

Supplying the Living Laboratory

The gift, the second-largest ever received at UCLA, will go toward academic programs and capital improvements that bolster the university's efforts to harness intellectual capital, engage the public and serve as a resource in addressing civic and societal challenges. Half of the gift will help Public Affairs recruit and retain students and faculty, fund endowments, and make capital improvements to its building. The other half will support a planned residential conference center that will bring together scholars, political and business leaders and the public to wrestle the issues of the day in public life, particularly in the Los Angeles region.

A total of $10 million of the conference center gift will take the form of an endowment to fund conferences in areas that might otherwise have difficulty securing funding, such as the humanities.

Both the school and the center will be named after the Luskins. The philanthropists, who first met on campus, are longtime supporters of UCLA and tireless advocates for their community. SPA already houses the Luskin Center for Innovation, established with support from the Luskins in 2008. The center has done pioneering work in many public-policy areas, including smart water, sustainable cities and other initiatives.

For the Luskins, this philanthropy is intensely personal. In the '40s, Meyer commuted to Westwood from Boyle Heights, working toward his bachelor's degree in economics, and he still cherishes the opportunity that UCLA gave him. But while the Bruin benefactor believes strongly in UCLA's traditional role as a way up for deserving Californians regardless of status or income, he just as intensely insists that a public university has an ongoing obligation to give back to the community that supports it.

"To me, the gift expresses the ultimate ideal: People deserve a better life," says Meyer, president, CEO and chairman of Scope Industries. "The old role of [providing] a liberal arts or professional school education remains absolutely necessary, but it is equally necessary to devote the university's assets to the community in which it exists. [And L.A.] has looming problems."

The gift adds to Chancellor Gene Block's ongoing efforts to bring the university's resources to bear on the issues of the city in which it lives. He said in a statement that the gift "reflects both our strength as a public asset and our optimism for the future."

City Hall likes the idea of a deepening partnership, too.

"UCLA will take a giant leap forward to being a great institution of higher learning that sees itself as tied to the future of Los Angeles," says Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa '77 about the Luskin gift. "Our commitment to stand shoulder to shoulder to transform our city is one where we give life to democracy by engaging at every level. It will go a long way to ensuring our destiny as a beacon of American hope and promise."

Los Angeles Councilman Ed Reyes '82, M.A. '85 points out that "UCLA is coming into the most challenging neighborhoods, communities where you have 40-percent poverty or 50-percent unemployment. When you look at that $100 million, the challenge is, how do you create leadership that has not only the vision but the skill sets to implement the type of cityscapes that create relief from the pressures of poverty and density? I'm a product of UCLA and I took a bus two hours each way to get there. I'm the son of immigrants. And I'm very excited because with this kind of resource, we can create a framework for how we address these areas."

Two Partners, One City

"Government rarely looks ahead to anticipate problems and is often caught flat-footed when problems arise," adds alternative energy investor and project developer Seth Jacobson M.P.P. '03, M.B.A. '05, a senior vice president at Palmer Capital. "Universities can help in at least three ways: identify emerging policy problems and advise government on potential solutions; train the next generation of leaders to address these problems and implement solutions; and advance interdisciplinary collaboration across traditional academic departments and with industry to develop more innovative solutions. UCLA is leading the way in these roles and is becoming more effective at fostering dynamic relationships with the public sector in Los Angeles, as a living laboratory."

That point of view is echoed on Spring Street in L.A., home of City Hall, where Eric Garcetti, president of the Los Angeles City Council, notes that "at a local level, we need to be thinking about strategic planning for our future. How do we continue to evolve as a city? How do we do it in a manner that can sustain our population? Already, research at the Luskin Center for Innovation is helping policymakers think about approaching these kinds of forward-looking questions in areas such as preparing our city to accommodate electric vehicles and increasing our capacity to generate solar power. Particularly at a time when public resources are scarce, it becomes even more critical to make choices as a city that will maximize taxpayer dollars — and this gift will help fund the innovative thinking and analysis to help us do that."

Besides, "politicians can point the finger at each other, but it's hard to argue with the facts," Garcetti adds, "especially when they come from a well-respected institution like UCLA ... There are so many challenges facing our city where we could use impartial, credible analysis to help us make decisions. Transportation, housing and the clean-technology economy are examples of issues that will have a huge impact on our future ... Unbiased research from a trusted source can help parties on all sides reframe the debate to move forward together to find solutions."

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In fact, "the legacy of [the School of Public Affairs] is progressive planning grounded in the experience of L.A.," says Cecilia Estolano M.A. '91, chief strategist of state and local initiatives for Green For All, a national green-economy organization. "If we use [the Luskin gift] wisely, we can redefine the role of public policy and urban planning, not just here but nationally. It can make UCLA the cutting edge of thinking about the urban form and cities generally."

There's fertile ground to grow that mission. For example, last year, in response to a request from President Obama for the public to send innovative ideas to the White House, urban planning graduates Georgia Sheridan M.A. '08 and Amber Hawkes M.A. '07 brought together planners, economists and architects to imagine what Los Angeles could be in the future. The interdisciplinary gathering, dubbed L.A. 2.0, was organized in collaboration with Good Magazine and the Public Studio. It drew more than 150 applicants for 30 slots. Those who applied "were all filled with love for L.A.," Sheridan says. "They were really positive about what it could be."

Several themes emerged during the afternoon, including the need for flexibility as cities change and grow, and the need for social cohesion and for places that allow for spontaneous moments of gathering and community. Perhaps even more important, the event spawned a larger, national initiative, City R + D (Reinvent and Develop), also sponsored by Good Magazine, to inspire cities to focus on community-based, actionable solutions and build stronger local networks of engaged professionals. Eight cities across the country — from San Francisco to Chattanooga — were selected to host events to brainstorm creative solutions to pressing urban challenges.

Some of the ideas that resulted truly intrigue: "bike boulevards," "street furniture" (so folks can stop and interact), storm water recapture in planters, and so on.

So many aspects of American society began in Southern California and spread eastward across the continent. Why not civic innovation as well? Because "it's very important that [the Luskins' gift] not be seen as just a Los Angeles approach," concludes urban thought leader Estolano. "We need to look at all of the issues facing public-policymakers in urban centers across the country. It's a rare moment to invest in the best thinking at a time when planning and cities are at a crisis point."

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.