What will the post-pandemic world look like for engineers and city planners? That was an underlying theme behind a series of five webinars held last year by the Los Angeles Headquarters Association, a business-membership organization that promotes economic growth in Los Angeles County.
Starting in late July and finishing in mid-November, the Los Angeles Recovery Series focused on “re-envisioning our cities” in the aftermath of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice protests that followed the killing of George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis. Each webinar focused on one of the following: urban design and planning, development, city leaders, community, and mobility.
Katherine Perez, an associate principal in the Los Angeles office of the international engineering firm Arup, moderated the urban design and planning, development, and mobility webinars. In each discussion, panelists emphasized the need to promote greater equity and inclusion within the design profession and within the projects generated by those professionals.
During the urban design and planning session, Perez noted that design professionals need to examine the “systemic problems” in the land use decisions that traditionally have determined where certain public facilities — from parks to freeways — would be constructed. Such decisions often had “disproportionate impacts on communities of color,” Perez explained.
These decisions were often influenced by the people able to attend the planning meetings with “the time and resources to advocate for their plans,” noted Helen Leung, a planning commissioner for the city of Los Angeles and a co-executive director of LA Más, which advocates for neighborhood resilience, especially in “working class communities of color.” Leung called for designers and planners to seek out the views of “people who have not traditionally had a voice in these matters.”
Kush Parekh, an associate principal at the design firm Studio-MLA, noted that people living in single-family homes were experiencing the pandemic differently than those living in more densely populated neighborhoods. “The pandemic has brought out some inherent inequalities,” he explained. Moreover, the design of public spaces — often intended to bring people closer together in social experiences — has flipped during the pandemic because of concerns over safety and the need for social distancing.
Christopher Hawthorne, the chief design officer in the Los Angeles mayor’s office, pointed out the need for balance in how the pandemic was being addressed in the public realm. For example, allowing restaurants to expand into public spaces, such as on sidewalks or in streets, to create more outdoor dining opportunities served as a “lifeline for restaurant owners,” he said. But the same measures presented challenges for some people unable to afford eating at those restaurants who were “just trying to move through their own neighborhood,” Hawthorne explained.
Achieving such balance is difficult. “The day of a small restaurant with no outdoor space is over in Los Angeles,” predicted Tom Gilmore, the CEO of the real estate developer Gilmore Associates, during the webinar on development. Gilmore also noted that the problem of homelessness in Los Angeles had just been gaining crucial attention when the pandemic struck and “took a lot of the oxygen out of the room.” But the pandemic will eventually end, he said, while homelessness will still need to be addressed.
A different sort of balance was at work in two projects discussed by the other development panelists. Lee Raagas, the CEO of Skid Row Housing Trust, a nonprofit organization that works to provide permanent stable housing for the homeless, discussed an innovative project that will combine housing units with an on-site medical clinic. Likewise, Ricardo Pagan, the founder of development firm Claridge Properties, highlighted a planned luxury skyscraper that will also house a school and include affordable apartments as a community benefit.
During the mobility webinar, Dylan Jones, director of the mobility lab at the architectural firm Gensler, discussed how smartphones and other technologies have created new choices and modes of transportation for people. Jones suggested that the concept of transit-oriented development was shifting toward a more broadly defined mobility-oriented approach. Under that concept, mobility hubs might not just provide different modes of transportation, Jones suggested, they could become destinations themselves — perhaps by providing the technology for people lacking good broadband access at home to plug into the internet.
Justine Johnson, a mobility strategist at Ford Smart Mobility LLC, a subsidiary of the Ford Motor Co., discussed the concept of mobility as a service and the growing power — and contentiousness — of digital data that can be collected by vehicles and the surrounding transportation infrastructure. She also stressed the need for affordability in transportation networks to help ensure equity and provide greater choices.
George Kivork, a senior public policy manager at Lyft, discussed how various customers of his firm use both ride-sharing and public transit during an average week. Kivork also stressed the need for flexibility and adaptability among different modes of mobility. For example, a person who drives an electric vehicle to the airport must be able to find a charging station there, and someone who rides a bike to a bus stop to reach the same airport needs a safe place to leave that bike.
Although no engineers participated in the webinar panels, Perez has discussed the various topics of the series with her Arup colleagues. For too long, she notes, engineers have been part of an approach that essentially tells a community what it will be given — a new park, for instance — rather than trying to find out what the residents of the neighborhood actually want or need. Even worse, Perez explains, the decisions about where to locate freeways, landfills, or other less-desirable infrastructure “unevenly damaged diverse neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, at-risk neighborhoods.”
Moving forward, though, “engineers are fundamental” to issues of inclusion and equity because of “their innovation, their creativity,” Perez says. At various city bureaus of engineering, she adds, engineers tell her they would like to have data-driven systems — similar to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green building rating system — to measure equity achievements.
Paul Moore, P.E., a principal in Arup’s integrated planning practice, stresses that engineers often control the budgets for infrastructure work, especially for transportation projects. “Lots of funding goes through state and city (departments of transportation) that are usually run and staffed by engineers,” Moore says. “So, while policymakers and planners can have fantastic ideas and intentions about how to reshape cities, it’s engineers who are often empowered to implement the ideas.”
In some locations, Perez notes, bus stops are designed essentially for what she describes as a 30-year-old white man — even though women, especially those of color and/or with young children, are more likely to ride the bus.
That scenario can lead to a design that fails to meet the needs of the actual users, Moore notes. “Your perspective as a designer can really influence what you see as the basics in the design of that bus stop,” he explains. For example, a hypothetical 30-year-old white male might not feel that “standing in the dark at night is a threatening situation,” Moore says. “Or maybe you’re young, and so standing in July sunlight for 15 minutes isn’t a big deal.” But considering “the full set of who might be using this bus stop is really important to making sure that the actual basic necessities are in place,” Moore stresses.
To help ensure that engineering projects are implemented in a more equitable manner, Arup uses the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as a general framework, notes Erin McConahey, P.E., an Arup fellow and principal. For specific projects, Arup also relies on its own social equity toolkit — developed internally by the firm’s planning team — to help evaluate projects. The toolkit was created in 2019 and provides “the kinds of questions you might want to ask the variety of stakeholders so that you get a more well-rounded picture of what their needs are prior to progressing with development of the project,” McConahey explains. “So as the design of the development moves forward, it adds information that may not be as quantitative as an engineer would usually feel comfortable with but still is as important as the numerical outcomes that we would usually be developing through engineering analysis.”
A key consideration involves any secondary impacts that might affect the local community, McConahey says. The toolkit helps engineers consider the project “from a value-chain point of view, asking to whom does the value accrue? And to whom do the adverse effects (cause) burden?” she explains.