The Social Nature of Hard Infrastructure: Urban Design, Transportation, and Environment

Research Team: PI: Kian Goh Team:

About this project:

This project takes on transportation and urban climate futures by focusing on social and ecological questions of transportation infrastructure prompted by the GND and how to design for them. Questions about what to do with infrastructure are caught between rubrics of efficiency, sustainability, and social impact. Given the climate change and social justice imperatives of the GND, how do planners, city managers, and community groups understand and make decisions about long-term, large-cost transportation infrastructure in ways that are environmentally and socially transformative?

This research addresses this by focusing on the intersection of urban design, environmental ethnography, and transportation planning. It proceeds in two parts: The first is a spatial ethnography of regions confronting unjust impacts from old infrastructure. It looks at two case studies in the LA area: Boyle Heights and Long Beach, two sites often cited as having among the worst impacts of transportation networks. The second is the development of a theoretical framework to imagine new transportation futures, bridging the social sciences and the urban design fields.

It takes its cue from two research models: One is Kevin Lynch’s ideas about the image of the city, and his work with Appleyard and Myers on highway design. This work is often held up as an example of research that ties the social and spatial complexity of cities with projective visions about what ought to be. How would we consider parallel issues about cities and movement today? The second model borrows from environmental anthropology and science and technology studies, particularly about methods of ethnographic research that examine the intertwined concerns of space, society, ecology, and technology.

The research proposes to better understand contested social and environmental conditions of the present, investigate the possible bounds of desired outcomes of the future, and delineate how to get there from here.

What problem does this research aim to address?

The urgency of climate change and the emergence of a grassroots-legislative political-environmental movement in the US should change the way planners understand and design urban transportation. In February 2019, the US Congress announced a resolution for the Green New Deal (GND), a set of policies to drive renewable energy and the low-carbon economy and eradicate poverty while protecting against climate change. Transportation infrastructure was a prominent part of the original 1930s New Deal, including projects such as highways and bridges. Transportation is now a critical part of any broad effort to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. To what extent do we understand the potential of a Green New Deal, with its environmental and social goals, to remake the way we move through cities and regions? The GND, long on aspiration and short on detail, cites removing pollution and GHG emissions through zero emissions vehicles, public transit, and high-speed rail. But accomplishing its lofty goals will demand more than technological advances and allusions to transportation desirables and best practices. It will depend on whether planners are able to understand the contested social and spatial conditions of the present and envision more sustainable and just futures.

What are the expected impacts and benefits of the research?

The research project will result in the following deliverables. As required by this grant, a final report detailing the activities and findings, and a policy brief summarizing them, will be produced. In addition, I expect to deliver an academic research article detailing the research and findings proposed here, as well as a review article on urban design and infrastructure planning in the context of climate change. These findings will be presented at at least one academic conference, likely the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning conference.

Further, the project will result in a set of speculative design proposals for the sites considered. On the one hand, these are part of the research design and analysis. On the other hand, they are also work products of their own, useful to gauge the bounds of possibilities and serve as more concrete idea documents around which discussions on decision making can occur.

I will be reaching out to public agencies including the LA City Sustainability Office (which just launched its “Green New Deal” with an update to the Sustainable City pLAn this year, the LA Metro sustainability office. These public agencies are substantially involved in the issues focused on here, and the research approach and findings, which lie somewhat outside their typical operations, would likely enhance their work. In addition, I will be reaching out to community organizations and stakeholders on the ground – certainly through the observation phase of the fieldwork. But as well after it, to discuss the findings and better ways for these organizations to discuss their social and political objectives.


By |October 3, 2019|Categories: Sustainable & Resilient Transportation
By |2019-10-03T17:13:08-07:00October 3rd, 2019|