When 105 high school sophomores came together with urban planning students, professors and professionals at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, everyone in the room stood to benefit.
The students came from two central Los Angeles schools as part of Gear Up 4 LA, a federally funded program to put underserved students on the road to college.
The adults were there to support this mission but also to address the vexing lack of diversity in their field.
Many young people aren’t familiar with urban planning as a major or career path, said Rodrigo Garcia, who got his master’s degree in urban planning at UCLA Luskin in 2015, a transportation specialist with Alta Planning + Design. As part of the firm’s pro bono work, Garcia collaborates with schools across Los Angeles with the aim of diversifying the field.
“We want to urge these kids to have an impact, to make changes in their community” regardless of which career they choose, Garcia said.
Alta Planning hosted the March 22 event with the Luskin School’s Planners of Color for Social Equity and Urban Planning Womxn of Color Collective. UCLA Luskin professors Kian Goh, Chris Tilly and Goetz Wolff shared their expertise on the opportunities and challenges that planners face.
Two hours into the program, one student asked a question that many were likely thinking: “What is the exact definition of ‘urban planning’?”
“I get the same question from my mom,” said Mayra Torres, a fourth-year student majoring in sociology and minoring in urban and regional studies.
“If this were a class, I could spend the next 45 minutes having a discussion about this,” Goh said. The best way to think about the mission of urban planners, she said, is to “envision a better city, a better society, and how to get there from here.”
Sixteen-year-old Paola Flores was unfamiliar with the field before the event but left wanting to know more. She was impressed by a workshop led by Alta Planning’s Kevin Johnson, who got his master’s in urban planning in 2017, who asked the students to chew over a planning issue, then create a meme, gif or Instagram story to communicate their ideas — all in an hour’s time.
“It taught me something new,” Flores said. “I didn’t realize how improving public transportation could actually make rent go up.”
Flores attends West Adams Preparatory High School in the largely Latino and immigrant community of Pico-Union. Students from UCLA Community School at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Koreatown were also at the event.
“We want to build a college-going culture in our community,” said David Gantt, the RFK site coordinator for Gear Up, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.
Beginning in middle school, Gear Up guides low-income, first-generation and minority students through each step on the path to a higher education, Gantt said. Counselors work one-on-one with each student, and workshops show families how to read high school transcripts, interpret PSAT results and apply for financial aid, among other services. In some cases, the support extends through the freshman year of college.
Gear Up “makes you feel like you’re family, with arms wide open,” Flores said. Earlier this year, counselors detected that her grades were flagging, she said. They called her in, gave her a pep talk and “now I have all As except for one B.”
Gear Up students visit college campuses across Southern California, West Adams site coordinator Danny Tran said, but he believed this was the first group to visit an urban planning program.
“Students who want to build bridges or design roads might think they need an engineering degree, especially with the current emphasis on STEM,” Tran said.
The UCLA Luskin session introduced them to another path.
Greg Maher, a principal at Alta Planning who volunteered at the event, said he hoped the diverse group of students would get hooked on urban planning.
“This field is very white and very male. It drives me crazy,” said Maher, who received a B.F.A. in design and certificate in landscape architecture from UCLA.
“We need to recruit and retain more planners of color,” agreed Raisa Ma, a graduate studying for her master’s degree in urban planning and one of several UCLA Luskin urban planning students on hand to mentor the high schoolers. They included Marlene Salazar, who moderated a panel that included the three faculty members, undergrad Torres and master’s in urban planning candidates Jacob Woocher and Jesus Peraza.
“I want you to know you can get an education, you can get a degree and change the world you live in,” Torres told the students.
Tilly noted that, as high school sophomores, “it’s early to decide, ‘Yes, I definitely want to be an urban planner.’” But he encouraged all the students to embrace both big ideas and on-the-ground issues in their communities. “That will be great for being an urban planner but also for being a responsible citizen in a society that needs a lot more responsible citizens stepping up.”