April 1, 2001 - From the April, 2001 issue

USC Dean Fleshes Out Urban Vision For School's Program

If it's true that metropolitan problems are best solved at the regional level, why then do our institutions of higher learning insist on teaching future leaders in an environment with rigid departmental boundaries? Dan Mazmanian, Dean of USC's School of Policy, Planning, and Development spoke to TPR and clarified why USC had altered this historic teaching paradigm and formed an integral collaborative between departments to train future leaders, not merely to understand the constituent elements of their chosen profession, but how those elements relate to the public, private and nonprofit sectors around them.


Dean Dan Mazmanian

Dan, you were recently installed as Dean of USC's newly created School of Policy, Planning, and Development. Could you give our readers a little background into what binds these three distinct programs together?

USC spent a good deal of time in the 90s on planning a number of critical pathways for the University's future. One particular path that applies directly to the new school is "the urban initiative"-which is intended to focus attention on the needs and development of Los Angeles as a major urban setting and laboratory for studying and understanding urban development in the 21st Century. As a way of embracing this new challenge, the University combined the resources, people and programs from the School of Public Administration and the School of Planning and Development into the new school of Policy, Planning, and Development. We are dedicated to understanding and addressing in a more integrated manner the challenges of public sector management, governance, planning and development and policy analysis, as well as how best to bridge interests at the intersect of the public, private and philanthropic sectors.

Give us an idea of the key programs at SPPD that involve the fields of policy, planning and development.

Let's start with the increasingly important issue of health care. The reality of today's healthcare system requires that managers and leaders not only have an understanding of good management practice, but what it means to operate organizationally at the intersect of the public, private and not-for-profit sectors today. In recognition, we're bringing into the curriculum practices from the realms of business, public administration and policy and underscoring the holistic nature of this rapidly evolving field.

This situation is as true in our real estate development degree program, where we seek to find better ways of incorporating into thinking and practice the growing needs of environmental protection, recreation and open space, transportation. Without adding an appreciation of these expanding issues-and the demand they place on real estate development professionals-it is difficult to imagine how we are going to successfully absorb the millions of new residents who will be added to the state and region over the decades to come.

These are but two examples of how we're beginning to take advantage of the breadth of faculty interests and resources in the new school.

The readers of The Planning Report are involved in real estate, land use and infrastructure investment in both the public and private sectors. What are the resources, talents and skills here in SPPD that they should be aware of?

We are very fortunate to have one of the most exciting professional degree programs in the country in our Master of Real Estate Development. Through it we are training an entire generation of future leaders through classes offered in SPPD and in conjunction with the Marshall School of Business.

In addition to our academic curriculum, we have the USC LUSK Center for Real Estate and Development, which provides a research window and link to the practitioners in the field through conferences, state-of-the-art summits and funded research.

USC recently received national acclaim for its outreach efforts in the surrounding community of Exposition Park, but lets continue to focus on SPPD. How are you using this school and the living laboratory of Los Angeles to not only teach students about the necessity of linking transportation, land-use and social capital, but really help shape the region over the next 20-25 years?

The school has received a great deal of notoriety for its creative way of contributing to the neighborhood and working with neighborhood organizations through direct neighborhood participation, especially of our students and our teaching programs.

One of the more innovative teaching opportunities is a recently initiated program that reaches across the Schools of Education, Architecture, Social Work and Policy, Planning, and Development to create a new curriculum we call "the neighborhood lab seminars." These seminars encourage faculty and students to draw ideas from their respective fields and then work within our actual neighborhood to develop innovative programs where the University and its students can contribute directly and constructively in the community.

Many of the policy challenges facing Los Angeles and these neighborhoods in the near future are environmental, i.e. the Cornfield and the L.A. River, as well both a projected 5.5 million additional people and the absence of any systematic framework for regional planning. What, therefore, is the link between such challenges and the academic work being done at SPPD?

You've touched on one our School's major ambitions and admittedly major challenges. Part of the rationale for creating the School was to think more comprehensively about regional issues. We now have faculty members focused on issues of transportation, housing, comprehensive urban planning, most of whom are directly involved in research in these areas. Yet, our capability to engage in the environmental dimensions of planning and development are currently rather limited.

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In the January issue of our sister publication Metro Investment Report, Prof. Steven Erie, Director of the Urban Studies and Planning Program at SDSU, offered the following observation about academic engagement with California's regional challenges: "The incentives inside academia, particularly in mainline social science departments, are not to appreciate and reward interdisciplinary applied research. Instead, they favor abstract theory and methodology." Is Prof. Erie on the mark here? And how do you change the culture of institutions like SPPD to be more responsive to the public/private needs of the day?

Prof. Erie has characterized reasonably well the evolution of social science programs over the course of the last 30 years. But, like all such trends they foster their own counter-trends. And while most research universities still reward scholarship that is theoretically oriented, there's an important and pressing need to link that theory with practice.

Frankly, I see the crux of the matter as less one of faculty interest and "professional incentives" as one of time availability. Faculty are asked to publish more widely than ever before, attract research support, be superior teachers plus immerse themselves in the community and contribute to the civic enterprise. That's quite a bit different from the job just a mere 25 years ago, when faculty could choose to concentrate in one of those areas at most. What suffers today, is good empirically based, well informed, community-based understanding.

Part of the story does involve research funding, as Prof. Erie mentions. Yet, research funding channels are changing today, possibly faster than research faculty have been able to adjust. Granting agents are beginning to emphasize more so local and regional needs, civic enterprises and place-based research. And, I assure you that with the growth in funding opportunities, faculty members will find a way to make time for applied, locally-focused research projects.

Dean Mazmanian, you've recently accepted an appointment to be on Assembly Speaker Hertzberg's Commission on Regionalism and you also serve on the Board of the California Center for Regional Stewardship. Are these personal commitments examples of how you want your faculty to partner with those outside the University?

My experience with a variety of these policy areas suggests that we need to think about solutions at a new scale-and that scale is regional. We talk about Los Angeles as being a living laboratory, but the City or the County alone can not provide the proper solutions, it's going to have to come from the regional level. The region is a scale we must come to terms with in transportation, housing, jobs, environmental protection and healthcare provision. And finding solutions at the regional level will require a new sense of community and mutual interest across many of the traditional boundaries of our neighborhoods, cities and counties. Without doing so, we will not be able to adequately grapple with today's issues.

The L.A. Mayor's race will head into a run-off in the next couple of months, with similar elections taking place throughout California. But missing from those discussions are often the themes and issues that your faculty, Centers and Departments are engaged in. What explains the disconnect between the debates that go on in the civic and political arena and those that go on in the campuses that you're so familiar with and active on?

Politicians running for election are pretty much compelled by the nature of our electoral process to focus on issues that directly relate to the interest of voters in a specific electoral district. This is simply one of the realities of our democratic process. However, as most in office before them have learned, many of the most pressing issues in the L.A. region can't be addressed within the boundaries of a narrow electoral district or even local community. That leads us back to the need for regional strategies, that reach across the public, private and nonprofit sectors of society.

TPR recently excerpted a USC panel discussion arising out of your installation ceremony as Dean. The panel was asked by Kevin Starr to articulate a meta-narrative to guide future growth in our region, to increase quality of life and to capture Los Angeles' efforts to be a more integrated city, both socially and economically. Could you give our readers your response to such a query? What is your version of such a meta-narrative?

L.A. has come to appreciate the enormity of the challenges facing our communities. Faltering provision of education, health care, policing, environmental protection, an overburdened sanitation system and a lack of parks and open space are all very real concerns that politics and policymaking has not been able to adequately resolve. The "meta-narrative," says we must think more boldly, differently and intelligently. It is about smarter growth, and more sustainable communities. In this sense, it is really quite provocative. I would ask the question: "Can we imagine going forward without changing the ways in which we conduct policy and addresses major issues? Is it feasible to imagine adding 5-7 million people without improving our public education system, our urban infrastructure and our housing?"

You can call it "Smart Growth," "Quality of Life" or "Sustainable Development," but it all comes down to living more in harmony with one another and in balance with nature's limitations.

Lastly, as the first full-time Dean of the newly merged departments, share with us what you hope your school will be like in 5 years as a result of your Dean-ship and the cooperative and collegiality of the faculty members, overseers, students and others that constitute USC's SPPD program.

The School has a commitment to bringing together the most thoughtful and creative people to focus on urban issues. The students, faculty and community leaders who engage with us want to make a contribution to Los Angeles and to California, yet many also have aspirations that will take them to other urban areas across the nation and around the globe. But we all come together in the School, viewing Los Angeles as a laboratory for experimentation and learning, and a model of the contemporary 21st century city-region. We are on an exciting venture, and a very consequential one.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.