Illustrations by Dennis Lan For USC Dornsife Magazine


From earthquake safety to community health, USC Dornsife research is shaping Los Angeles life, policy and design.
ByEmily Gersema

For most of its nearly 140 years, USC has been conducting research in Los Angeles.

The institution and the city have grown up together. As L.A. expanded, so did the research opportunities at USC.

Many of the 966 researchers at USC Dornsife have spearheaded projects across the metropolitan area that help Angelenos better understand themselves, and scholars to better understand humans, including their behaviors and their needs. The work of some USC Dornsife researchers is even guiding the city toward improvements in areas such as earthquake preparedness, urban design and maintenance and affordable housing communities.

What the researchers have learned, and will discover in studies to come, may save lives.

Brace for the big one

In 2015, the L.A. City Council approved laws requiring property owners to reinforce as many as 15,000 buildings built before 1978 to reduce their risk of damage during an earthquake. The requirements, with a seven-year deadline for compliance, came years after scientists signaled a dire warning about the region’s lack of earthquake preparedness.

In 2008, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and several institutions affiliated with USC Dornsife’s Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), teamed up to develop simulations for a 7.8 magnitude temblor on the southern San Andreas Fault.

Several studies on the impact of this potential earthquake projected a dire picture. Scientists estimated 1,800 people would die and 53,000 would be injured. The quake would cause a cascade of infrastructural failures, including 200 million square feet in damaged or collapsed buildings. Water would be shut off for months, raising other public health risks. Economic losses would top $190 billion.

“It was a plausible large scenario earthquake, but it was not intended to represent the worst case,” said Christine Goulet, executive science director for special projects at SCEC and a USC Dornsife research scientist.

Concerned, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti assembled a seismic task force to estimate the number and types of buildings built before 1980 that were at greatest risk of significant damage from a large quake. The results were published in the panel’s report, Resilience by Design, and, in 2015, spurred the City Council’s adoption of earthquake retrofit requirements to better prepare the city for “The Big One.” The city hired a resilience officer.

The results also led SCEC to launch an emergency preparedness exercise, “ShakeOut: The World’s Largest Earthquake Drill,” which is held each fall for people living in earthquake-vulnerable areas. The ShakeOut exercise, currently reaches over 50 million international participants yearly. The exercise involves people practicing basic personal safety and rehearsing the “drop, cover and hold on” technique that involves protecting their heads and seeking shelter within their offices, classrooms or homes, such as under tables or desks, during a quake. To reduce risk of injury, SCEC also urges people to remove heavy or potentially harmful items from tall shelves and cabinets and to properly secure furniture that might topple over.

“There is the science, there is the engineering, and that needs to make it to policy and public education,” said Goulet. “If you don’t have all of those working together, then there is no societal impact from the science. This ShakeOut scenario is a good example of how it does take good science to make progress, but it takes more than just that to make the world a safer place.”

If a tree falls, the forest shrinks

For an example of how L.A. functions as a laboratory, see the work of USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute (SSI) researcher Travis Longcore, assistant professor of architecture, spatial sciences and biological sciences and USC Dornsife SSI lecturer Su Jin Lee. Last year, Lee and Longcore led a study revealing that 20 cities across the Los Angeles Basin lost a significant amount of shade from 2000 to 2009, at a rate of more than 1 percent per year. 

With all the cranes dotting the L.A.-area horizon, many people would be quick to assume the trend is driven just by large-scale construction of apartment complexes, office buildings or hotels. But Longcore and his colleagues found that all forms of construction and renovation —
including on single-family properties — have stripped out urban shrubs and trees.

Some areas experienced a more significant loss than others. Baldwin Park, for example, saw a 55 percent loss of green cover on single-family residential lots — from 70 percent to 31 percent — over nine years. Other areas in the study that had at least 20 percent loss in shade, due to all forms of construction, included Pomona, Downey, Sylmar, Compton, and San Pedro/Port of Los Angeles.

Longcore says he and study collaborator Catherine Rich of The Urban Wildlands Group, who is also his spouse, were certain of the trend years ago, when they first wrote up plans for the research project.

“It didn’t take any data to know that the problem — the disappearance of trees and shrubs — was occurring,” Longcore says. “The paper has sparked a bit of activism in Los Angeles because it confirmed what people knew intuitively: that for all the city-led efforts around tree planting, L.A. was getting less green.”

Los Angeles plans to write an urban forest plan that might restore some of the lost shade that helps convert carbon into oxygen and cools neighborhoods, Longcore said.

SSI Director John P. Wilson, professor of sociology, civil and environmental engineering, computer science, architecture and preventive medicine, who worked on the study with Longcore, is working to create an app that Angelenos can use to report damaged or dying trees across their community to assist the city with saving the trees.

Trading spaces for better health

Eight miles south of USC’s University Park campus, in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood, an estimated 2,200 residents await the completion of what will become their new home. The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles(HACLA), with at least $18.5 million from the state and millions more from federal and local sources, has been building a $1 billion, 1,400-unit affordable housing community on a cleaned-up, former industrial property directly next door to the residents’ current home, Jordan Downs.

Originally built in 1944 near Alameda Avenue and 97th streets, Jordan Downs’ two-story stucco buildings have been home to several generations of impoverished families. At the center of the 1965 Watts riots and as a flash point for the 1992 Rodney King riots, Jordan Downs is a testament of failed housing policies that exacerbated — rather than alleviated — racial tensions and disparities.

Public housing communities like Jordan Downs are hotspots of social, economic and health disparities — violent crime, poor school test scores, poverty with low employment, drug abuse, and high rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Ashlesha Datar, a senior economist at USC Dornsife’s Center for Economic and Social Research, is interested in monitoring the changes in the residents as they move to determine how people’s environments may influence their health and well-being. Her prior work indicates that environments can be a much greater factor in community health than previously thought.

Earlier this year, Datar and a colleague, Nancy Nicosia of The RAND Corp., found that military families assigned to U.S. bases in communities with higher rates of obesity were more likely themselves to be overweight or obese.

Their findings raised a key question: Could obesity and other related health issues be managed or reversed just by moving a whole community to a different complex with better amenities and healthier people? Over the next five years and with $6 million from the National Institutes of Health, Datar and her research team aim to find out.

Jordan Downs is one of L.A.’s “build first” projects, in which the city first develops a new community before moving the public housing residents out of the dilapidated old buildings. The community, expected to be completed in the next few years, will feature brand new housing, a state-of-the-art gymnasium and a retail center with a supermarket within the complex, along with several other enhancements to improve the community’s walkability and social interaction. Moreover, doubling the housing in the community will bring in new residents. City officials hope it will result in what scientists refer to as a “whole-of-community intervention” — a transformation that extends far beyond aesthetic improvement and curbside appeal.

Perhaps at the new Jordan Downs, residents will regularly jog on the treadmills or squeeze in a round of weightlifting. Instead of the typical high-sugar, high-fat fare at the convenience store, they’ll reach for an apple, carrots or other fresh foods at the new supermarket.
Maybe the move will lead some residents to find new jobs or make new social connections.

“It’s incredibly hard to move people out of poverty,” Datar said. “Interventions are typically just influencing one aspect of their lives. It’s not clear if you improve one aspect, will all of it change?”

With HACLA’s permission and the assistance of a local community health researcher, Cynthia Gonzales, of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Watts, Datar and her team have begun inviting hundreds of households to participate in the study. For a baseline comparison, the research team also is gathering similar health and well-being information from 150 households in two other L.A. public housing communities, Nickerson Gardens and Imperial Courts.

The team is asking residents to provide information about their health and other indicators of well-being for each of the next five years. The research team will also check participants’ body mass index — a measure of healthy and unhealthy weight. 

City housing officials look forward to Datar’s findings because they will reveal whether L.A.’s “build first” approach could be a national model for healthy community design.

“The USC Jordan Downs Health Study represents an important effort in understanding the health impacts of public housing revitalization that emphasizes improvements to the built environment and housing quality on the residents who live there,” Guthrie says. “This study is critical to understanding the role that housing environments can have on a person’s health and well-being.”

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine’s Fall 2018/Winter 2019 issue >>