Inspired by Los Angeles, researcher takes a new approach to urban planning

August 4, 2014

by Zach Wener-Fligner
Inspired by Los Angeles, researcher takes a new approach to urban planning

John Arroyo conducting research about art, culture, and civic space at the historic confluence of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco in Northeast Los Angeles. Credit: Allegra Boverman
John Arroyo’s first exposure to the 51-mile, concrete-walled Los Angeles River came in riding mass transit downtown from his East Los Angeles home, past a riverside cityscape of industrial structures, graffiti, and piles of debris.

Yet despite the river’s hard-knock appearance, it has been a center of creative expression for artists. When Arroyo left Los Angeles in 2008 to pursue a master’s in city planning at MIT, he continued looking critically at the river as a new paradigm of urban planning.

“Although my community saw relatively little promise in the river’s ecological future, they saw great potential in its ability to elicit cultural engagement,” Arroyo wrote in the preface to his 2010 thesis, “Culture in Concrete: Art and the Re-imagination of the Los Angeles River as Civic Space.”

Today Arroyo is a doctoral student and Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). A self-described “nontraditional” urban planner, his work before grad school as a journalist and as a longtime arts advocate has encouraged him to incorporate methods from ethnography, sociology, and critical cartography into his research.

“At a very basic level, it’s recognizing that there are different specific physical, social, and cultural needs that planners, designers, and policymakers must pay attention to,” Arroyo says. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all sort of situation.”

For planners to accommodate diversity, they need to understand the people they’re planning for. That’s where Arroyo’s research—which has involved Mexican immigrants from urban and rural environments, and even transient populations of Mexican immigrants who are so closely tied to their homes that their communities become campaign stops for Mexican politicians—comes in.

This means, he says, that planners should take greater care to understand the needs and wants of various groups before actually planning for them. Arroyo’s research has revealed how transnational Mexican migration has dramatically influenced the built environment on both sides of the border—something he calls “place bilingualism.”

Existing streams of thought often assume, he says, that Mexican immigrants all want the same things, and the same civic environments. “And my research is saying, ‘I don’t know if we can say that,’” Arroyo says. “Do people want public spaces that remind them of their place of origin? Which physical dimensions of their lives in the U.S. do they export back to Mexico? When and how do people develop a sense of agency, or become complacent, when faced with a radically different built environment, compared to what was previously familiar?

“Before we’re reactive, I’d like to be proactive so that we know what we don’t know,” Arroyo adds. “It requires a fundamental change, behaviorally, in the way planners work. People are living in the city; plans and policies should be dictated by them, especially when it comes to the built environment. That can be scary for a planner who’s used to having control.”

Close to home

Much of the inspiration for Arroyo’s research comes from his personal experiences. By the time he entered high school, he realized that the name of his unincorporated East Los Angeles neighborhood provoked a reaction in people.

It was a neighborhood that some might call “tough” or “blighted”; Arroyo calls it “underresourced.” He lived with his family in a small two-bedroom house that accommodated up to 20 people during the agricultural season, when relatives migrated from central Mexico to work transient jobs picking strawberries and oranges. Gang violence often kept Arroyo indoors; when he did get out, he found a concrete environment with few parks and little greenery.

Yet despite its imperfections, Arroyo was infatuated by his neighborhood. He attended Loyola High, a top-ranked Jesuit school that attracted students from all over Los Angeles; for many classmates, Arroyo’s neighborhood was just a place they heard mentioned on the news. One message about his humble upbringing was drilled into his head over and over, he says: “All you need to do is get out. When you get the opportunity, just go and never look back.”

“I didn’t necessarily agree with that,” Arroyo says. He loved the vibrant Mexican community, and the artistic and culinary cultures. He decided to attend the University of Southern California as an undergraduate so that he could stay in Los Angeles and look more closely at “troubled” neighborhoods. “Was L.A. really as bad as everyone said?” he asks. “Or was it really much better, filled with lots of potential?”

Not just on paper

“A lot of planning schools have become policy schools. They’re disconnected from design,” Arroyo says. “MIT is so applied. You don’t have to lose sight of how both policy and design affect professional practice. Not only do you not have to—you should not.”

Arroyo has stayed on the front lines of urban arts culture and advocacy. He has worked with the Los Angeles Urban Rangers, a group of artists and advocates who lead tours showcasing some of the city’s lesser-known natural and urban features. He has also worked with an MIT group called the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), which showcases research by DUSP students in an informal, applied manner via CoLab Radio. Many of the projects he’s worked on for CoLab—capturing soundscapes in European cities, or interviewing longtime residents of Los Angeles’ Skid Row—return him to his journalistic roots.

“Someone once asked: ‘Are you a journalist, or are you a planner?’” Arroyo says. “After I came to MIT, I wondered, ‘Why can’t I be both?’ Storytelling has such a major purpose in what we’re doing.”

It seems fitting that Arroyo’s latest project has returned him to Los Angeles and its eponymous river. Known as Play the LA River, it was started by Project 51, a group of artists and scholars whose goal is to inspire civic engagement with the river. Starting this September, the collective will hold events large and small to draw people to sites all along the river.



IDFC Sees Singh Pre-Election Construction Boost: Corporate India

December 17, 2013

By Anto Antony and George Smith Alexander

IDFC CEO Vikram Limaye
Vikram Limaye, chief executive officer of IDFC Ltd., poses for a photograph in Mumbai. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg 

IDFC Ltd. (IDFC), a financing company that is India’s largest lender to road projects, expects the government to take steps to boost investment in infrastructure projects before elections next year.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administration may accelerate approvals for highways and utilities to help revive economic growth from a decade low, IDFC Chief Executive Officer Vikram Limaye said in a Dec. 9 interview. The government may allow electricity tariffs to rise, paving the way for power projects delayed by imported coal that is about four times the price of the fuel available locally, he said.

Polls before a national election due by May signal the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party is poised to wrest control of government from Singh’s Congress party-led coalition. The premier has been under pressure to improve an infrastructure that is ranked below Kazakhstan and Guatemala by the World Economic Forum and holding back expansion in Asia’s third-biggest economy.

 “Certain tactical steps to de-bottleneck the system are what we expect in the next few months,” Limaye said. “There are a lot of projects that are stuck in the last mile which can be cleared, and you can send a signal regarding being effective in terms of project-related matters.”

Borrowing Slows

The highest interest rates among the largest Asian economies have curtailed borrowing for construction projects. An inflation rate that has exceeded an average 10 percent this year has prompted the central bank to raise its benchmark interest rate twice since September.

IDFC’s loan book grew 3 percent in the 12 months to Sept. 30 — 12 times slower than a year earlier — as the lack of new infrastructure projects curbed demand for credit, exchange filings show. The company’s lending

Loans for roads and power projects account for more than 66 percent of the 560 billion rupees ($9 billion) in total lending at the Mumbai-based company, according to an investor presentation on the company’s website. IDFC’s loan book has declined in value from 566 billion rupees in March.

Infrastructure-development companies are selling assets and not starting new projects as the delay in regulatory approval hurts cash flow. GMR Infrastructure Ltd. (GMRI), an Indian builder of roads, utilities and airports, sold 74 percent of its GMR Ulundurpet Expressways unit to IDFC’s Indian Infrastructure Fund for 2.22 billion rupees, according to an exchange filing in September.

Selling Assets

IVRCL Ltd. (IVRC) agreed in April to sell its holdings in three toll roads and said it planned to divest stakes in more projects. Madhucon Projects Ltd. (MDHPJ), a builder of roads and electricity plants based in Hyderabad, plans to raise as much as 19 billion rupees by selling stakes in its highway projects, S. Vaikuntanathan, an adviser to the company, said in June.

“Our view was that infrastructure will be a secular growth story for the next 20 years in India,” Limaye said. “But now we realize that it can be quite volatile. With the rigorous implementation of announcements, we can bring it back on the growth path.”

IDFC shares have dropped 38 percent this year, while those of IVRCL and Madhucon have plunged more than 65 percent, compared with the S&P BSE Sensex index’s 6.8 percent gain. Hyderabad-based IVRCL has reported losses in four out of the past five quarters, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Madhucon posted higher profit in the three months to September, halting a nine-quarter stretch of year-on-year declines.

‘More Bleak’

“Profitability of these companies for the fiscal year ending March 2014 is more bleak than ever, and investors have kept away from investing in this sector,” Sunil Shah, head of research at Axis Securities Ltd., said by phone on Dec. 12. “The opportunity to invest in the infrastructure sector is for the brave-heart investor.”

Loans for power-related construction have been reduced amid domestic coal production hampered by delayed environmental approvals. That’s raised generation costs for utilities forced to rely on imported coal costing about four times the average price paid to Coal India Ltd. (COAL), the state-owned monopoly, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and obtained from Coal India’s website.

Removing Hurdles

The country needs to allow companies to raise rates to boost electricity generation, Limaye said. IDFC had more than 250 billion rupees of loans outstanding with power projects as of Sept. 30, little changed from a year earlier, exchange filings show.

Prime Minister Singh, who set up a panel in January to speed up infrastructure projects, said on Aug. 15 that steps are being taken to remove hurdles in the way of stalled projects.

“Investors and the market are yet to factor into the pricing the way in which infrastructure projects are being fast-tracked now,” Deepak Agarwala, an analyst at Elara Securities Ltd., said by phone on Dec. 12. “It will take 18 months before the steps by the government will translate into company profitability.”

The BJP, India’s main opposition party, will win 162 of parliament’s 545 seats, up from the 116 it holds now, with its six-party alliance taking 186, according to a poll by the C-voter polling agency, India TV and Times Now television published in October, the most recent available. The survey of 24,284 people showed the Congress-led coalition winning 117 seats — about half its current total — with other parties winning the rest.

“In the next few months, we expect that various tariff orders will be passed, clearances for projects will be given and announcements made by the government will be rigorously implemented to bolster sentiment,” Limaye said. “Many infrastructure projects are stuck in the last stages and clearing them will improve cash flows to developers.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Anto Antony in Mumbai at [email protected]; George Smith Alexander in Mumbai at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Darren Boey at [email protected]