USC Price School of Public Policy

Urban Policy

Critical Research Questions and Findings

In modern society, cities are the centers of innovation, international trade, arts and culture, and economic activity. This dynamism brings challenges as well as opportunities. Increased concentration of activities in urban areas has led to traffic congestion, air and water pollution, noise impact, and loss of habitat.

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Will the aging of baby boomers lead to a crash in the housing market?

While many have made such a prediction, Professor Richard K. Green — currently senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — says the evidence shows it will not. He points out that people tend to stay in their houses as they age, so it is doubtful that there will be a mass dumping of homes on the market. His research indicates that most seniors move only when forced to by declining health.

What do millennials and baby boomers have in common in the housing market?

Professor Dowell Myers has shown that baby boomers (who own nearly half of the homes in America) will need to find buyers when they sell their residences, and those will be younger people. Millennials are the largest generation and the greatest hope, but their potential as home owners is being stifled by a poor economy and difficult mortgage-lending regulations. Their success is vital to creating the future home buyers for the boomers.

Does the low-income housing tax credit function as intended?

Given the affordable housing crisis, it is critical that the low-income tax credit — the largest source of resources for rental and affordable housing — succeed in producing units in a wide range of neighborhoods. Professor Raphael Bostic is investigating if the incentives are set up effectively to ensure that low-income housing becomes available in diverse locations so people have more choices about where they live.

How do you effectively integrate transportation and housing policy with climate-change mitigation?

In collaboration with the Rio de Janeiro government, Professor Antonio Bento and his team are addressing how to design public policy that either makes housing more resistant to extreme climate episodes, such as excess rainfall, or that relocates slum dwellers to less vulnerable locations without closing off access to employment opportunities.

What impact does freight transportation in metropolitan areas have on how cities are organized?

Professor Genevieve Giuliano and her colleagues introduced the term “freight landscape” to provide a framework for better analysis of the challenges city centers present in moving goods. Using case studies of the greater Los Angeles region and the San Francisco Bay Area, she found similar results: Truck access is difficult, parking and loading are more limited, and external costs are higher because more people are affected. Giuliano’s freight-landscape research provides a practical first step for city planners to think more systematically and logically about urban freight.

How do investments in rail transit affect land development?

Professor Genevieve Giuliano finds no significant effects of transportation on urban land uses, including no major differences in employment or in changes in population density. She is now investigating changes in housing prices. So far, she concludes that market-based strategies are better mechanisms for dealing with transportation challenges than government policies.

What led to the turnaround in Downtown Los Angeles?

According to Associate Professor Christian Redfearn, the City of Los Angeles’ 1999 Adaptive Reuse Ordinance (ARO) expedited approvals for redeveloping downtown’s historic buildings. As housing prices rose in the region, the ARO became a key tool for turning old office buildings into apartments and condominiums, resulting in many thousands of new residents. The larger population downtown led to new restaurants and retail outlets, as well as more pedestrian traffic that improved public safety. Downtown Los Angeles is now a valued destination rather than a place to avoid. Good public policies like the ARO, the new Metro subway lines, and others have allowed entrepreneurial development to change downtown for the better.

How has the recession changed the rate of household formation?

Professor Gary Painter conducted a comprehensive analysis of the role of the economic cycle, labor market, and housing conditions on the formation of new households. He found that women and non-minorities have significantly higher probabilities of establishing independent households, and that parental resources play a mixed role. Higher financial and housing wealth increase the probability of a young adult establishing a renter and owner household respectively, but higher income of parents reduces the likelihood that a new renter household will form. The biggest surprise in this research was that immigrants, despite having lower than average income, were harmed less by the recent recession as measured by changes in housing outcomes and headship rates.

How can public spaces be better used to meet civic needs?

Drawing upon more than 15 years of fieldwork, Associate Professor Annette Kim has developed methods of spatial ethnography to create new ways of considering the sidewalk life inhabited by migrant vendors. Her 2015 book Sidewalk City provides the first multidisciplinary case study of sidewalks, focusing on Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City.

What is the relationship of private economic development investment to public safety?

Professor Raphael Bostic is examining whether ebbs and flows in crime lead to comparable decreases and increases in investment. If that is the case, researchers can provide advice about how to use our police system as an economic development tool and be more strategic in how resources are deployed.

Why is living in major cities so expensive?

Associate Professor Christian Redfearn points out that housing prices are the outcome of supply and demand. Cities that offer more opportunities for employment, restaurants, retail, museums, better schools, and transit will create more housing demand. Though natural geography may limit land, housing supply is often artificially limited by local land-use policies. Over time, if housing supply is not added, prices will rise and jobs will leave the region. The challenge is to balance growth and maintain the advantages of density while mitigating the costs, he notes. Granny flats, higher density along transit corridors — even promoting the polycentrism that already exists in downtowns — are avenues to find a good balance. Redfearn argues that something must give: Broad and persistent attempts to protect neighborhoods from change will lead to significantly less affordability and more socioeconomic change.

How do gas prices affect driving?

When gas prices double, according to Professor Marlon Boarnet, people drive about 10 percent less and transit use rises.

How walkable is inner-city Los Angeles for children traveling to and from school?

Professor Tridib Banerjee and colleagues, including USC Center For Economic Development Program Director Deepak Bahl, filled a gap in research on urban walkability by taking a child’s-eye view. They interviewed fifth-graders from five inner-city L.A. schools and found that the children were acutely aware of safety issues in their communities. The young students were more concerned with social dangers on their routes to school than with physical obstacles like traffic — a finding that suggests a need for policy changes, with a focus on improving safety in the social milieu of children in addition to livability of the built environment. The article won the Chester Rapkin Award for best paper published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research (JPER) in 2014.

How does social media reflect people’s feelings about public transit, and what can transit agencies do to improve perception?

Analyzing a large sample of Twitter comments, Associate Professor Lisa Schweitzer found that there was more negative sentiment about public transit than was expressed about most other public services, and also identified numerous negative tweets about fellow transit riders. However, transit agencies that responded directly to questions and concerns on Twitter experienced a more positive social media environment. Schweitzer concluded that planners committed to a stronger role for public transit in developing sustainable, equitable cities should encourage interactive social media strategies. The paper was selected as the best article published in the Journal of the American Planning Association in 2014.

Can the gang suppression process of civil gang injunctions be more effective?

Working with his USC Dornsife College colleague Karen Hennigan, Professor David Sloane conducted a National Science Foundation–funded study which demonstrated that the gang suppression tactic known as the civil gang injunction could be more effectively implemented with smaller areas in which restrictions were applied, clearer ways for gang members to know how they could opt out of the injunction restrictions, and more nearby social services for gang members who wanted to change their lives.


Marlon Boarnet

“Los Angeles is poised to address the biggest issues affecting cities worldwide. Because of the size, complexity, and longstanding spirit of innovation in Los Angeles, we’re further along the curve than most places in answering those questions.”

Professor Marlon Boarnet
Vice Dean for Academic Affairs
Director, Graduate Programs in Urban Planning

Price School Impact

The Price School’s location in the nation’s most diverse and densely populated area — the Los Angeles area having one-third more residents per square mile than greater New York City — is a distinct advantage in studying and developing creative and effective policy strategies at the large metropolitan scale.

Visualization and mapping provide exciting new ways of understanding and improving public policy and urban planning. The Price School operates at the forefront of this arena with our Spatial Analysis Lab, which illuminates policymakers on urban life, unveiling overlooked spaces and underrepresented people in the contemporary city.

Our faculty are renowned researchers in housing and real estate as well as in the area of transportation and infrastructure scholarship. This includes congestion patterns, goods movement in metropolitan areas, the economic and environmental impacts of ports, the role of transportation in the growth and form of cities, and public-private collaborations for advancing the nation’s infrastructure.