Planning alumni contribute to LA’s improvement through diverse roles at Mayor’s Office
By Matthew Kredell
Three USC Price Master of Planning alumni are helping make the City of Los Angeles a safer, more vibrant, beautiful and equitable place.
Marissa Aho ’06, Ashley Atkinson ’07 and Nat Gale ’11 are showing that there are many ways for a planner to make an impact working for the Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti. Aho is the Chief Resilience Officer in charge of coordinating and implementing improvements and programs to help the city withstand disasters, Atkinson helps develop planning and housing policy in the office of economic development, and Gale runs the Great Streets Initiative for the office of transportation.
“The City of Los Angeles is fortunate to have the expertise of USC Price MPL alums as part of the mayor’s team,” said Kevin Keller, Director of Planning and Housing Policy for Mayor Garcetti. “Marissa, Ashley and Nat are all exemplary public servants working hard to make a difference in local government and improve the city’s built environment. They reflect the high caliber of students coming out of USC’s program and are making an important difference in Mayor Garcetti’s office.”
USC Price Prof. David Sloane, whom Gale credits for informing his views on equity and justice in his course Urban Planning and Social Policy, recalls meeting Gale in Echo Park last year to find him standing for hours manually counting pedestrians and bicyclists on Sunset Boulevard. He was excited to find the number was higher than he had counted the previous two years.
“Essentially, he said, ‘we can change this city — we can make it friendlier for walkers and cyclists,’ ” Sloane noted. “That moment symbolized why I have liked and admired him since I first met him as a student. He is enthusiastic, optimistic, committed and thoughtful. He always loved politics and planning, and watching him now work in the Mayor’s office on Great Streets, he is a wonderful example of the type of alum we produce.”
Gale, who received dual master’s degrees in planning and public administration, first joined the mayor’s office when the career services staff at the Price School helped him get an internship, leading directly to his job today.
“I entered Price with a background in engineering and no real knowledge of local government or community development,” Gale said. “My coursework gave me the policy background and connection to researchers and practitioners who could help inform my questions regarding community improvement.”
Great Streets is a community development program that utilizes the street as a public-space asset to transform neighborhoods. Gale is helping the city improve sections of 15 streets by working with local businesses to develop investments that make the corridors more pedestrian-friendly and safe.
“Mayor Garcetti likes to use the term ‘urban acupuncture’ to describe what we do, because in the Great Streets Studio, we are always looking for small but meaningful ‘pinpricks of excitement’ to make the built environment more beautiful, fun and safe,” Gale said. “If we make our streets better places for neighborhoods to gather and celebrate their individual cultures, we will have succeeded.”
Preparing L.A. for the future
As Chief Resilience Officer, Aho is in charge of strengthening the city for all the shocks and stresses to which it is susceptible. These include natural disasters such as earthquakes, flooding, tsunami and wildfire, but also homelessness and climate-change related issues.
She started in the position, which was pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of its 100 Resilient Cities program, last summer. The goal is to make cities more physically, socially and economically resilient.
“What attracted me to this position is it takes the skillsets from everything I’ve done over the past 15 years and lets me combine them,” Aho said. “There’s a lot of urgency to this resilience approach, and it’s really important for us to focus on it right now. Mayor Garcetti has been a leader in not waiting until there’s a disaster to work on these issues but to do it ahead of time, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Aho explained that her student experience at USC Price prepared her to handle all of the different aspects of what makes a city resilient.
“I stayed general and it has served me very well in long-range planning to know about sustainability, smart growth, transportation planning and affordable housing,” Aho said. “I think having that broad expertise has helped in former positions as well as this one.”
She also learned to lead at the Price School, where she served as president of the Associated Students of Planning and Development. She is now finishing up a four-year term as section director of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Planning Association. Taking over for her at the end of the year happens to be a fellow Price alumna, Atkinson.
Bridging planning and housing policy
Atkinson, who also completed dual master’s degrees in planning and public administration, works with city departments and stakeholders to achieve the mayor’s priority outcomes around planning, housing and building and safety.
The latter area has reunited her with former classmate Aho to work on seismic retrofit regulations, a two-year project that was passed by the City Council last month requiring the retrofitting of 15,000 buildings.
“The interdisciplinary nature of my education at USC Price helped me to become someone who understands the connections between planning, housing, buildings and economic developments,” Atkinson said. “Being able to see those interconnections and perceive things in a big-picture way enabled me to be flexible and creative in responses to the issues we face.”
Atkinson returned to USC after receiving her master’s degrees to complete the Ross Minority Program in Real Estate in order to understand the development side of the equation.
“Ashley showed the combination of analytical competence and deep interest in policy that we should desire from all our public officials,” said USC Price Professor Richard Green, director of the Lusk Center for Real Estate that offers the program. “I have interacted with her since she has been with the city, and I know she also has a strong sense of fairness.”