University of Southern California: Professor brings academic research to life in L.A.’s underserved communities

Among the many public health issues faced by low-income communities in Los Angeles, two loom large: heat and food insecurity. But solving these problems is more complex than simply planting a lot of trees and opening a few supermarkets in underserved neighborhoods, says John Wilson, professor of sociology, architecture, civil and environmental engineering, computer science, preventive medicine, and spatial sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Initiatives that fail to take into account a community’s dynamics — for example, how people use outdoor space, or how they choose which food stores or restaurants to patronize — will change nothing at best and be disruptive at worst, he adds.

“In order to know what the city could become we have to engage the citizens, because I don’t think we live in an age now where a few smart people can just tell everybody what’s good for them,” says Wilson, who is founding director of USC Dornsife’s Spatial Sciences Institute.

Wilson is part of two projects — the USC Urban Trees Initiative and a program focused on fighting food insecurity — at USC Dornsife’s Public Exchange. Public Exchange is a new office within the College that connects a wide range of academic researchers with policy, industry and nonprofit partners that need academic expertise to tackle complex challenges, including transportation, sustainability and public health.

Being able to interact with the people affected by these issues and see the results of his research in everyday life motivated Wilson to work with Public Exchange.

“Having wide community engagement gives you the chance that your work could be fast tracked to change policy and help people make decisions, as opposed to writing a paper and hoping somebody reads it one day so that it might make a difference in the world,” he says.

Fighting the heat

While average annual temperatures in L.A. County have risen over the past century, extreme heat is becoming an even greater problem. A 2015 study found that the number of days per year that temperatures exceed 95 degrees Fahrenheit in downtown L.A. could rise to 22 days by 2050 (compared with six days in 2000). Wilson adds that some communities on L.A.’s Eastside, where there are fewer trees, might experience 50 or 60 of these very hot days per year within a few decades.

Shade cover can reduce heat by up to 50%, making trees a natural way to protect people from high temperatures. Through the USC Urban Trees Initiative, faculty and students from the university are determining where and what kinds of trees the city of L.A., nonprofits and local community members should plant in several Eastside L.A. neighborhoods as well as near USC’s main campus.

“If you want to have a sustainable urban forest, a solution would not be to cover Los Angeles with trees tomorrow because you’d have trees for 60 years, and then they’d all die,” he says. “We need to plant more trees over many decades and eventually plant trees to offset tree mortality in order to build a vibrant and sustainable urban forest.” Wilson adds that researchers also have to consider factors like which types of trees mitigate air pollution well and which types provide optimal shade cover.

Eating behaviors

Wilson’s other Public Exchange project centers on food insecurity in L.A., with the goal of helping the county raise awareness about financial and food assistance resources for residents in need. A recent report by the project found that the number of L.A. County people facing food insecurity had dropped substantially from the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic but still affected one in 10 households.

The food insecurity project recently won a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, which Wilson says will help fund the creation of a data portal, similar to the one Johns Hopkins created for COVID-19, in which people can map out the “food ecosystem” in their area, including food assistance outlets, small shops, restaurants, bars and supermarkets.

Like many Public Exchange projects, the one on food insecurity involves experts from more than one school. It’s a reflection of Public Exchange’s mandate to assemble multidisciplinary teams that can address problems from multiple angles. The Urban Trees Initiative, for example, includes Esther Margulies from the USC School of Architecture, and the food insecurity project is led by Kayla de la Haye at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

The food insecurity project is also meant to foster healthy eating behaviors and inform people of their food shopping options. But the relationship between people and their diet is complex, Wilson says. People might think simply opening a supermarket in an underserved area will improve the eating habits of people in that neighborhood, but it’s not that simple.

“It’s not clear from the science that you get the desired results if you just plunk a supermarket in the middle of a neighborhood that doesn’t have one. There’s probably some mom-and-pop stores there now, for example, so what happens to them?” he asked.

Developing community gardens or expanding healthy food options at smaller local stores are possible strategies, he adds. As part of the project, a graduate student will be working with community members to see which options work best for the people there.

Wilson says he’s fortunate to have found a team of faculty, staff and students able to make these community-centered projects happen, and he hopes to see the outcomes in the foreseeable future.

“Life is short, and I would like to make a difference in the world. What Public Exchange helps me do is to elevate the chances that I might be able to do that,” he says.

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