Alvaro Huerta grew up in a forlorn place, where urban planning surely failed. Living in Los Angeles' Ramona Gardens housing project, the son of Mexican immigrants, Huerta read only two books and wrote a single two-page paper through 13 years of elementary and secondary school in the public school system. But he knew what he was missing, and he is now in the process of completing his doctorate at UC Berkeley's Department of City & Regional Planning. Currently a visiting scholar at UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center, Huerta has emerged as a leading voice for disenfranchised urban poor. Last fall, the American Planning Association awarded Huerta its national Advancing Diversity & Social Change award for his service to the planning world and to minority communities. 

What is your mission? What are the social, economic, and political issues that you feel passionately about? 

I'm interested in issues of diversity, social justice, and equity. In a state like California, which is about 30 percent Latino, you don't have the same amount of representation in education or at the higher level in planning positions or in faculty positions—people making the decisions taking place in everyday life. 

Another area within that is the issue of how this country treats immigrants, particularly how conservatives and Republicans are treating in the current recession that we're facing. People that were once middle class are now very vulnerable in the working class or are now unemployed.  I'm interested in that population on the bottom who don't have a voice and are people are blamed for things that have nothing to do with them.  They're not the ones who deregulated the banks or engaged in the war in Iraq where there was no threat. But for some reason the burden is put on them.

That has to do with my own personal upbringing. I experienced poverty and racism firsthand and now that I'm in a position to say something about it, I can say that at the personal level and also at a professional level. 

In what ways have cities contributed to, or helped alleviate, the problems that interest you? 

If we look at the history of urban planning in California and throughout the U.S., it's been a mixed bag. There's been a lot of great progress in terms of improving the quality of life in cities and creating the infrastructure and institutions of higher education. We have segregated housing from sources of pollution. So planners and government have done a lot of great things to protect the interests of average people.

On the flip side, during the middle 20th century we had urban renewal: federal programs where you see that there's segregation of minorities in the inner cities and you see white flight into the suburbs and then you see how the schools where the poor live are overcrowded, poorly funded, and (that) perpetuated the poverty that people are under that live in these types of conditions. The cities themselves are set up in such a way that, for the poor, they only perpetuate the status quo.  There are those that have the resources to get ahead, and those that don't are unfortunately at the bottom. 

At an institutional level there's an understanding that things are they way they are because it's sort of a normal state of being. Inequality is part of the system and people accept it.  You have people that are rich and influential and those that are poor and destitute. You have a situation where the people themselves are being blamed for their own circumstances: you're poor because you don't work hard enough or because you don't apply yourself in school. 

Then you have situations like a Justice Sotomayor or a Barack Obama, and the message is that if you work hard you can become president or a justice of the Supreme Court. But those examples place the burden on individuals and families: it implies that they're in the situation they're in because they lack initiative, because their culture doesn't put education as a priority. 

What do cities need to do address these issues? 

We need to have a New Deal for cities and to have programs that are aimed at getting people back to work. There's too much emphasis on planning and infrastructure and not enough in terms of people and the social capital that already exists in terms of people. If you look at any poor community, there is a lot of organization and there's a sense of purpose.  People pull their resources together to get by. 

As planners there should be an emphasis on helping people and working within informal institutions.  It could be microloans or helping people with their businesses out of their homes.  A lot of people don't work in the formal economy but they still need to get by. For example, some people collect cans and recyclables to sell. You have a lot of entrepreneurial spirit, and a lot of them come from their countries, from South America. But when they come here, they're relegated to dead-end jobs.  

I believe in big government in the sense of investing in people and investing in projects that can help them relieve poverty.  I think, for example, there should be a GI Bill for inner-city poor people.  If we have these types of programs to address the needs of the poor that attend these overcrowded schools, I think it will make a difference. 

These ideas are quite different from what planners deals with on a daily basis. How do you shift the planning profession to the things you're talking about? 

The problem in general with planning is that they're part of a bureaucratic system that's overwhelming.  They're under the direction of the city council. They're just following orders, and they make recommendations based on what the policymakers say and do.  

A lot of people say that they want to join (planning departments) and change them from within.  That's fine and dandy. These are personal prerogatives. But at the end of the day they are part of the same system that they wanted to change. I believe that planners and policy makers should take a more bottom-up approach, where they go directly to the communities that they are serving and allowing concerned members to have direct input into the planning process.  This means holding planning at local schools and community centers in the various languages of the communities without the technical language that excludes those without college educations.

In a city like Los Angeles, for example, the special interest groups have such a grip that they determine what happens. Any of these things that I talk about are seen as marginal or idealistic things that are not realistic when it comes to day-to-day reality at City Hall.  

For example, they want to build a billion-dollar football stadium and the mayor and all these people are behind it. To me, that's preposterous.  I thought the city is broke and are laying off thousands of people. And all of a sudden AEG wants to build a stadium. There's no proof that these stadiums are profitable. When LAUSD wants to build a school near a freeway, you don't see the same outcry or rally to prevent that from happening.  Poor immigrants don't guarantee season tickets. 

How do you think the elimination of redevelopment would affect low-income communities? 

When funds are allocated specifically to blighted communities or to areas that need investment and all of a sudden that money is taken away, the hope of any change is just not there anymore. There was a time with urban renewal when these funds were only in the interest of certain groups, like business groups. Like we had Dodger Stadium, which displaced a whole community. But now we see that – with more people being aware of these types of practices – these monies that have been allocated more for communities where there's a need for affordable housing or a need for businesses or other things that will generate some income and that also dignify the community. When you take that away, there's no incentive in the private sector for them to (invest in the community). There's just no profit to be made if you don't have government involved. 

Some of the negatives with these types of investments is that it leads to gentrification. I think the challenge is to beautify and improve communities without displacing the people who live there. But just overall the trend at the moment is not looking very good for these communities that are in desperate need of funds.  

Unfortunately I don't see the same transparency that should take place among these agencies.  A lot of CRAs operate in a fashion that people don't know what they're doing. A lot of the language is very technical, and meetings are held during the day. At the CRA meetings, there's no coincidence that the audience members are typically lawyers and lobbyist from special interest groups, where most community members are even unaware of their existence and role in their communities.

If CRAs were better integrated into the community and held town hall meetings in the communities that need the most attention. Hold them after-hours, have translation, there will be more of an outcry. But at the moment, unless you're an urban planner or you have some special interest, most people don't really know what's being debated.  

Are there any impacts on these communities from SB 375 that you're either hopeful about or wary of?

A lot of the pollution that is emitted, there's a disproportionate amount of negative impact on poor and minority communities. You have cities in southeast Los Angeles where there's a high concentration of people living in a small area and you have five freeways intersecting that area.  These are the individuals that are consuming a lot of the pollution that is emitted. 

We all benefit one way or another from having businesses that pollute in the sense that there's electricity and people driving…but when it comes to the actual source, it's mainly concentrated in these communities.  These are the people that are impacted the most.  Unfortunately they cannot get up and leave. 

This has nothing to do with NIMBYism. It has to do with environmental racism and environmental justice. In a democratic society everybody should share the burden.  We all benefit from having businesses that pollute. But when it comes to the actual cause, it's mainly concentrated in these low-income communities. 

When we pass laws to regulate this and reduce the emissions, these laws will de facto benefit those people because these are the individuals who are being exposed to that pollution. That should be the number-one priority for ensuring the health and welfare of people who are in an economic position where they cannot move.  

This interview has been edited and condensed.