SJND Hosts Special Guest Dr. Karna Wong | Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School


SJND Hosts Special Guest Dr. Karna Wong

Dr. Karna Wong conducts an exercise in urban planning with SJND students.

On September 13, SJND’s AP Environmental Science class hosted special guest Dr. Karna Wong from UC Irvine’s Department of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy. Dr. Wong began her presentation by asking the class, “Who does urban planning benefit or impact?” The answer: it impacts all people and has a particular impact on disenfranchised populations like the homeless, immigrants, and the elderly.

“Some believe that urban development and planning is for generating profit, but I would argue that the purpose of urban planning and development is to improve the conditions for everyone.” She then went on to show examples of urban planning throughout the world, photos of the thriving modern cities like Dubai and Shanghai, contrasted with photos of the slums of Mumbai in India and Rio De Janeiro in Brazil.

“How do planners improve cities? What do they do? I believe planners should go beyond creating plans that sit on a shelf and collect dust and create plans that involve community organizing and the redistribution of power and resources. Planning is about creating change. There are many specialties in urban planning, it’s an interdisciplinary field. But ultimately, urban planning is about empowering communities and people. Planners are futurists.”

Dr. Wong then introduced the Environmental Justice Gap, when low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards so in turn enjoy less environmental benefits compared to higher income communities. Dr. Wong emphasized that Environmental Justice is not just about who is exposed to hazards or not, but who is a part of the decision-making process. Similarly, Dr. Wong discussed Environmental Racism, a concept in which people of color are more likely to live closer to environmental hazards due to economic status.

To illustrate these concepts, Dr. Wong shared online data maps measuring air pollution of locations in students’ own backyard – the Port of Oakland and city of Richmond, both of which are located near oil refineries. In these areas, the air pollution, which contributes to health problems like cancer and asthma, measure higher than the federal and CA State EPA standards of 2.5 PM.

“Dr. Wong exceeded all my expectations with her topic on Environmental Justice; the information that she presented was both enlightening and refreshing. Living in the Bay Area makes me think that we're very forward with our approach to a more sustainable future, but Dr. Wong brought to our attention that things are never what they seem,” explained Joshua Bernaldo ’18.

So how can students create change now? The guest speaker encouraged students to make good environmental choices by being cognizant of what they eat and buy, and by sharing those choices with their families and communities. 

To conclude the class, Dr. Wong took the students outside for an exercise in urban planning. Students had to design their own cities in teams, using a waterfront (blue painters tape) and pieces of paper with typical city attributes – houses, apartment buildings, shops, factories, homeless areas, hospitals, railroads. While some teams were given open space and parks, others struggled to plan without it.

“It was such an honor to have Dr. Wong come to my AP Environmental Science classes to talk about Environmental Justice,” explained Mrs. Zamora. "She put local issues into a global context and was able to give students resources they could use to make change in their communities.”


Karna Wong is a UCLA researcher and instructor who recently joined the Department of Urban Planning and Public Policy as a professor of teaching. Prior to earning her Ph.D. at UCLA, Wong worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C., Santa Ana, Calif. and San Francisco, Calif.

Her research interests include affordable housing, community development, government policy, nonprofit management, and social and environmental justice. When it comes to teaching, her philosophy reflects a strong commitment to engaged scholarship and community-based research.