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Deans Message

At the forefront of the Megacities challenge: the Meaning of the Astani Gift

by Dean Yannis C. Yortsos

Dean Yannis Yortsos, 11/29/2007
What’s in a naming?

Two years ago this Fall, we celebrated 100 years of USC engineering.

The anniversary was marked by a special gift from the Mork Family to name the department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science.

Last year, in a landmark gift, alumnus Ming Hsieh named the Department of Electrical Engineering, with the largest gift ever to name an engineering department in the nation.

And this Fall, Sonny Astani, another very special alumnus, made a strong statement of faith to another Viterbi engineering discipline, Civil and Environmental Engineering: A statement that will position the newly endowed department at the lead of new urban challenges, particularly in the emerging area of megacities.

Civil engineering is engineering’s quintessential discipline. Throughout human history, civil engineers constructed structures that defied gravity, pleased the eye and the soul, and withstood the forces of nature. They devised materials that made the dreams of artists and architects come true. They built bridges and transportation networks to enable commerce and better human communication. And they created communities and cities.

Civil engineers have strived for making daily life better- for improving livability. And USC civil engineers helped build Southern California – and the foundation of the Viterbi School of Engineering.

With the rapid growth of human population have come different challenges: on resources and the environment. Today, human activity affects the world in ways never before experienced: From the air we breathe, the water we drink, the energy we consume, the waste we generate, and the atmosphere that surrounds us, whether in the microclimate of cities or the global climate itself.

Formidable challenges in environmental quality, environmental health, and, increasingly, in sustainability, are now addressed head on by civil and environmental engineers.

This year, for the first time in human history, the earth's population became more urban than rural. By 2030, 5 billion people, or 60 percent of humans, will call the city home. We live in the era of the megacity — metropolises of more than 10 million people. In 1950, only Tokyo and New York met that threshold. Today there are 20 such megacities, including Shanghai, Mexico City, Sao Paolo, Taipei, London, Mumbai, Jakarta, Istanbul – and Los Angeles.

Megacities are more than just large cities- they are the key nodes of the world. They are financial and global command centers. Today, one-fifth of the world’s GDP is generated in the 10 economically most important among them. Megacities are a new dynamic organism, with unparalleled complexity but also of immense vitality.

A city like Los Angeles is a magnet for businessmen, entrepreneurs, professionals, artists and writers, — a place where creative people congregate and great universities flourish. A city like ours is a center of commerce, an economic driver of an entire region. Most importantly, it is a nursery for ideas and innovation. 

But megacities have major challenges: Complex infrastructure, congested transportation, environmental quality, energy and water resources that the city must import, and which makes it particularly vulnerable to adverse events- be they natural catastrophes or human-driven.

USC Civil and environmental engineering aspires to be in the lead in addressing these challenges. Our location at the heart of Los Angeles gives us the motivation, the credibility and the geographic relevance to become the flagship in this mission, both in this country, but also in the world.

We are extremely fortunate that this aspiration will become possible today with the help of visionary alumnus Sonny Astani. 

Sonny Astani’s thirst for discovery led him to a far distant land — distant in geography and culture, from where he was born and raised, but close to his inner self. In a story that has been repeated before, here and across this country, Sonny engineered innovations that transformed his chosen field.

And in a story that is repeated for the second year in a row in the Viterbi School, a former foreign student gives back to his new alma matter, for the benefit of generations of students to come and for the world at large.

What’s in a naming? Nothing less than the American ideal in generosity and in the response to the challenge.