L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa’s Ambitious Green Agenda Advances

Nancy Sutley

Cities produce massive amounts of pollution and waste, but, as any environmentalist will attest, they also hold the key to efficient, stustainable living. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has pledged to incorporate an environmental ethnic into every possible facet of city life, from greening the DWP to restoring the L.A. River to planting one million trees throughout the city and encouraging conservation measures. Los Angeles’ Deputy Mayor for Energy and the Environment Nancy Sutley is spearheading these efforts within the Villaraigosa administration, and she spoke with VerdeXchange News about the city’s progress and ambitions.


Mayor Villaraigosa came into office a bit less than two years ago having pledged to make LA the “greenest big city in the country.” How, as deputy mayor, have you approached that ambitious priority?

We looked at the priorities in three different areas. One of them has to do with public health and the protection of health; that would include, for example, the Clean Air Action Plan for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The second big area of focus is the idea of just making Los Angeles a greener place—we call it “unpaving paradise,” based on the idea that we’ve lost our connection to the environment and nature and trying to find ways to bring it back. The Million Trees initiative and the L.A. River plan, for example, would fit under that, as well as plans to develop more parks and open space. The third broad area is about environmental stewardship. That includes the goal of having the Department of Water and Power get 20 percent of its energy from renewable resources or improving the stewardship of the land we own in the Owens Valley, where we get our water from.

This issue of VerdeXchange News carries a speech by DWP Commission Chair David Nahai in which he discusses his advocacy of DWP’s Green Power Initiative. What is your assessment of that program?

It has a very concrete goal of getting 20 percent of the electricity. DWP sells at retail from renewable energy resources by 2010. They’re making a lot of progress, not only through projects under development at DWP but also in finding new projects either through power-purchase agreements or going out into the marketplace for renewable energy as well as developing transmission projects to bring it into L.A.

Additionally, the goal of generating 20 percent of retail sales from renewables makes you look at the demand side of the equation. The DWP has started to put more money and resources into energy conservation and efficiency programs to try to wring as much conservation out of the system as possible. The other thing that is going to drive us is the state legislation AB 32, which requires the state to cap and reduce its contributions to global warming.

Some environmentalists have suggested that if some of the funds that DWP transfers to the city’s general fund every year were reinvested and leveraged for greening L.A., that the mayor’s goals would be realized much more quickly. How realistic is this advocacy position?

The people who pay DWP bills pay one way or another, and I think the green programs stand on their own and can be justified on their own. Often we get a sidetracked by talking about these green programs as add-ons or something nice to do, but the world has changed for DWP, and they have to become a greener utility. So the strategy is a fundamental piece of the way that DWP plans and operates.

What green goals does the mayor have for the city’s proprietary departments, such as the port and airport? What goals have they set for themselves?

The adoption of the Clean Air Action Plan by the ports in November 2006 was historic. This is not the first time that the Port of Los Angeles and the city of Los Angeles have focused on air quality in and around the port, but it is a huge step forward in getting from general concern to a real plan that both ports will take on together. They set an ambitious public health goal and identified projects to achieve that goal. The good news, in addition to the plan, is that Prop 1B provides money to address the air quality impacts of goods movement, and we expect that a fair amount will come back to Los Angeles to help pay the costs of the Clean Air Action Plan.

LAX is putting together a sustainability plan in different pieces. They had made a fair amount of progress but got a little off-track after September 11 forced them to focus on some other issues. But the Airport Commission is committed to greening the airport. There was a late effort to green the Tom Bradley Terminal, but that’s going to be done too. I think the airport is on-track to address its environmental impact and make it a more sustainable airport.

How does the mayor’s green agenda relate impact city planning, housing, parks, and recreation policies?

There’s a lot of opportunity to green Los Angeles, starting with our buildings. Since 2004 the city has required that all new city buildings over 7500 square feet meet green building standards. Now we’re looking at how to encourage more green building in the private sector. A few weeks ago the Water and Power Commission adopted some incentives for buildings that meet green building standards. The City Council last summer enacted priority plan checks for Building and Safety for green buildings. Planning is looking at some other ways to provide incentives for green buildings and also looking at things like the role of transit oriented design in planning and the idea that they’ll incorporate sustainability into community plans.

On the parks and open space side, after a long time of not creating new parks, we have a couple new parks in the city, and a few new state parks, including the Cornfield and Taylor Yard, which is to be dedicated in about three weeks. We have the land to create a number of new parks and also take advantage of the passage of Prop 84, which has about $400 million in it for urban parks. We expect that a fair amount of that money will come to Los Angeles, and Rec and Parks has a list of parks that they want to create, so we’ll go from there.

The mayor has released his budget for the coming fiscal year. Does it reflect and support the ambitious green agenda you have been describing?

I think, as with all of the mayor’s priorities, the budget will reflect his priorities and a number of the green initiatives will be listed specifically in the budget. Some of them are potentially noticeable budget items. Some are just changes in the way the city does business. The environment is in some ways a big-ticket item for the city—certainly our environmental infrastructure with wastewater, trash collection are a very important part of our budget, and the budget will reflect them.

The mayor has, along with 180 other mayors, signed on to the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which upholds the tenets of the Kyoto Protocol. How has this international agreement guided the mayor’s environmental policies, and how does it compare with the mandates that California’s AB 32 imposes?

AB 32 sets an ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reductions target for state. How exactly that will be allocated among different sectors of the economy is still a work in progress and will be for a couple more years. Certainly the city will play a part in that if for no other reason than that the Department of Water and Power is the city’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and the utility sector in general is a large contributor. The drive to increase the use of renewable energy will help to address the DWP’s greenhouse gas emissions, and more emphasis on conservation and efficiency will help to drive down DWP’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. And the emphasis on green buildings will also help drive down DWP’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions because those buildings will use less energy.

The other big piece of greenhouse gas emissions reductions is going to have to come from the transportation sector, which is going to be a challenge for the state as a whole and certainly for Los Angeles. But the increasing investments in public transit and alternatives to single-passenger cars will help to reduce emissions from the transportation sector. And things like focusing on planning, transit-oriented design, and more walkable communities and the other things that Gail Goldberg and the Planning Department have been talking about will also help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To complement our publication over the last two decades of The Planning Report and the Metro Investment Report, VerdeXchange News will offer access to regional and global developments in greenhouse gas mitigation and green technology innovation. As one of our first interviewees, what would you suggest is the public sector’s role in advancing a green urban agency?

The public sector has a role not only in providing leadership, but also in encouraging the growth of the green sector of the economy and in being an early adopter of environmental policies. Southern California, because of its air quality problems, has long been a kind of laboratory for environmental technologies.

A lot of what the city does regarding being a green model for the nation depends on how we organize ourselves as a community. We could focus on the urban form, which relates directly to emissions from transportation. Or we could consider the role of the environment in our economy. There’s been some emphasis on growing the green economy in Los Angeles and making Los Angeles a center for this new green economy, whether it’s green technology or just greener practices. 

If the city wished to host a green innovations conference and expo, what themes and successes would you want to emphasize?

The Million Trees initiative is multifaceted in terms of not only providing environmental benefits but also a way of engaging the community to green Los Angeles. Another piece is that we have the opportunity to showcase what you can do at, for example, DWP, to enlist local businesses to help make DWP a greener utility. The last piece would be also the great research institutions and universities, and I think they’re very interested in helping to build this green economy in Los Angeles.

Mayor Bloomberg is inviting representatives of the world’s 40 largest cities to New York to compare and contrast their climate change agendas and successes. What will Los Angeles be sharing?

We are indeed part of the C 40 Large Cities Climate Leadership Group, which involves the largest cities on every continent. When we look at areas like traffic, clean fuels, green building, cleaner energy, waste, water, Los Angeles is a leader around the world. Most U.S. cities are leaders in those areas because we’ve had to deal not only with the public’s desire for greener cities but also with a lot of mandates.
I think there’s an opportunity to showcase some of the things that Los Angeles has done in all of these areas to green the city and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, but even more importantly to focus on things that confer benefits in more than one area. For instance, if we increase the city’s use of alternative fuel vehicles, we reduce our contribution to smog and to global warming. So as we look at the measures that we want to undertake to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we’re looking at things that have more than one benefit. And that’s important for cities in particular because we’re all dealing with limited resources and a lot of problems.