Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti Keynotes VX2014: Building Sustainable and Resilient Cities


Eric Garcetti: Los Angeles is the greatest global platform on the face of the earth, and if you have something you want to test, you come to LA to test it on the world. Thank you, Joe Edmiston, for your friendship and leadership; thank you to all the members of the panel; and thank you to David Abel for continuing to be a pioneer—not just somebody who embodies what good planning is about, but someone who has seen the future and has brought us together. 

I find that, as mayor, my most powerful tool isn’t my executive power. It isn’t legislation that I could sign. It’s my convening power. It’s my ability to do things like bring university professors and chancellors together who have never been at the same table to talk about the future of LA. It’s my power to be able to bring together fellow mayors in the County of Los Angeles for the first time in one place, to talk about those problems that ignore borders, like traffic and pollution, the environment, economic development, and education. David Abel has been one of those great conveners. He’s like the Kevin Bacon of the environmental world. 

Thank you all for being part of VerdeXchange and for getting to know people that you don’t know here yet. That’s the most important work you can do—not listening to people like me up here, but the work you can do in between to make connections and commitments to change. And, thank you to ULI for being a great co-host, as well. 

It’s through convening like this that we bring together the future. Today’s innovators from all industries have a chance to cross-pollinate and cross-fertilize, to create a sustainable and livable future. Indeed, none of these things are new, as much as we might think them to be. 

Here we are in Downtown LA, where I’m not facing due east—I’m actually at a 45 degree axis, because the original founders of this pueblo positioned the city, instead of on a north-south-east-west grid, at 45 degrees, because it was easier to get breezes in the summertime and better to get sun in the wintertime. The ultimate sustainable, green buildings were first built here with adobe. We’ve seen a city that has, little by little, paved over its ecological roots but is beginning to unpave that. We are finding the answers in the internal truth of connecting with the land and this earth, and also in the newness of technology overlaid on that to accelerate the pace and perhaps the connections therein.

From the beginning of my administration as your mayor—I’m so honored to be your 42nd mayor—I’ve stressed back-to-basics priorities, not because I don’t have bold plans for the city and not because I don’t think I represent people who are ambitious. We’re perhaps the hardest working, most ambitious collection of human beings—and certainly the most diverse—ever put in one place in human history. But, getting back to the basics means building a foundation to be able to do the big things by getting the simple ones right. I remember a reporter asking me, “Aren’t you just trying to deflate expectations so you can surpass them?” I said, “No, if the simple things were so easy, they would be done.” If we could pave these streets, which have had 70 years of neglect, or lay a four-lane highway that could stretch from here to Paris, we would have done it. If we could figure out an easy way—a silver bullet—to end our traffic woes, I believe we would have done it. It’s precisely because these things are difficult, but not insurmountable, that it’s important for us to lay that down as our foundation.

My simple vision for Los Angeles is to create a safe, a prosperous, and a livable city, one in which it is the best-run big city in America, with good management, sustainability, economic prosperity, and a sense of livability. 

We started doing this from the top. Probably, to a couple people who are here, we rattled some cages. We changed some of the things that we take for granted by re-interviewing all of our general managers. I said, “I want you to look at four values, and I don’t care if you’re the police chief, or if you’re running something like the Bureau of Sanitation: sustainability, economic development, innovation and technology, and making sure that we always have customer service at the forefront.” It was something I asked all our general managers, chiefs, and executive directors to look at. 

It was my desire to make sure that we moved concern for the environment and sustainability away from being an issue area and instead turned it into an universal value that pervades all operations. The fire chief might ask, “What do I have to do with the environment?” Well, you have a huge fleet of trucks, fire engines, and ambulances. You use certain materials on the fire that have an impact on the environment. Everybody needs to step up. Environmentalism is the prism through which we refract all public policy and actions. 

Why is this important? Because this is a core value of who we are. As I mentioned, it’s our past and it’s certainly part of our future, and not just our environmental and health future. It’s part of our economic future, which is really what this gathering is all about: to be able to position Los Angeles for the growth of jobs and growth of industries that will accelerate due to ever-increasing demand. 

I just came from a press conference that was about the largest retrofit of a building in the United States using the PACE program—the Hilton Hotel at Universal City. I took a tour to see how they’re reducing their energy use and their water use. The return on investment, is four or five years, and then they’re making money. Forget the health aspects—it’s good for their bottom line, and it’s created jobs here. Already, Los Angeles is the center of green jobs in America and one of the centers of green jobs in the world because of the good public policy and great companies that are here, and because of gatherings like this here today. 

But it isn’t just about jobs. It’s about the air we breathe; it’s about the green space we have to live healthier lives in. It’s not “environmentalism.” It’s great to be here in LA, not just because of the specificity of this great city, but because we’re one of the cities where the action is right now. There’s a great book by Ben Barber that just came out this spring called If Mayors Ruled the World—I try to read it every night. It looks at how the innovation that is happening around economic development, around transportation, and around the environment is no longer happening at the level of national governments. It’s happening in cities. The majority of human beings live in cities for the first time. We consume three quarters of the resources of the world in our cities, and cities are the laboratories of innovation that we need to embrace.  

Here we are in the very best one, which is why one of my first moves was—for the first time in the City of Los Angeles—to hire a Chief Sustainability Officer, Matt Petersen. I’ve given Matt the mandate to work across the entire breadth of city government, and I’ve charged him and his team with a city-wide sustainability plan, finally, for Los Angeles. It will integrate and synthesize existing programs across departments and outline goals and specific outcomes, not just for the next four years, but for the next 10 to 20 years. 

I want to pause here, because when I say outcomes, we’re not talking about abstract outcomes. I have drilled into my team and into my general managers the importance of performance metrics. How can you judge how I’ve done as mayor if you don’t have a quantitative measure, and how can I judge my people if I don’t have quantitative measures, as well? The remarkable progress we’ve made at driving down crime, for instance, comes from this philosophy. Using the CompStat system at the Los Angeles Police Department, we measured crime down to the block level every single week. We can see when there’s an explosion in car thefts, we can see where there are assaults with deadly weapons, and we can demand that management take the second step—not just to measure these things, but to do something about them. Right now, today, crime is lower in Los Angeles per capita than it’s been since 1949. It’s not just demographics. It’s all about metrics.  

We’re putting that same focus on results and metrics when revamping our city’s budget. We’re moving away from a static model of working off of last year’s budget—making a few pluses or minuses—to instead starting with a performance budgeting model that works toward next year’s specific performance goals. Who do we want to be, Los Angeles? What do we want to accomplish? Let’s start from driving the revenues and resources that way, instead of just replicating what we’ve inherited, with those four key priorities of economic development and job creation, improved city services, public safety, and sustainability. Matt is chairing one of my four budget results teams, so that every department, when they draft their budget, has to go through the sustainability lens. 

I know those things are abstract to talk about. Usually you invite somebody to come here and they promise, “I’m going to do this, and that, and the other,” but if we don’t start with the strength of that foundation, we won’t be able to see that progress.  

I did say that one of my goals is to see what we can do to continue that path forward here in Los Angeles, to create 20,000 new green jobs here in LA. I’m confident that this goal is within our reach through solar installation and the feed-in tariff, through water cleanup, and by looking at energy and water conservation and retrofits. 

I’ve asked LADWP to make it easier for homeowners and other building owners to put solar on the rooftops. It shouldn’t take six months to a year to get your solar system turned on once it is installed. In addition to removing barriers to solar, we’re working on increasing the solar feed-in tariff from 150 megawatts to 600 megawatts. We’ve seen new green jobs, local businesses, in every part of the city—from Northeast Valley to South LA—benefit from the solar feed-in tariff program, and now we want to expand it to every corner of Los Angeles. 

When solar goes on rooftops, I want to make sure that the investment is leveraged from the greatest possible financial and environmental impact. That’s why I’ve directed my staff to explore ways to increase energy efficiency in both our municipal buildings and private buildings. I’m proud that I led the way to passing the Los Angeles Municipal Green Building Ordinance, our nation’s widest-reaching, private-sector green building ordinance. We’re now benefiting from the results, but we have to continue to improve it and expand it. As I mentioned earlier this morning, the Hilton is cutting its energy bills in half—from $1.3 million to $650,000. This makes them more competitive, reduces the load on our utility infrastructure, and helps tackle global warming.  

Everybody’s wondering why we have such a bad drought. Those who are looking at the climate effects of what’s happening with warmer water off the Pacific Northwest Coast are showing all of those storms that used to come down and hit California going up above us. That won’t change anytime soon. But, what we can do is change the way that we retain water here, the amount of water that we consume here, and do as we did over the past 30 years—when we expanded the city’s population by 1 million people but consume the same amount of water as we did back then. 

We’re moving progressively toward our zero waste goals by banning single use plastic bags in Los Angeles. I went to the market on January 2 and I took all these bags with me. The checkout woman said, “You look familiar.” When she realized I wasn’t Ty Burrell from Modern Family, she said, “Oh yeah, you’re the mayor. Good thing you brought those bags.” I was like, “Yeah, good thing.”

No challenge binds us together more than climate change. A recent USC study on sea level rise vulnerability for Los Angeles shows that some of our stormwater-related infrastructure is quite vulnerable, not to mention our lower-lying communities like Venice, San Pedro, and Wilmington. You’ve probably read about what I’m doing to strengthen our city’s resilience when it comes to earthquake preparedness, but this is also something that is equally important and will be a steady drumbeat moving forward. Thankfully, key infrastructure like the Port and Hyperion are prepared, but I look forward to USC’s continued work with our city’s departments to put together a plan for those parts of our city that need to be better prepared. 

Recent research from UCLA shows that LA will face increased extreme heat days, longer fire seasons, and drought. We’re experiencing that right now. We’ve done a decent job preparing for drought—today we use as much water, as I mentioned, as we did in the 1970s—but in addition, we must also focus on increasing our use of local water sources. We need to clean up the San Fernando Valley aquifer—the second largest aquifer, natural or manmade, in the state, which today has too much water washed away from it. That water that gets down there is polluted. Increased stormwater retention, capturing rainwater, and revitalizing the LA River are all key priorities of mine. 

In addition, for the next year I’ll be serving on President Obama’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, working with the White House to find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while better connecting the federal government with LA to address the realities of climate change. The spotlight will be on our leadership and our city when, together with Governor Brown, who is on that task force as well, the national task force will come to Los Angeles on February 13. 

As all of you know, it’s not only a moral and fiscal imperative to combat climate change and prepare for its realities. It’s also an economic opportunity. Never let a crisis go to waste. I want LA to lead the way in clean technologies, including solar and energy efficiencies. But, ambitious goals like this don’t just happen. They’re the result of leadership. Not from a mayor, not from City Hall, but from all of us collectively. I’m looking for your leadership. I want to lead from the front sometimes, and I also want to follow. I want to have you with me. 

Today, VerdeXchange has gathered a remarkable array of local, national, and global leaders on the shared challenge of sustainability. We are promoting our environment, our economy, and social equity as interdependent essentials for our success. When leaders come together, we can achieve great things, and I’m looking right now at a room full of leaders. Don’t mistake those of us up here for the only leadership class. We all are called to be those leaders today. That’s our challenge. That’s our opportunity. 

Los Angeles has always been the place where people come to pursue their dreams, to make them a reality. I’m confident as your mayor that we won’t just do this in a way that inspires the world, but in a way that increases the quality of our life, that creates a safer city, that creates a more prosperous city, and yes, ultimately a more livable city. Thank you for being a part of this. Reach out to us with your ideas and your projects, and we know that here in Los Angeles, as we look back at this moment, we won’t just save a city and an earth—we will revitalize the greatest city anywhere on the face of the earth, Los Angeles.