Traffic Doesn't Define City-Los Angeles Sets Green Standard for Urban Living in the United States

Eric Garcetti

Los Angeles provides an interesting case study for sustainable urban living—in such a vast and diverse city, solutions don’t come easily. Proving the sincerity of its sustainability efforts, L.A. recently approved a green building code to supplement ambitious smart growth practices, and the city’s efforts to promote recycling has led the nation for years. In the following VerdeXchange News interview, L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti details the city’s race to win the title of “Greenest City” in the United States.

The city of Los Angeles recently assembled all of its general managers and departmental executives to hear testimony on environmental initiatives. What motivated the council to hold that historic hearing?

The problems Los Angeles faces can’t be dealt with in a reactive way. Earlier this summer, I took the City Council on its first retreat in history, where we spent a day-and-a-half down in San Pedro, looking at the next two years. One of things that came out of that retreat was the desire to be proactive and have some in-depth conversations about a legislative agenda to improve this city. We identified five areas where we wanted to have these conversations: housing and homelessness, traffic and transportation, public safety, infrastructure, and the environment. So we started with the environment and we asked city departments, the advocacy community, businesses, and others to start the process of writing this city’s sustainable city plan—which is a “greenprint” for measuring our success in making Los Angeles the most sustainable city and growing the economy in an environmentally sensitive way. I couldn’t have been happier with the outcome. Over 80 motions and over 100 suggestions were made, building on the weaving together of our existing environmental policy. People weren’t just talking about policy initiatives, they talked about changing the way we structure environmental policy in the city of L.A. to beef up the internal ability to implement a sustainable city plan that cuts across multiple city departments.

With the Nobel Peace Prize going to Al Gore and the International Panel for Climate Change on December 10th, and with the growing public attention to climate change, the debate regarding whether or not climate change is a threat is over. Attention now moves to a more challenging question: How do cities “connect the green dots,” begin reducing emissions, and utilizing sustainable practices? How has L.A. accomplished some of those goals?

Let’s talk about the good news and the bad news. The good news is that Los Angeles—except for our use of public transit—is already, by almost all measures, the greenest big city in America. Some cities often get much more praise and publicity, such as Chicago, San Francisco, and New York City. But a remarkable thing happened when I read through their sustainable city plans and compared their accomplishments with what Los Angeles has already achieved—such as our clean fuel fleet of vehicles, the amount of renewable energy that we’re producing, and our recycling measures. Cities like Chicago are just beginning recycling programs, while we recycle 62 percent of all of the waste in Los Angeles, and we’ll probably be at 70 percent within the next three years. We have managed to greatly reduce air pollution, but because of our car dependency and our terrain, we still have the worst air in America. We have managed to lay down one of the largest public transit systems in the country, including our rail, but we’re such a huge city that it’s still wholly inadequate for our needs. While we see the progress that we’ve made compared to our peers, we see, also, what we must still do, especially around that central issue of how we move through our city and our dependence on single-passenger cars. We love the amount of publicity that the environmental movement has received in recent years, including through Al Gore’s movie, but we’ve been measuring our carbon output for close to a decade in the city. We have been able to inspire other cities and regions through our successes. Whether it’s that we use the same amount of water today that we used in 1982 or whether it’s because the Port of L.A. is the first port in America to have a plug-in tower for ships, converting the entire fleet to plug-in for electrical power, we really have led the way. However, we still have a long way to go.

Those are definitely positive accomplishments. But what remains for the city to accomplish? What are the next five goals for the city’s environmental agenda?

A lot of it focuses around our proprietaries: We have the biggest port in America, one of the largest airports in America, and the largest municipal utility in America. The next things to do: first, we’ve got to start changing the way we handle environmental policy inside the city. I’d like to see an empowered Environmental Affairs Department leading the charge on coordinating environmental policy and helping to change the way city departments, including our proprietaries, do business internally and externally. Second, I’d like us to finally write a sustainable city plan; the council has begun that process with these hearings. We’re going to sit down, lock the doors with some environmental advocates and city employees, and we’re going to start actually writing that plan in the next couple of weeks. It will require months to finish that process, but it will hold us accountable to specific, numerical, and measurable goals. Third, we need to systematically implement clean water throughout our city. We should build our parks with soil that refilters water into our natural aquifers. We need to continue our momentum along the Los Angeles River, where I just saw an osprey a month ago, which means the fish are jumping back in the river again, all the way out to the ocean. Fourth, we need to continue regional work to clean our air. The biggest impact we will have is at the port, and moving all those idling ships off of dirty bunker diesel to clean electricity and finally getting something passed for the trucks to clean themselves up and to help those small truck owners convert their vehicles or buy new ones. Fifth, we need to meet the goal of a park within walking distance of every person in Los Angeles. I am very proud that, in my district, we’ve added 20 new parks to the 12 that I started with. We’ve almost tripled the number of parks in less than seven years. I have the densest district of anybody in the city, so if we can find the land, anybody can find the land. Lastly, we have to continue the momentum we’ve made in changing how we deal with waste. As I’ve mentioned, we’re up to 62 percent recycling. We have the most innovative food-recycling program in the country. We just added apartments to our bulky item pickups and our recycling. Anybody that lives in an apartment in Los Angeles can call 311 to get recycling bins. We’re up to 200,000 already, after just a few months. We need to look at ways to get a zero-waste city, and I’m glad that we’ll have had, by the time you print this, a conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center dealing with how we get to a zero-waste city.

L.A. has been revitalizing its airport for more than a decade-and-a-half. What is the airport doing to clean the air and reduce its carbon footprint while it is renovating its facilities?

At the airport, we have to measure our footprint, and not just our carbon footprint. One of the goals coming out of this will be a yearly report from our Environmental Affairs Department letting us know what our footprint is and which direction it’s moving. Specifically to the airport, we have to modernize an airport that has become an embarrassment to travelers and a less-than-optimal environmental actor in the city. First and foremost, we have to be ready for the next generation of planes, like the A380s, which is a quieter airplane that uses less fuel per passenger. But we need to make sure we have the gates and the buildings to greet the planes. The new Boeing is going to be coming online as well. We have begun the much-needed process of modernizing our international terminal, which is a gateway for everybody, and we have successfully passed the equivalent of a LEED-certified green building program for the airport through the City Council. There are no existing measurements by which an airport can be considered green, so we’re writing the books ourselves. I give a lot of credit to Gina Marie Lindsey and the Airport Commission for adding recycling throughout the airport and for looking at the most environmentally sensitive ways to build. I want a passenger to get off the plane, whether it’s from Las Vegas or Seoul, ga rcetti cont’d. (continued from page 17) Korea, and immediately see the greenest city in the world and one of the greenest airports in the world, from displays of our leadership in solar power, to the ability to get around in a people-mover instead of hopping into a gas-burning car, to the internal operations at the airport, as well.

The city of Los Angeles has one of the country’s most recognized and accomplished planning directors. How can planning the built environment impact the carbon footprint of Los Angeles?

It’s time for us, to quote the L.A. Planning Commission, to “Do Real Planning,” to look comprehensively at how people function—not how buildings, subway cars, passenger cars, or architecture functions, but how people function in a city. I believe Gail Goldberg and the current Planning Commission have helped us move in that direction. I offer Hollywood, which is in my district, as a great example of the 14 points that were outlined in the “Do Real Planning” document—we’re actually making these points come true in Hollywood. We want to have the city green its internal operations, but we also want it to become a magnet for green innovators around the country and around the world. We have started the Apollo Alliance to train a workforce that will be ready in the green building and clean energy sectors in some of the most job-deficient areas in Los Angeles. We have re-upped our commitment to a solar program that will be second-to-none in the country, distributing power throughout the city of Los Angeles and continuing to bring the solar industry here. We’re working aggressively with everybody from the President of Iceland to biodiesel innovators native to Los Angeles to change the way that we produce and consume power, not just in the city government but also as a city. Our greenness as a city has defined our topography since our inception. It’s time that it defined our economy in Los Angeles, as well.