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Transforming Los Angeles into a Sustainable City
Micki Krimmel, 12 Feb 07
Article Photo

Mayor Villaraigosa has made it one of his goals to transform Los Angeles into “the greenest big city in America.? Plagued with traffic problems and the worst air quality in the country, LA is more often equated with urban sprawl and asthma than a model of sustainability. But that transformation is exactly what Villaraigosa and Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley have in mind. Nancy Sutley is the Deputy Mayor for Energy and the Environment for the City of Los Angeles, and is also Mayor Villaraigosa’s appointment to the Board of Directors for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. With a long history in environmental policy at both the state and federal level, Sutley is in a unique position to lead Los Angeles toward sustainability.

Tuesday night, I joined 100 other Los Angeles residents for a talk with the Deputy Mayor hosted by the Hollywood Hill. Sutley outlined a wide range of current and upcoming environmental initiatives addressing everything from energy and transportation to waste management and the revitalization of the LA River.


The majority of energy for Los Angeles comes from coal plants in Arizona and Utah. Currently, only 6% of LA’s power is renewable (mostly wind power from the San Francisco Bay area). The mayor’s office has set a goal for the city to use 20% green energy by 2010. Is it realistic to jump from 6% to 20% renewable energy in just three years? In a word, yes.

Southern California Edison is building a huge solar farm in the Mojave Desert. New technologies are making solar energy more affordable and less space-intensive. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is also working on geothermal projects in the Salton Sea area.

LA has also recently embarked on a pilot project whereby biosolids from local sewage treatment plants are converted into clean energy. Solid waste is disposed in abandoned oil wells. As the waste decomposes, methane is produced. The methane powers a fuel cell which generates green electricity. Sutley tells the crowd, “All of you are generating electricity.?

Sutley also noted the continuing need to decrease LA’s demand for energy. One of the most effective ways to lessen demand is embracing green building practices. Los Angeles now requires all new public buildings to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards provided by the US Green Building Council. Los Angeles boasts seven LEED certified projects, including the Platinum-rated Lake View Terrace Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. The city also has 59 LEED registered projects, placing it fifth in the U.S. for the highest number of registered projects. Los Angeles is also working with private developers by providing resources and incentives to build green in the area.


The system for supplying and delivering water in the state of is incredibly inefficient. So much energy is spent treating and transporting water that the Department of Water Services is the largest consumer of electricity in CA. Being among the most arid regions of the state, Los Angeles has a long history of water conservation and has actually managed to do a fair job of it. LA’s water consumption has remained steady since 1990 even with a 15% increase in population.

In the mid 1990’s, Los Angeles mandated low flow toilets and showerheads for the entire city. Neighborhood by neighborhood, local nonprofit organizations were enlisted to deliver and install the new toilets – for free. This project can be credited with the majority of the city’s water savings and it also provided jobs and engaged the community.

Next, Los Angeles will tackle water usage for landscaping, at the city-wide level as well as for corporations and individuals. The plans include installing smart irrigation systems in parks, diverting more treated waste water from the oceans for outdoor use, and creating more green space with native trees and plants to absorb storm runoff to stave pollution of the ocean and the region’s groundwater.


According to Sutley, “LA hasn’t spent a dime in 15 years on expanding freeway capacity.? Instead, the city has focused on building carpool lanes, making the city more bike-friendly and expanding public transport. Over one million people use LA’s public transit every day and the MTA has the largest fleet of compressed natural gas buses in North America. The goal is to move away from diesel buses entirely by 2008. Massive expansions to the light rail and subway system are also on the docket, including the hotly debated Subway to the Sea project.

Waste disposal

Los Angeles produces 8,000 tons of garbage every day. With limited landfill space, LA was an early pioneer of curbside recycling. Currently, 62% of waste is diverted from landfills and the goal is to increase that percentage to 70 by 2015 through increased recycling programs and proposals to divert green waste to ethanol production facilities.

Community Projects

Many other projects are underway to help green Los Angeles and make the city more livable by creating more park spaces and building community. As we’ve reported before, the LA River is undergoing a massive revitalization. This program began as a grassroots effort and recently, the city announced a 20 year plan to remove concrete from much of the river, add bike paths and parks and make the way for new real estate development. The goal is to bring the river back to the people of Los Angeles.

Another initiative launched by the Mayor’s office is Million Trees LA. Million Trees LA is a community effort:

Many of the one million new trees will be planted by City departments on public property. Others will be planted throughout the City by individual volunteers, community groups, organizations, and businesses.
Million Trees LA is a cooperative effort between the City of Los Angeles, community groups, businesses, and individuals working together to plant and provide long-term stewardship of one million trees planted where they’re needed most.
Million Trees LA will take several years and build on other programs that plant and care for the urban forest.
Trees that maximize sustainability – with a preference on native and drought tolerant species – are recommended.

Asking the residents of LA to adopt a tree may seem like more of a marketing campaign than a real substantive environmental effort. But Million Trees LA is a real strategic effort toward building a greener city.

A tree canopy analysis developed by Dr. Greg McPherson, a scientist with the USDA Forest Service, PSW Research Station, Center for Urban Forest Research, Davis, CA will be used to:
1. Map Los Angeles’ current tree canopy
2. Inventory potential tree planting sites
3. Forecast future environmental and social benefits
Planting will be guided by this information with an emphasis on schools, underserved communities, transportation corridors and areas along the Los Angeles River.

The Mayor’s Office’s goals are not limited to greening Los Angeles, improving its economy and making the city more livable for its residents. Sutley also aims to share successes and create standards for other cities. “Cities are all basically the same,? she said. “We all have to deal with roads, water, energy and waste.? Because national and international governments can be slow to act, mayors of cities worldwide are collaborating to take matters into their own hands. “Cities are the first responders. If climate change causes more local forest fires, we have to deal with that on a city level. We can’t afford to wait for national or international action.? Sutley represents Los Angeles in the Large Cities Climate Group, an international organization of mayors founded in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative.

As an Angeleno, it can be difficult to feel connected with your fellow city-dwellers. The city is broken up into disparate neighborhoods and driving from one to another, you often feel like a tourist rather than a local. I hope that the initiatives from the Mayor’s Office will help bring the communities together in a shared vision for a greener LA. As Los Angeles increasingly becomes a model of sustainability for other cities, it will build a green identity for itself and give its residents something to rally behind.

Photo: City of Los Angeles, by Tim F.

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The traffic problems in LA are legendary. But considering the current head of the Los Angeles transit agency drives a Hummer, this may be one area in which LA still doesn't "get" sustainability.

More at: Carfree USA blog

Posted by: Brian on 12 Feb 07

I'm glad to see that light rail is at least a part of this plan; not for the transportation capacities of rail, but rather for the effect that well-zoned transit centers can have on the surrounding cityscape. Like a seed crystal, well-spaced transit centers can establish compact little cores whose physical configurations can expand outwards into surrounding sprawl.

Although none of them were specific to LA, Peter Calthorpe's classic The Next American Metropolis contains several SoCal projects, and a lens through which the Transit-Oriented Development piece of the puzzle can be clearly seen. I hope LA is ready to bring all the pieces together. It'd be an heroic work.

- Heath

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 12 Feb 07

There's plenty of carfree and happy people in LA too; the buses are great and the transit system is cleaner than almost any other city in America. People want to be green here and there's greater awareness for healthy food, clean air and water because this city saw just how terrible the air can get without smog checks and a serious commitment to greening the city.

LA is still miles of concrete to go from this vision but there's no shortage of ways to get involved in these efforts in ANY CITY. Here in LA our neighbors set up new gardens under the power towers while we work on a rooftop edible garden with the kids. It's possible anywhere; if LA can do it anyone can.

Posted by: evonne heyning on 12 Feb 07

While the mayor's goals are admirable, there are some missing definitions.

Sustainability, for LA would mean, literally, the city living on the solar energy budget which falls within the boundaries of the county, as that is translated into energy (including wind) and food. It would mean that for resources not available in the county it would trade resources of which is has a surplus. How much food could be raised on the available acreage now scattered in parks, private yards, and under freeways which will no longer be needed when auto traffic is replaced by transit?

OK, lets be more realistic. The county cannot feed or energize itself, but it must then recognize dedicated acreage outside its boundaries where the demands are less than sustainability so that the ecological footprint could be equalized.

We have a long way to go.

Posted by: Jerry Silberman on 13 Feb 07

I believe that Los Angeles can only make progress through city wide planning due to opposition from many special interest groups. There can be improvements with traffic problems, but the lack of urban planning and the horizontal landscape make public transportation very difficult at best. The change of lifestyle will only happened when people are forced to change due to economic conditions or severe environmental conditions. The City of Los Angeles faces many challenges that can be overcome, but many of these changes will be expensive and will in time change the attitudes of the people. The cost of energy will play a very important role in the overall solution of these problems.

Posted by: John K. Wakamatsu on 13 Feb 07

I'm inclined to think Angelenos can do this specifically BECAUSE nobody else expects them to do this.

Posted by: Bruce Sterling on 13 Feb 07

The |Mayor is going in the right direction but still doing much too little. Here are a few proposals:

Energy. Why not a city-wide program to subsidize solar panels on all the roofs in Los Angeles--that would reduce energy a lot.

Transportation. Currently, a program gives low-cost bus/subway passes to students at LACC and LA Trade Technical College. Why not expand the program giving low-cost bus/subway passes to all community college students & staff in the Los Angeles area. Not all but an increased number would take the bus/subway/light rail. Also, the Exposition light rail line, which should have been built, has been stalled for years. Why doesn't the mayor use his bully pulpit to get the Exposition line built asap. Why doesn't he do more to get $ for the Wilshire & other subway/light rail lines.

Waste. Currently apartments, where I now live, don't recycle. Why doesn't the city require all apartment houses as well as businesses to recycle to reduce waste.

Also, the Grand Avenue project is a waste of money given that we have 90,000 homeless people in the city. I think the mayor should focus on getting homes for the 90,000 homeless people and stop the Grand Avenue project.

Posted by: Julia Stein on 21 Feb 07

very informative. to the point, and organized nicely. i cited your article in an essay. Thanks!

Posted by: mishal on 21 Feb 07

While I applaud the mayor's ambition and zeal, there are too many "old-school" traditionalists who yell "slow growth", and "urban blight"... when it comes to "mitigating change" to a "broken system" of "city" and "civic" values...

For example, ten years ago, during the city's "first" Let's Go Green campaign... I volunteered for an organization called Tree People. As an "urban forester", we planted hundreds of trees on city school property, where there were already plots of green grass to welcome them; to "produce heathier air to breathe", for students playing on school playgrounds.

We also planted fruit bearing trees on open, grassy areas (sort of "pocket parks") in downtown LA, to "provide free fruit for LA's homeless to pick and consume"... as, part of a "this city cares about the health of its homeless" mindset!

The next thing we knew, members of the city council passed legislation, which: "ordered city crews to pull up the trees"... saying that: "they were too expensive to maintain, due to drout conditions," and, that: "there "wasn't enough water" to keep them healthy"! So, the trees and the grass was removed and replaced with blacktop!!!

Also, the following arguments were given for removing the trees from downtown LA... First: "there weren't enough city workers to prune the trees in the fall and winter, and to collect all of the ripe fruit on the trees", Second: "that homeless people might slip and fall on all of the fruit lying on the ground," and Third: "that the city didn't have enough liability insurance, to cover any lawsuits that homeless people might file against them, for "slip and fall" injuries!"

So, as the saying goes: "leave no good deed unpunished"!

Furthermore, the city has a massive problem with homelessness... which is "not being addressed adequately"... other than "using racist laws, backed by agressive, bullying, police enforcement" to "spread the homeless throughout LA County", and "away from the MILLIONAIRE ACRES developments of downtown LA" (those "old money" people!), and, "angering people, in the cities into whose areas the homeless are being forced to flee to: (Santa Monica, Venice, Inglewood, Culver City, Glendale, Burbank, Van Nuys, North Hollywood, Studio City, Long Beach, and San Diego, to name just a few localities)", though, "changing nothing" in the "delivery of supportive care", that these people "should be entitled to", and "making it more difficult" for "LA's homeless populations" to "keep appointments" and "receive supportive care" from "established, BEST PRACTICES providers", located in the "areas of enforcement"...

If there were a truely "humaine focus and approach" in "dealing on the problem of homelessness"... (which, in my opinion, is primaly based on the following three factors: First, "this countries failed system of job creation versus job erosion"... out sourcing is more cost effective than skills training and job security... also, focusing strongly on union busting as an end result!, Second, "this countries minimalist financial management policies versus financial equality"... all the wealth is held/controlled by but a few families, to "keep the rich in power", and "the poor in their place"!, and, Thirdly, a "class based ranking system"... that is based, both in "fantasy", and, "unobtainability"... only politicians and sociologists still "talk about the middle classes". For everybody else, there are "only two classes; the rich and the poor... and, the "poor class is INCREASING; due to factory closures, layoffs, and forced retirement", while the rich, stay for the most part at THE SAME LEVEL... Wall Street commisions and internet start-ups, merely adding to the "myth" of "wealth creation" and "new, long-term millionaires"... without making a significant difference!!!

Until the "mean spirited attitude" that presently exists toward homelessness and that significant popupation of people... both in LA and nationwide... is changed significantly... and the "Federal Govenment changes is policies toward one of "significant financial support and entitlement versus cutting financial support", while "allocating more monies for tax cuts for the wealthy" and "waging wars in foreign lands" and "really invests in creating REAL CHANGE for them"... the "problem will never be mitigated or reduced!!!

In the mean time, these "old school" people yelling: "Not In Our Backyard", "Our property values will drop", "Urban blight", and "We didn't create the problem, so why are you forcing us to deal with it"??? are "merely adding a chaotic voice, rather than offering any real help" in dealing with these issues.

Posted by: zed null on 24 Feb 07



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