Wed, Feb

Los Angeles Needs a Real Sustainability Plan, Not Just Good Intentions


LOS ANGELES-On April 8, Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled a new sustainability program for Los Angeles, Sustainable City pLAn – Transforming Los Angeles.  Over 100 pages long, it not only includes environmental goals and programs, but also affordable housing as part of a larger economic equity objective.  The plan is clearly ambitious, presenting its first deadline for achieving set targets, such as the production of affordable housing, for the year 2017. 

Curiously, the Mayor’s press release promoting his sustainability program calls it the first ever sustainability plans for Los Angeles, but more about this extraordinary misstatement later. 

Sustainability Planning:  There can be no doubt that Los Angeles needs a proper, comprehensive plan to address sustainability and equity.  After all, Los Angeles is a vast, generally low density metropolitan area located in an arid basin in the midst of a serious drought.  It has the worst traffic congestion in the United States, as well as the worst air quality for ozone, while we rank third in other pollution categories.  

Furthermore, we know that the city’s infrastructure, especially its sidewalks and water mains, are crumbling, that its schools and parks need substantial investment and increased staffing.  When it comes to urban design and landscaping, much of Los Angeles is a sight for sore eyes and needs a major makeover.  Finally, let’s not forget the massive destruction of public infrastructure and services; workplaces and residences; and deaths and casualties that will result when a certain catastrophic earthquake, eventually strikes. 

We have an increasing number of studies documenting how climate change is already affecting California, including Los Angeles, and how many different climate indicators will get much worse.  LA’s climate future, as spelled out at C-Change LA, a website supported by the City of Los Angeles, includes permanent mega-droughts, rising sea levels, severe storms, heat waves, and worsening air quality from smog and forest fires.   

In terms of equity, Los Angele has a high and sustained rate of unemployment, as well as extreme differences in income and wealth. 

While sustainability originally meant preserving a city’s natural setting, human history, and social capital, the concept of sustainability has expanded in recent years, especially in California.  It now includes policies and programs to reduce a city’s cumulative and per capita carbon footprint.  Since a large carbon footprint means a city, like Los Angeles, generates vast amounts of the Green House Gases responsible for climate change, reductions in the direct and indirect use of fossil fuels are key to a modern sustainability plan.  This, in fact, is the theme that runs through all State of California’s climate change legislation, including State climate-related mandates imposed on Los Angeles through AB 32, SB 375, and AB 1358 (the Complete Streets Act).   

Given the importance of a sustainability plan for Los Angeles, as well as the extensive amount of research, proposals, and legislation related to climate change in California and the greater Los Angeles area, including regional studies from the Southern California Association of Government, how does the Mayor’s new sustainability pLAn stack up? 

Evaluating Mayor Garcetti’s pLAn:  To be charitable, it is a first start.  It has admirable intentions, but still a long way to go to be successful.  If not, the new sustainability pLAn will become a shelf document like the similar Green LA: An Action Plan to Lead the Nation in Fighting Global Warming,  a sustainability document prepared by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s administration.  

Even though this plan is still on the City’s web page, and includes a detailed implementation program called Climate LA, these “plans” were so quickly forgotten that the authors of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s new Sustainable pLAn did not even know they existed.  They wrote that their plan was the first of its kind, when, in fact, it is the second.  In many ways they have re-invented the shelf documents of the previous Mayoral administration, including the similarities between Mayor Villaraigosa’s Executive Directive and Mayor Garcetti’s Executive Directive to Department General Mangers to implement the  environmental policies and programs in their respective sustainability plans. 

But, for the new mayoral sustainability program to avoid the same fate as the previous one – totally forgotten -- there are many steps that Mayor Garcetti’s office should take for pLAn to make an actual difference.  If not, this well intentioned but toothless document will have little if any impact on City operations.  Done right, the new sustainability plan could achieve most of its goals; promoting a sustainable and equitable Los Angeles. 

First, Mayor Garcetti’s pLAn, like Mayor Villaraigosa’s Green LA, is nothing more than an Executive action, without any formal, legislative component.  It includes a plan-like document and a Mayoral directive to City Departments, along with a public relations outreach program.  But, a plan-like document is not really a plan in any legal or technical sense.  More precisely, pLAn is not linked to or part of the official, legally adopted plans of the City of Los Angeles.  

These documents are called the General Plan, and they are prescribed in exacting detail by State of California law.  Not only do the existing Los Angeles General Plan elements already contain extensive policies and programs that address sustainability, but the Department of City Planning has prepared two new General Plan elements – Mobility and Health -- that comprehensively analyze environmental issues and propose many programs that parallel the Mayor’s sustainability pLAn.  

The difference is that the official General Plan elements are based on carefully prepared State of California legislative requirements and administrative guidelines, extensive local research, public participation, a full Environmental Impact Report, public hearings before the City Planning Commission and the City Council, and an eventual vote by the City Council.   While General Plan Elements can also become shelf documents, they have far more impact and legal standing than a Mayoral directive. 

In this case, the obvious optional General Plan Element would be a Climate Change/Global Warming Plan that would integrate all of the sustainability-related goals, policies, programs, and monitoring system scattered throughout the General Plan’s existing elements.  It would include policies and programs exclusive to the new Sustainability pLAn.  In other words, this new element would transform pLAn into a new General Plan element.  Since many California cities are already taking this voluntary step, the Governors Office for Research and Planning has prepared and posted detailed guidelines for these optional General Plan climate change/global warming elements.  The cookbook is already sitting there, waiting to put some real nutrients into Mayor Garcetti’s Sustainability pLAn stew.   

In order to successfully makeover pLAn, several critical steps should be followed, all of which will ensure that the final product is fully integrated into the City’s day-to-day operations. 

Public Input:  At every stage, from the initial conceptual meetings to the final public hearings, General Plan elements are prepared with extensive public input in the form of workshops, open houses, and public hearings before the City Planning Commission and the City Council. 

CEQA:  To begin, all new General Elements are prepared with a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR).  This careful environmental review also includes Community Plans, such as the adopted Hollywood Community Plan Update.  In fact, because of its shoddy EIR, the Superior Court and the California State Court of Appeals dismissed this Update and directed the Department of City Planning to start anew.  This judicial intervention also had important environmental benefits because the Update’s EIR revealed the generation of unmitigatable levels of Green House Gases in Hollywood.  In other words, had it not been rejected by the Courts, the Hollywood Update would have increased rather than reduced LA’s carbon footprint.  To be adopted the City Planning Commission and the City Council had no choice but to reject the conclusions of the Update’s EIR with a Statement of Overriding Considerations. 

Implementation: The second important feature of a General Plan element is its meticulous implementation program.  For example, in the city’s General Plan Framework Element every policy is matched with implementation mechanisms, as well monitoring.  These implementation programs can be broad, but several components would be essential to the success of a Sustainability/Climate Change/Global Warming plan.

  • ZoningZoning is established through City Council-adopted ordinances and regulates all private land in the city.  Furthermore, all real estate projects on these parcels, covering about 50 percent of LA’s land area, require a building permit issued by the Department of Building Safety.  Among these, large projects and those requiring zoning relief from the Department of City Planning are subject to the California Environmental Quality Act.  This requirement insures that any harmful environmental impacts, such as the generation of Green House Gases, are identified for decision makers through the permitting process.            

A perfect example of a zoning ordinance that promotes both sustainability and equity is Councilmember Paul Koretz’s motion to remove the loopholes from the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance.   When implemented, his motion would not only stop the loss of affordable housing, but also impedes the construction of energy-guzzling McMansions. 

  • CIP:  In addition to zoning, General Plans are implemented through a city’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP).  These are regularly updated inventories of a city’s proposed expenditures on its public infrastructure, or about 25 percent of its land area.  In LA’s case this is where the money for public improvements essential to the implementation of a sustainability plan, such as bicycle lanes or cisterns for the capture of rainwater, are identified and funded. 
  • Monitoring:  By State law, professional planning practice, common sense, and self-imposed mandates, all General Plan elements should be regularly monitoring to determine if their underlying population assumptions, their proposed policies and programs, or their actual outcomes are consistent with the original plan.  When not, then General Plan Elements should be systematically amended to keep them current and relevant.  While Mayor Garcetti’s pLAn alludes to monitoring, it does not have the type of comprehensive and mandatory monitoring program associated with a General Plan element. 

Final thoughts:  Is what I have laid out in this detailed discussion, transforming the Mayor’s new Sustainability pLAn into a powerful General Plan Climate Change/Global Warming General Plan Element, a serious project?  Absolutely.  Is it an even more serious task to add equity into this plan?  Yes, again, because the only way this can be done is to dramatically expand expenditures listed in the CIP on “green” public amenities shared by all regardless of their income level, such as mass transit, urban forest, community gardens, parks, pedestrian oriented sidewalks, and bicycle infrastructure. 

But is this work essential to Los Angeles?  Yes, again.


(Dick Platkin is a former city planner. He teaches, writes, and consults on community planning issues

in Los Angeles. Dick Platkin can be reached at [email protected] )




Vol 13 Issue 32

Pub Apr 17, 2015