By Stephanie Pincetl

To many, even Angelenos, Los Angeles is the poster child of all that is unsustainable. Sprawling, polluted, car dependent, center-less, the importer of water, devoid of culture and urbanity, Los Angeles is seen as the antithesis of a sustainable city. But some basic indicators show how Los Angeles, and its surrounding county, may now be different from the stereotypes. There are surprising attributes of its urban form, products of the 20th century urban boom and restless ambition. While not a high-rise city like Tokyo or even parts of Sao Paolo, Los Angeles is the densest metropolitan region in the United States. Its form and morphology are such that sustainability infrastructure can be deployed: distributed generation for electricity, and the land capacity for storage; room for urban farming and water reinfiltration projects, land for more small and large parks, and greening. Further densification is possible, too, and if implemented delicately and artfully, will further the goal of beautiful, transit-friendly, walkable neighborhoods that support vibrant communities and businesses at all scales. Yet homeowner associations actively oppose any increase in density in single-family zones, a common problem in many cities that impedes further sustainability success.

Metro Exposition Line, Culver City Station
Metro Exposition Line, Culver City Station, 2012 (Esirgen/Wikimedia Commons)

There are a few more surprising facts about the city’s path to greater sustainability. Derided as profligate, the city of Los Angeles only uses about 117 gallons per person per day, the least amount of water per capita of all U.S. cities over 1 million people. And its water importation has remained the same since the 1970s despite the addition of a million more inhabitants. Programs for the recycling and reuse of waste water are being implemented as part of a region-wide effort to become more water self-reliant, giving the Bay Delta and the Owens Valley respite and relieving pressure on the Colorado River.

Largely believed to be devoid of public transit, the countywide METRO has the most extensive bus system in the country serving 1,433 square miles, operating 2,000 peak hour buses; and there are 80 miles of rail. Ridership is second only to New York and higher than Chicago. Bus and rail systems combine more than 2 million daily boardings, roughly 10 percent of the trips on a typical workday, and accommodate bicycles. Transit fares are among the least expensive in the world at $1.50 for an unlimited distance.

Its network of bus rapid transit corridors and rail is being accompanied by green mixed-use development along transit boulevards. These transportation improvements have contributed to the city being well on its way to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by 2030, with The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power reducing its GHG emissions 21 percent below 1990 levels already. The utility has also just approved feed in tariffs for rooftop solar and is committed to a coal free energy future by 2020.

An improbably sustainable city?

To be clear, the Los Angeles region is like most large urban regions. It is far from sustainable but it has the potential of being a humane metropolis. It is important to remember that the region grew up in a time of resource abundance: abundance of land, water, fossil fuels, building materials, and federal, state, and local funding. It developed incrementally, small town by small town, growing and creating a dense urbanized plain, retaining fragmented governance. Los Angeles County alone has 88 cities. Yet, in the midst of this historic legacy, a new commitment for collaboration is emerging around climate change and the need for better coordination to achieve regional change. The Los Angeles Regional Collaborative for Climate Action and Sustainability (housed at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability) is a county-level collaborative of sub-regional councils of government, cities, METRO, nonprofit organizations and businesses working to develop a plan to move the region forward in climate adaptation and mitigation. Using the best available regional climate science developed by UCLA and USC, energy analysis and GHG accounting from UCLA, members of the collaborative are engaged in identifying best management practices to be implemented region wide and strategies for adaptation appropriate for different communities, depending on climate impacts. This initiative represents a remarkable transformation at the regional scale. Instead of each local entity competing for scarce resources and developing new initiatives on their own, there is genuine collaboration. Research at UCLA is revealing patterns of energy and water use across the region, overlaid with county parcel assessor data and census data, informing policy and scholarly understanding of the region’s dynamics.

The sustainable development model for the future of Los Angeles is at a crossroads. It has a choice of going toward something like Tokyo/Vancouver—integrated transit-oriented clusters of connected walkable neighborhoods—or a business as usual model that includes a series of dense clusters with walls and gates for the elite surrounded by slums like Sao Paolo. Seventeen percent of Los Angeles residents live below the poverty line, and the city is tax poor, as is California in general. There is a significant and widening divide. Either direction is possible and there are signs of both patterns emerging. And the city is constrained by extraordinarily high thresholds for raising new taxes or fees, the result of Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax cutting measure, and subsequent tax restricting propositions extending to other taxes and to routine fees as well. Thus, improbably sustainable in many ways, parks and green infrastructure are being built, GHG reduction measures (including transit expansion) are being implemented, densification is occurring. But also the project-by-project, struggle-by-struggle, penny-by-penny approach may not achieve the larger transformation necessary for a livable, sustainable city in the long run.

Stephanie Pincetl
spincetl [at] ioes [dot] ucla [dot] edu
Director, California Center for Sustainable Communities
Institute of the Environment and Sustainability

DOI: 10.14433/2013.0006