Los Angeles, the Improbable Sustainable City

By Stephanie Pincetl and Tim Papandreou, Deputy Director of Transportation Planning for the Sustainable Streets Division of San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency

To many, even Angelenos, Los Angeles is the poster child of all that is unsustainable. Sprawling, polluted, car dependent, artificial, pretentious, center-less, the importer of water, and devoid of culture and urbanity, Los Angeles is seen as the antithesis of a sustainable city.

What if these stereotypes were not as true as all that?  What if the poster child of unsustainable, was no longer Los Angeles, but say another city or bunches of other cities instead? When we think about sustainable cities we might think about places we have visited where we saw the signs of a greener cleaner friendlier city. Places like Amsterdam for its bicycling, Melbourne for its livability or our neighbor to the north San Francisco for its pro-green lifestyle, but when you look a little closer, you realize they don’t even come close to sustainable and are far from having much in common with Los Angeles.

To look at Los Angeles you need to match it with its peers, megacities.  Megacities have much more in common with each other than their nation hosts. This megacity club includes Tokyo, New York City, London, Paris, Mexico City, Mumbai and Sao Paolo. The city of Los Angeles proper is not a useful boundary since Los Angeles County, with 11 million, people seamlessly blends into its neighbor counties to create a mega-region of 19 million people. Los Angeles has more in common in structure with Tokyo and Sao Paolo as a poly-centric megacity than to New York or London with very dense central city cores surrounded by expansive low-density suburbs. Like Tokyo, Los Angeles is one of only a small handful of cities that is home to among the world’s busiest shipping ports and airports.  The ports of LA-Long Beach operate among the cleanest and greenest operations of their peer size. The Los Angeles airport, which is undergoing desperately needed renovation, is surprisingly among the greenest airports in the world. It is also one of only a few airports that has both the top 10 ranking for global passenger and cargo traffic in one of the smallest footprints for a global gateway.

The megacity term isn’t just about population but reflects global influence. Los Angeles’ sphere of influence clearly goes beyond markets. It has probably the greatest impact on global modern society and culture than any of the cities mentioned.  The media, cultural lifestyles are among the most diverse and replicated globally. All this may come with a huge price tag for the planet.   Or will it? Is one Los Angeles too many, can we afford dozens of little or big Los Angeles’? Is that so bad? Let ‘s take a look.

If we look at the common perceptions of what makes a city sustainable we look at many indicators such as water, transportation, land-use, waste management -basically  the infrastructure of the city and how the people move around and what is available for housing employment and amenities.  Los Angeles is vastly different from the stereotypes of the 1980s or even 1990s.

The city of Los Angeles is among the cities in the nation that uses the least amount of water per capita ~ 120 gallons per person per day, and its water importation has remained the same since the 1970s despite the addition of a million more inhabitants. The city’s water conservation efforts, stringent water conserving appliance and plumbing standards and water conservation rebates have kept it among the least thirsty megacities in the planet. While grass is the most irrigated crop in the nation there is a shift in Los Angeles from bucolic green suburb to a multi-cultural megacity with a transformation of lawns to water wise plants and food growing.

The LA Department of Sanitation is implementing far reaching programs for the recycling and reuse of waste water, realizing that sustainability in the future means we can no longer afford to consider water that has been used once in the city, as a waste stream to be disposed of.  Since all water on the planet has been ultimately used and reused, the city is simply applying the same principle.  This is part of a region-wide effort to become more water self-reliant, giving the Bay Delta respite and relieving pressure on the Colorado River.

Over the past two decades, the County Metropolitan Transit Authority has initiated a transit renaissance with the re-introduction of rail transit service.  LA has developed over 80 miles of rail transit connecting the communities of North Hollywood, Long Beach, Norwalk, Pasadena, Redondo Beach, East Los Angeles and dozens of points in between with downtown Los Angeles.
Metro has grown the network of bus rapid transit corridors taking in the best practices from South American cities, by connecting many communities.

Los Angeles county cities are building green mixed-use development along transit boulevards in an attempt to encourage this shift towards a more sustainable transportation system.

Traffic in Los Angeles would be like the gridlock on the scale of Beijing or Bangkok were it not for these projects.  Residents have seen the payoff and two-thirds voted to tax themselves a third time for more transportation projects. With the proposed 30/10 initiative (30 years of projects in 10 years) Los Angeles will continue to see improvements in mobility.

This change of thinking includes more bicycle infrastructure throughout the city.  Its integration the transit system is making getting around more convenient than the last few decades.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District has adopted the most stringent air pollution measures in the world and reduced the unhealthful smog days to a minimum, way much below its peer megacities.

Los Angeles now has the most extensive bus system in the country. The ridership is second to New York, higher than Chicago.  Bus and rail systems combine more than 2 million daily boardings, roughly 10% of the trips on a typical work day. In addition, the county has one of the highest ridesharing rates in the nation. These measures coupled with one of the greenest bus fleets in the world, have dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions.  Transit fares are among the least expensive in the world at $1.50 for an unlimited distance.  Virtually no other transit system of its size is more affordable in terms of purchasing parity. It serves 1,433 square miles, operating around 2,000 peak hour buses and over 80 miles of urban rail service.  It accommodates bicycles, adding to the flexibility of getting around.

Los Angeles is the densest metropolitan region in the country. Yes, that is true. Of all the US mega-regions, Los Angeles is the densest. Unlike the spikes of density in the central core and the flatline low densities of the suburbs, the density patterns of Los Angeles resemble a healthy heart beat graph with slight increases of density and slight decreases of density through the region and a housing occupancy rate much higher than the national average of  cities. So while there is no mega-density, like lower Manhattan, there is no ultra low-density like the majority of the suburbs of New York City either. Despite the continuing prevalence of parking and wide congested roads that undermine the feeling of urbanity, overall densities make public transit not only viable, but well utilized.

With the exception of Tokyo, the megacities club’s urban form is hemorrhaging into the countryside with very low densities. Not Los Angeles, sprawl unofficially ended a few years ago.  Squeezed between the mountains and the ocean there is nowhere else to go but up.  A wave of development pressure hit the outskirts, only to collapse with the stock market crash and high fuel process.  It is now redirecting to infill and redevelop the already urbanized region. Like Tokyo, Los Angeles is focusing most of new growth in the existing urban centers around a transit-oriented lifestyle. A city of boulevards linking dense clusters, linked by public transit and bike lanes is a model that will make all modes work more effectively.  Not many realize that Los Angeles has among the shortest distance commutes to work for a megacity.

Unlike the mansions of Bel Air, Beverly Hills and Malibu, most of Los Angeles is made up of compact single-family neighborhoods and apartment clusters. While housing is surprisingly more affordable than in peer megacities like Tokyo, London or Paris there is also overcrowding, multiple households per housing unit, a sign of the massive shortage of affordable housing. Still Los Angeles is remains more affordable to live in than the older US cities like New York, Boston or San Francisco.

Los Angeles has among the highest trash diversion rates in the country, and composts green waste. The city offers free mulch that not only reduces water use it helps close the greenwaste loop. These higher levels of trash diversion are consistent throughout the region.

Urban Gardening
The city has hundreds of acres of community gardens. The city’s urban form is actually an asset for sustainable urban living – dense, but with open spaces. There is growing opportunity and space for community gardens under power lines, in transportation rights of way, and in individual gardens.  Community gardens are linking with Farmer’s Markets, creating economic opportunity for growers, and more fresh produce for residents.

Farmers Markets
Los Angeles city has more farmers markets than any other city in the U.S.

Energy Consumption
Los Angeles has one of the most favorable climates in the world, rarely hot or cold. The cities’ growing concern over climate and energy efficiency has the city committing to one of the most ambitious renewable energy targets in the nation.  As the city has its own municipal utility, it provides residents and businesses with one of the most affordable rates in the nation.  The city was one of the first adopters of the 78F thermostat standard in employment centers and the Flick the Switch campaign has been successful at educating residential customers to reduce their energy consumption.  In addition, Los Angeles is one of the only megacities offering free trees and planting advice to reduced household energy consumption.

An improbable sustainable city?
To be clear this is not a proclamation that Los Angeles has reached sustainability, rather that the stereotypes no longer apply. Los Angeles is rapidly adopting the world best practices for sustainability and its peers can learn too.  It will never be New York City or Paris or London and nor should it, it won’t even be San Francisco which fits neatly inside the Hollywood area. Los Angeles’ urban form may provide greater opportunities for sustainability – dense sprawl – than more dense places like Manhattan.  There is room for gardening, for water reinfiltration from rain, for trees and distributed generation of electricity generated by solar panels, for waste water recycling.  It has the potential of being a humane metropolis.

The sustainable development model for the future of Los Angeles is at a cross roads, it has a choice of going toward something more like the Tokyo/Vancouver model of 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-either direction is possible and there are signs of both patterns emerging from the ashes of the former Empress of Sprawl. Either way it will be uniquely Los Angeles and from all the signs may influence its peer megacities and newly forming ones to adopt the greener megacity model than its past 20th century model.