Brave new L.A.

Los Angeles is an unlikely model of urban sustainability for the West and the world.

  • Los Angeles is becoming an unlikely model of sustainability.

    Ryan Sanchez
  • "L.A. has dramatically reduced smog: You can see the mountains here more often now than you could when I was a kid, visiting my grandparents in Pasadena."

    Ryan Sanchez
  • "Los Angeles is taking more responsibility for its past wrongs and actively tackling current challenges."

    Ryan Sanchez

In 1913, Los Angeles' legendary chief engineer William Mulholland watched water flow from the L.A. Aqueduct for the first time and proclaimed, "There it is. Take it." The project drew water from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, more than 200 miles away across deserts and mountains, drying up the Owens River and the once-vast Owens Lake, and dangerously lowering eerily beautiful Mono Lake. Over time, it also made modern Los Angeles possible in all its awful glory: sprawling suburbs linked by clogged freeways underneath a blanket of smog.

Later, L.A. tore out its rail system to make room for a booming car culture. And even today, despite the dramatic natural setting – 10,000-foot mountains, 30 miles of Pacific beaches and one of the nation's largest urban parks smack-dab in its middle – many of  L.A.'s 4 million residents have no easy access to nature, making the city one of our most park-poor.

And yet, last year, as the city celebrated the centennial of its original sin – that Owens Valley water grab – it also marked a turning point in its history. Under cover of one of the worst environmental reputations on the planet, Los Angeles is becoming an unlikely model of sustainability.

This coincides with a political transition. In 2013, L.A. elected Mayor Eric Garcetti, 42, who as a city council member was a strong advocate for localizing water sources, cutting energy use, promoting efficiency, confronting climate change, and providing access to parks and nature. His first official mayoral portrait, taken in a kayak on the Los Angeles River last summer, will greet visitors at LAX. That the L.A. River – a trash-strewn, concrete-lined channel famous as a backdrop for murders and movie car chases – has become an official symbol of Los Angeles says a lot about the city's transformation. The river, like its city, is slowly but surely being rehabilitated.

Los Angeles has a solid foundation for this effort. Its 329 days of sunshine a year and ocean breezes give it an advantage, making heating and cooling more energy-efficient. The sprawling city is also, paradoxically, already the nation's densest, with more people on average living in every square block than even New York, thanks to the number of duplexes and apartments in what you might call the suburbs. And it has not one downtown, but many – 88 cities altogether in Los Angeles County, a sort of new urbanist's dream.

Meanwhile, California's overwhelmingly Democratic political landscape is famously friendly to environmental initiatives. The state has moved well beyond debates about whether climate change is happening to begin implementing the country's most progressive policies. Locally, decades of grassroots advocacy to restore the L.A. River – initiated by poet Lewis MacAdams – have been embraced by the political mainstream. The city is also home to RePower L.A., a coalition of environmentalists, labor unions and economic justice activists that works with the city-owned Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to train workers to retrofit homes at no cost to homeowners.

L.A.'s bid to become a 21st century sustainable city starts where its environmental sins began, with water. Despite their hot, dry climate, Angelenos use less water than residents of any other American city with more than a million people, according to the Water and Power Department. Aggressive conservation measures during droughts have led to savings in wet times, too: The metropolitan area currently uses the same amount of water that it did in 1970, even though several million more people live here. Still, L.A. imports approximately 89 percent of its water from hundreds of miles away – the Owens Valley, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River. But the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has been forced to leave more water in Owens Valley, raising the level of Mono Lake, returning water to the Owens River, and keeping down dust at dry Owens Lake. With other imported supplies likely to be pinched by climate change and increasing environmental demands, the municipal utility is working to capture more stormwater and store it in depleted groundwater basins, clean up contaminated groundwater, and recycle and reuse wastewater.

Dennis R Brownridge
Dennis R Brownridge Subscriber
Jan 26, 2014 10:17 AM
There's a confusion here between the City of Los Angeles (4 million) and the much larger Los Angeles Urban Area (15 million). The Urban Area is indeed the densest in the nation, with 6,200 residents per square mile. But more than 100 U.S. cities are denser than the City of L.A. itself (8,500 per square mile). New York City is three times denser (27,000) than the City of L.A. While a few L.A. neighborhoods have densities over 30,000, they pale in comparison to Manhattan, which has high-rise districts with over 100,000 per square mile. But density is much less important than total population. There's no getting around the fact that L.A. Urban's 15 million people have a gargantuan, global environmental impact.
R. T.
R. T.
Jan 28, 2014 11:06 AM
For a response to this article don't miss the following (including the comments):
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Jan 28, 2014 05:10 PM
For a sense of the conversation that this piece has spurred between author Jon Christensen and Emily Green, who wrote the rebuttal R.T. mentions above, check out:[…]/

The pair will also be discussing L.A.'s sustainability efforts on KCRW during the noon to 1pm hour Pacific Time. If HCN can get ahold of the podcast, we'll try to crosspost it.

--Sarah Gilman, HCN associate editor
Dennis R Brownridge
Dennis R Brownridge Subscriber
Jan 30, 2014 10:28 AM
Emily Green's rebuttal is very astute. As a native Angeleño, I was also struck by the blatant greenwashing in the essay.
Alexander Clayton
Alexander Clayton Subscriber
Mar 03, 2014 09:49 PM
Lots of great commentary all around. I grew up in SoCal, lived in Las Vegas and now reside in Denver, and honestly, the West in general is far from sustainable, be it about water, transportation or energy use. Part of the problem is the lack of overarching plans across regions (city measures alone won't cut it), the belief in never-ending resources to plunder, and the inability to get people to change their habits (especially political critters who shill for bills). I've done research and written articles and a thesis on everything from California's renewable portfolio standard to urban water conservation and have found any moves to improve sustainability are slow and painful. Nonetheless, I'm glad a small, but committed cadre of folks is engaged and passionate about discussing the prospects and working toward a more sustainable future.