February 1, 2001 - From the February, 2001 issue

USC Panel Proffers Ideas For Coping With Urban Growth

Density. Transportation. Quality of Life. Sustainability. These are but a few of the issues the next mayor of Los Angeles will have to confront. But do these candidates truly understand the depth, breadth and scope of these problems? Is there any among them who realize that the only way to create sustainable and livable communities is to focus on a broadbased comprehensive solution that addresses these elements not as individual problems but as a whole. TPR is pleased to offer our readers (and Mayoral candidates) this excerpt from the recent USC Panel: Requisites & Realities of a Sustainable (Quality) Urban Environment which offers not merely a crash course in the region's tangible problems, but proposes a meta-narrative to help envision and chart the course of our fair city. Lee Harrington, Dowell Myers, Jennifer Wolch, Sheldon Kamieniecki and Peter Robertson offer their input as moderator David Abel helps focus the discussion on what the narrative will be and how we begin its creation.

It's the fall of 2001 and L.A. has a newly elected Mayor committed to leading not only the city proper but the region as well. S/he ran on the promise of a more livable and sustainable Los Angeles and now you are being asked to help the Mayor flesh out that vision. What's your advice re goals and objections? What are the trade-offs that must be balanced?

Lee Harrington

L.A. Economic Development Corp.

We have to balance economic prosperity and quality of life.

Our current definition of quality of life is very different from the one expressed 50 years ago when we had land to burn. It now depends on a strategic approach to higher value job creation. It's imperative that we move people up the economic ladder and create a strong and sizable middle-income working population. If we do not, we will not be able to achieve an acceptable quality of life from the standpoint of either wealth accumulation or environmental equity.

With an interest in planning, balancing economic prosperity and quality of life, how do you weigh in on this issue of what the new Mayor should be doing with respect to sustainable development.

Dowell Myers
USC Urban Planning Program

A Mayor elected in the present making decisions about the future doesn't usually sell very well. That's why we don't see much of this type of conversation. In order to plan for sustainable development the Mayor needs to invest heavily in the Planning Department and establish a new section of advanced planning which actually looks at the future of this city and makes proactive decisions.

Prof. Wolch, I wonder if you could turn your attention to the same issue and offer your advice in terms of what this new Mayor should be doing?

Jennifer Wolch
USC Sustainable Cities Program

The new Mayor needs to be very clear about what sustainability really means. And very aware of the type of power a Mayor has to accomplish this kind of agenda. Sustainability is really a balancing act between economic factors, social needs and the environment. The crux is that it allows us to meet current needs without impairing our ability to meet the needs of future generations-not just for people, but plants, animals and the environment.

The current discourse around urban sustainability is somewhat limited to transportation and land use issues. If we actually want to address the real issue and reduce our ecological footprint, we have to think of sustainability not as something that is synonymous with livability or quality urban environments, but something much more radical.

How can a Mayor accomplish this? S/he can kick off a Smart Growth Agenda that limits development in the hinterlands and redirects investment into the existing urban areas. Or use the bully pulpit of the Mayor's position to foster more action at the regional level and state levels. And initiate a local-level sustainability plan. We're in desperate need of leadership. We need to foster visioning exercises to develop a new meta-narrative about what this region could be under a different kind of system of governance and everyday life.

You know that these words have been whispered in your Mayor's ears and you know that the Mayor ran by citing the fact that Houston is now smoggier then L.A. And so it's your turn to address what this Mayor should do.

Sheldon Kamieniecki
USC Environmental Studies Program

My first suggestion, forget about the term "sustainability." Everyone is using it and it's become so ambiguous that people are beginning to manipulate its meaning.

After persuading him/her about this, I would say, ‘focus on quality of life.' As a social scientist I've looked at this for a long time and found that familiy life and environmental factos-not only economic conditions-are major contributors to people's overall quality of life. So we need to broaden the definition of quality of life and introduce a new concept that includes: family, the economy, health care, delivery of services, education and the natural environment.

I would also urge the Mayor to bring developers and environmentalists together and begin a collaborative effort so that we can create a vision of what life should be like in L.A. We need to move away from the historically adversarial situation between the market and the environment and finally show some leadership.

This Mayor is going to oversee a new charter and multiple jurisdictions that probably have no relationship to the new economy, how do we get collaboration?

Peter Robertson

USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development

The process of Neighborhood Council formation is a very critical part of this process if for no other reason then we've devolved the decision making process down to the neighborhood level and encouraged different interest groups and stakeholders to build consensus.

However, in building consensus we must also reevaluate and recognize that economic growth, as it is currently defined, is unattainable. We may have some difficulties defining what sustainability is, but we have no problem defining what isn't sustainable. If we do nothing else, we need to at least stop doing the things that aren't sustainable.

Let's get into the constituent elements that make up some of these issues. Dr. Myers the first paragraph of a report completed for Pat Brown in December of 1960 on metropolitanism began with the following phrase, "We are 16 million people about to be 30 million at the end of the century and local government has little capacity to manage this growth." There's a new regions commission being appointed by the new Speaker of the Assembly, and I can predict that at the end of its study their report will begin, "We are 33 million people approaching 50 million and we have even less control at the local level to manage that growth." How do you respond as to what this Mayor should do if that data is anywhere near accurate?

Dowell Myers

My belief is that the average citizen thinks that sustainability is an amenity. And if the Mayor has to respond to the electorate and the electorate thinks that the most important things are health, safety, economic prosperity and cost savings-not sustainability-we've already lost.

The real challenge of sustainability or maintenance of quality of life is to see whether it's just an amenity or whether it's something more important. The only way I can think to market the idea of sustainability is that it's about preparing for the future. Whether we like it or not, the future is going to happen and it needs to be planned for.

I want to pick up on this theme. Mr. Harrington, we've heard discussion. What are the elements of sustainability that you see?

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Lee Harrington

There is a sequence of events that have to happen here for all of this to work and I think the Mayor's advisors have definitely given him/her a good impression of the challenges ahead. If we continue down the current path, we're going to destroy the hinterlands, build more freeways and increase commutes. What we need is to reorient our values.

I would suggest that the Mayor construct a program that demonstrates that we can address both quality of life and economic prosperity by finding underutilized land that is not contributing to the quality of life or economic prosperity and rehabilitating it. The math is simple: if the state invests $1.5 million per acre in this revitalization process, they would not only create higher value jobs and encourage manufacturing to return to Southern California but address the $1.5 billion social service program in L.A. County and make an 8% return on their investment. That kind of plan could be a big winner for the regional economy.

Jennifer Wolch, would you like to react to what you've heard?

Jennifer Wolch

I think that a Mayor must understand that we're facing a huge increment of growth and it has to be planned for. And that point is only strengthened by what Lee is saying.

One of the striking things that I've found is that localities actually don't have a very good handle on their land supplies. Problems such as that are fundamental to helping recycle the land, rebuild on environmentally sensitive sites, and protecting steep-slope areas, wetlands and prime agricultural lands. We need to have a clear idea about what land resources we have and where we can locate development.

Dr. Robertson despite some positive articles about our new Mayor's predecessor, he was never able to leverage library, park and school bond money in a collaborative way to rebuild our inner-city and inner-suburban neighborhoods. How do we collaborate across jurisdictional boundaries and get a culture that leverages opportunities? And how do we implement this new paradigm we've been talking about?

Peter Robertson

There actually are some processes and techniques that have been evolving over the last 20-30 years which are designed to bring large groups of people together in a visioning process. We need to look forward and ask, ‘What are our strengths? What can we build on? And what is the kind of society that we want in the future?'

What one finds when you go through these processes is that people who create a shared vision about the future are much more inclined to commit their time, energy and resources to actually making it happen. These techniques are available, they just aren't being used in our current governance systems.

That technique has brought us full-circle back to a point Jennifer made earlier, the idea of a meta-narrative. Flesh it out for us? How important is a story or narrative to fostering the changing vision or reality of the City of Los Angeles.

Jennifer Wolch

A meta-narrative is a shared idea about what this region means-it describes what this region is about, what our goals and aspirations are and delves into the core ideas of human settlements and their relation to nature, each other and the future.

Southern California has been shaped by very powerful meta-narratives. And in fact we've been very successful in realizing those visions-often times to our detriment. We're at a stage where we need to think very seriously about the kinds of pressures that we put on the environment, the kinds of social structures and interactions that we engage in and the kind of economic growth we foster in the region. If we begin to talk about those issues at the local and regional levels, perhaps we could forge an idea that resonates less on an individualistic level and concentrates more on the future of the region.

There's a sense of trepidation about the predicted growth of L.A. and California. You've also said that ‘it's coming and we have to plan for it.' How do we adapt this meta-narrative to this growth? How do we get a more positive narrative to address that? And where will the positive energy necessary to formulate this vision come from?

Peter Robertson

The meta-narrative is emerging. And it's composed of a very diverse set of writing, philosophy, science, economics, and politics that has converged and is redefining our reality. It's changing how we view ourselves both as individuals and communities. It may be hard to see, but we're in the midst of it now and its analogous to the paradigm change that resulted from the Renaissance or the Enlightenment-it's that significant and radical.

My prediction would be that in 50 years we'll be able to tell that it's here and a new consciousness will result. We're definitely not there yet and without being able to see it clearly, it's easy to be pessimistic. But the role of leadership is to translate that pessimism into optimism-to stand up and say, ‘we need to do things differently.' The trap for L.A. is that leaders are imbedded in a system that curtails their creativity and ability to lead. Somebody has to take those risks and with L.A.'s worldwide visibility, a leader who begins to alter the historic paradigm of growth will be shaping the future of the global economy.

If we can't see the paradigm shift yet, would it not be wise to have a very lax regulatory framework until we know what the new paradigm is? Shouldn't we be more fearful of regulation if we don't know where we're headed?

Sheldon Kamieniecki

Any kind of regulation in response to knee jerk reactions to current problems is clearly short sided. And that's what our current leaders are doing. I'm very disappointed in the quality of leadership that we have in L.A., in the Mayor's office, in City Council and all the way up to Sacramento-both Republicans and Democrats. I've heard no vision and it has left me perplexed, particularly in a state that's growing so quickly.

We've got to inform the voters about the problems we have. Voters need to be in tune with the things we're going to be facing or that children will be facing in the near future and their not. So we really need to educate them and perhaps this meta-narrative is a positive approach.

Again to be provocative, we haven't really laid out what that meta-narrative is, maybe because we can't wrap our arms around it. We know what the problems are and we can articulate them, so the easiest reaction would be to stop the ferris wheel until we figure out what to do. To avoid that, what advise do we give to this Mayor until we figure out the new paradigm or create this meta-narrative?

Dowell Myers

We need to build confidence. People take for granted everything that's going well in L.A. and focus on things like traffic. How many people can put their finger on the number one positive environmental trend over the last decade in the Los Angeles basin? Reduction in air pollution-the number of smog alert days has plummeted to almost zero. That's incredible. And that's a very positive fact that's taken for granted and not widely understood.

So the advice to the Mayor would be-in order to build a meta-narrative you need to start with the positives, remind the people about the strides L.A. is making and go forward from there.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.