October 1, 2003 - From the October, 2003 issue

A Haynes Foundation Symposium on Sustainable Los Angeles Thoughtfully Summarized by D.J. Waldie

Speaking at the recent Haynes Foundation Conference: "A Sustainable Future? Environmental Patterns & the Los Angeles Past" noted author, historian and city official of his beloved Lakewood, D.J. Waldie, offered insight and a summary of efforts - past, present and proposed- to envision and realize a sustainable Southern California region. TPR is very pleased to provide this insightful excerpt of his comments at the Haynes' Conference's conclusion.

Easy contempt for L.A. as the "capitol of sprawl" has obscured its complicated, deep history, a history so ably explored by panel members and commentators at this conference.

And surely we no longer can afford to erase our home out of forgetfulness, or worse, a willful amnesia, and imagine, as many want to, that we live in a historyless city, a placeless region, a Los Angeles devoid of contrarian surprises, an LA devoid of us and our sacred ordinariness. Nor can we live, as some believe we can, in the city that is just out of reach, the place just ahead to which the rest of the nation-the rest of the world-will have to catch up to. But, we have to catch up, too, stuck as we are in the now.

We can't live in a city that has, as one civic booster said, everything in the future-everything in the future and nothing for today, where we live and nothing of substance from the past.

Many of you are historians or practitioners of a science that is time-bound. I revere history. It is a kind of faith to me, a faith in stories people tell about their experiences in the landscape. Simple acts of memory still the mirage-like effect of LA, its apparent weightlessness, and its lack of substance. So many ruinous public policy decisions were made over the past 30 years and are still being made for want of the substance given by history.

My understanding of history leads me to a radical choice for the diminished ordinary-a narrative of LA that is neither Eden nor Hell, but our home and our ruined paradise. This is our ruined paradise, and therefore our home.

We have heard over the past day and a half more stories, and better ones, than the Los Angeles of caricature we are so often served. Behind these two days is the much larger issue-larger even than the record of ecological mistakes, missed chances, and catastrophes-of how we are to become natives to this place.

It will have to be a place of enough, because all of LA's various "booms" are about played out. There are no territories left to build out to any more. This is an urgent question, surely, since six million more will arrive over the next 30 years to add to those of us already here. L.A., which Carey McWilliams so famously called an "island on the land," is nearly built out. The last unbuilt bits are being fitted into a grid of streets and neighborhoods that extends, with minor interruptions, for more than sixty miles south to north.

Finally filled to its "natural" boundaries, the L.A. we've made was based on a remarkable consensus about the way ordinary people ought to be housed. The result is a metropolitan region that has fewer freeway miles and one of the highest densities of any metropolitan region in the nation, including the New York region (which includes the thinly developed parts of Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey). The finishing of L.A. should drive the making of a new consensus about building a denser, multi-ethnic, multi-racial urban region.

How are we to be native to this place, as native as the Tongva villagers, but more wise in our choice of mega-fauna to consume and our conflicts to be resolved? As Raphael Sonenshein proposed, natives of Los Angeles will have to balance competing metaphors of "opportunity" and individual sovereignty on the one hand and "livability" or communitarianism or conviviality on the other.

Or, looked at in a different way, we natives must achieve an imperfect and contingent synthesis of at least two of the seven categories of place that Greg Hise enumerated and resolve some accommodation to the American notions of utility or improvement and our understanding of LA as Eden.

What can we do now? This is the troubling question for all the figures in our landscape-Anglo, African-American, Latino, Asian, and the indigenous peoples of Los Angeles-all of us in our containers of class, our self-defined ethnicities, and our narrow loyalties to our particular turf. The finishing of L.A. should drive the making of a new consensus about building a denser, multi-ethnic, multi-racial urban region.

What's needed to make a sustainable LA?

Money: Mr. Abel noted the billions that have been voted on and approved in bond issues since the mid-1990s for parks, schools, and the infrastructure of sustainability. The issue now becomes where can billions more come from to solve the disastrous state financing system, to restore to local governments the economic resources with which local aspirations can be realized. State dysfunction is a key disincentive to environmental problem solving.

Homes: Change fiscal policy to reward-rather than punish-local governments for housing construction. Local governments currently "lose money" by providing services for low- and moderate-income housing. That housing needs to show to existing communities-as Pasadena has-that higher density infill development merits support.

Second Nature: Create incentives for tree planting programs. Create more small-scale parks that some public open space exists about a 1/4-mile walk from every home. Maywood, Bell, Paramount, and the Trust for Public Land have taken brownfields and made them parks; though these are not as charismatic as the Taylor Yard or the Cornfield.

Also, set standards for state-funded highway improvements for tree numbers and require street and alley designs with variable paving requirements and parking lot design standards that limit solid paving.

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Safety: Expanding the public realm also means space that can be appropriated for uses that are considered undesirable. As we continue to add population in existing neighborhoods and communities, it becomes imperative to improve their safety since the most urgent ecological problem in some LA neighborhoods is gunfire-as well as access to a grocery store that sells fresh vegetables and fruit at suburban prices. The next need is adequate, affordable public transit to get these millions of poor and working poor to the beaches, mountains, regional parks, and cultural institutions of the region.

Urban land governance: As the region runs out of land, we must learn to use our land and resources more efficiently to accommodate future growth. This would include more mixed use developments involving schools and retail districts.

Reform a fragmented political system: City of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, LA, Metro L.A., the SCAG region, 88 cities in the county, more than 120 in Metro L.A., more than a 1,000 specialized governments, many with independently elected governing boards. Just as school playgrounds should be, political infrastructure in LA should be more permeable, less opaque, and more present to the formerly powerless. Reform the California Environmental Quality Act and the Environmental Impact Report process to reduce NIMBY battles and strengthen environmental sustainability provisions.

Another texture of local government involves the collaboration of smaller regions and bi-lateral agreements between cities and county agencies and joint powers authorities and the work of NGOs-a story that is very poorly understood.

A sustainable city: A sustainable city is one that can meet current human needs and the needs of the environment without compromising the welfare of future generations-or their aspirations-in ways that are economically efficient, just, grounded in history, and apply the best available science.

Jennifer Wolch challenged some of that definition, urging us to include nature as an actor in the shared landscape with claims for justice of its own. Paula Schiffman spoke of a condition called verbal blindness and Deborah Weintraub spoke of the need to create a rhetoric of explanation about sustainable projects, an epistemology of green infrastructure. Worse, it seems, is that in the city of LA there is no formal or informal language of design.

If we have learned anything in the past day and a half, it is that the conservation of memory and the restoration of history are two of the principal means to achieving a sustainable city.

There is an ecology of dreams, too. It is possible to imagine a city that is adequate to the demands of our needs. It is even possible, but more difficult, to imagine a city that is adequate to the capacity of its natural systems. How are we to make a Los Angeles that is adequate to the demands of our present and future desires?

It has been tempting to see Los Angeles as the capital city of regret, a city of epitaphs. But, was any human settlement ever more than that? Every human habitation is a graveyard of failed possibilities and a zone of redemption, too. That contradiction is what it means to be human and to live in the company of others.

We have heard of citizenship, of stewardship, of sustainable use, of the practical politics of re-engineering nature into a form that is more adequate to the demands of our better desires.

What we have been speaking of is loyalty-a term not often applied to transient, ephemeral Los Angeles. I am a loyalist of this place. I don't really know how to make myself more native to it, or perhaps only dimly. But, loyalty to its history, to the present and former actors in its landscape, impels me forward.

Every American place is the habitat of memory (which is an offering of redemption). There are no perfect Arcadias here or Utopias, only memories that might be unblighted and longings that might be, briefly, assuaged.

The conference title (A Sustainable Future?) ends with a question mark. Perhaps it always must. This conference ends with many more questions.

Joan Didion, in a recent Los Angeles Times commentary said, in part, "There remains in California life a dangerous dissonance, a slippage between the way we perceive ourselves and the way we are." We came here to perceive ourselves more the way we truly are, and to recognize our small, but real, victories.

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