March 15, 2019 - From the March, 2019 issue

VX2019: LA Mayor Garcetti, DiCaprio CEO Tamminen & SMMC ED Edmiston On "Rebuilding Right"

The Woolsey Fire of 2018 burned nearly 100,000 acres of land in the Santa Monica Mountains and destroyed over 1,600 structures. While these numbers are staggering, this tragedy unfortunately not an isolated incident. At VX2019, regional leaders on climate change, environmental protection, and sustainable development convened for a special plenary session to discuss how communities can rebuild after disasters. Opened by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a conversation between Terry Tamminen (CEO, Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation), and Joe Edmiston (Executive Director, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy) touched on lessons learned from the most destructive wildfires in California’s history. Mayor Garcetti also explained how his policies are implementing the Green New Deal on a local level. TPR presents an excerpt. 


Eric Garcetti

“There’s nothing the Democratic Socialists want, and nothing in the Green New Deal, that can’t be done tomorrow with the right leadership. "—Joe Edmiston, Executive Director, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy

Eric Garcetti: Oftentimes, we see that city leaders and even national leaders are either future-phobic or future-passive. Change comes—Amazon takes out bookstores, or shared cars and scooters suddenly appear on the street—and people get very scared about the future. They might try to defeat it, kill it off, but Amazon relentlessly does put certain bookstores out of business, and people do take Uber and Lyft. Being future-phobic doesn’t really stop anything.

The second category are people who are future-passive. They say, maybe enthusiastically, “Isn’t it exciting what’s going to happen? Just get out of its way.” Or they say, pessimistically, “We can’t stop it anyway, so just let it happen.”

What we’ve tried to do in our short term as your mayoral administration is to be future-guiding. We’ve tried not to be passive about or fearful of the future, but to be part of writing that future—to take this moment where the world is looking to this city, this moment when we hold power, and do something with it.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the Green New Deal. I love the phrase. When I became mayor, we decided to write the pLAn—a sustainability plan for Los Angeles, which we’d never had before. Its scope is immense. It’s not just the usual categories of how much will we recycle, how much renewable power will we use, how much will we reduce. It is also a new way of thinking about the future—not just ecology, but also equity and the economy, and tying these things together.

When I first spoke at VerdeXchange, I asked: How do we work ourselves out of this job and out of being specialists? Instead of having sustainability specialists, let’s use the prism of sustainability to refract everything we do in our life—just as we do with other things, like technology and gender equity. How do we make this a core value of our work together?

The pLAn is essentially a local incarnation of the Green New Deal. The city of Los Angeles has created 29,000 new green jobs since I’ve been mayor. In a city of 4 million people, that’s nearly 1 in 100 people in one large sector. To put that in perspective, it’s more than the number of coal jobs that America lost in the same period, and it’s about 60 percent of all the coal jobs left in America—again, all in one city that’s about 1 percent of the nation’s population…

When we make huge commitments—like having a zero-emission port, something that was absolutely unthinkable a couple years ago; a port that, by the way, is the largest in the Americas and just broke records for the most shipping containers ever moved in our history—we do it because we know we will get there if, in the words of Robert Browning, we make sure that our reach always exceeds our grasp.

We will live through times in which we do not hold what we are reaching for. Our public transportation system? We are going to be starting some of those projects long after many of us are dead. We’re doing it because our parents and our grandparents didn’t do it for us, but we are supposed to do it as human beings. Not everybody in this room will get to a zero-carbon grid—but we will get there. We will have buses that run only on electricity; we will build on the 1,000 EV chargers we have to 10,000 and then 20,000 and then 100,000 chargers, or whatever it takes to get a zero-emission transportation system in this city. That is the power of guiding the future.

David Abel: Terry, How is the DiCaprio Foundation showing the way on how to “rebuild right?”

Terry Tamminen: In the Paris Climate Agreement, 196 countries came together to try to solve climate change before our planet warms by more than 2 degrees. We now know that we have to stop it at 1.5 degrees, or we’re going to suffer enormous consequences physically, environmentally, and economically. But the commitments made in Paris will only reduce warming to 3 or 3.5 degrees. There is a big missing piece.

Over the last two years, the DiCaprio Foundation challenged 26 academic institutions around the world—including UCLA, UC Berkeley, MIT, Stockholm Institute, and others—to come up with a climate model that would prevent us warming past 1.5 degrees by doing things that could actually be achieved. The good news is: There are three ambitious, but doable, things we can—and must—do to stop warming before it hits 1.5 degrees.

No. 1: By 2050, we have to transform most of the world’s energy supply to renewables. Many people still say that is too hard. Well, three months ago, Governor Brown signed a law saying that California would get 100 percent of its energy from renewables by 2045—five years earlier. Huge companies like Walmart have also committed to getting to 100 percent renewables. We know it’s an ambitious goal, but it’s definitely possible.

No. 2: By 2050, we have to move most of our food production processes to “regenerative agriculture.” That means that we don’t sterilize and destroy and deep-till the soil, release all the carbon, kill all the microbes, and then amend the soil with petrochemical fertilizers. Instead, we put those microbes, organic material, and farm waste back into the soil and let nature produce our food.

Again, people say: “You’re never going to be able to fight the petrochemical industry and business as usual.” Well, in the Midwest and California, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—not exactly a progressive organization—has been experimenting with this on large-scale farms and getting far higher yields at lower costs. They’re now becoming the proselytizers for regenerative farming and getting away from petrochemical fertilizers. This is sweeping the world.

No. 3: By 2050, we have to save half the planet for nature. That’s not just to save some trees and plants or a species that most people will never see. It’s for the ecosystems services that nature provides us: clean water, clean air, and so forth—and, yes, habitat for all living things.

How can we reserve half the planet? In fact, all the areas that have already been preserved as wilderness, combined with those that could be restored, rebuilt, and replanted, actually comprise more than 50 percent. One of the most important things is connecting that fractured habitat back together. It doesn’t necessarily mean acquiring the next 10,000 acres or setting aside millions of acres of ocean marine parks. It sometimes means just putting back together what we have fractured.

The Foundation has cobbled these three points together into a new program called One Earth. The good news is: It’s achievable. But we have to move forward with things like more sustainable cities and energy use, and we’ve got to work—even in our cities and our urban areas—to preserve enough of nature not just for the critters, but for ourselves. If we build our programs based on these goals, we actually have a chance of achieving a more sustainable future and educating even the most reluctant among us.

David Abel: Joe, what do you have to say about “rebuilding right?”

Joe Edmiston: Conscious policy makes the difference. Policy matters. We have not internalized this as a political society: There are consequences to policy, and things can change.

Since 1980, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has acquired three-quarters of $1 billion worth of land. Bringing that home means there has to be green within walking distance of everyone. Why do we do this? Yes, it’s for the ecosystem services, but there’s more: what happens to our heart.

The reason we are attracted to green and to nature is not so much that we’re building jobs, but because it makes us feel better. That is a component of public policy. It is an obligation of all of us to make people feel better—to make their lives better. And there are simple ways that that can happen. We have an obligation to actually put people in positions of power, not who bloviate on right or left, but who have a record of achievement that makes people live better and feel better.

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David Abel: Terry, you’ve been in “the room where it happens”—the Governor’s Office, CalEPA, and more. What should we know about how to help decisionmakers make the right decisions?

Terry Tamminen: Policy does matter, though it takes a long time to develop into action. When I worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration, we went through his environmental plan line by line and turned each of those items into policies.

We launched the Million Solar Roofs initiative. We supported programs like Joe’s to set aside more land, often with creative policies, like using easements instead of just buying outright. We got marine-protected areas. We launched the Hydrogen Highway.

I want to note here that hydrogen is another way to get electric vehicles. Mayor Garcetti mentioned trying to get to 100,000 electric charging stations, but 50 hydrogen refueling stations sprinkled around the city would get you just as many electric vehicles—and they’d only take three to five minutes to refuel, instead of hours. We need all the electric vehicles we can get, and as we rebuild right, we can’t leave one of the most important technologies on the side of the road.

The Hydrogen Highway program was designed to break out of the “chicken or the egg” situation of electric vehicles, where fueling companies aren’t putting up fueling stations because they’re waiting for the car companies to deliver cars, and vice versa. But what we found was that it wasn’t just those two sides of the equation. It was also the fire marshals, the insurance companies, and local elected officials who all had to understand the value of EVs and how to mitigate the risks. That’s our job in policy: not only to reach far, as the mayor said, but also to define that reach, help people come along, and figure out what the problems are to overcome so that you can take action.

David Abel: Joe, what inhibits our collective grasp from extending as far as our reach?

Joe Edmiston: I used to be skeptical of property rights—until the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy became the third largest landowner in Los Angeles County. It turns out that we don’t need to turn our systems upside down. We just need to have the right people and the right policies at the levers of those systems.

People have said, “It’s too bad that there isn’t an equivalent of the Coastal Commission for the Santa Monica Mountains, because then we could regulate the land and we wouldn’t have to buy it.” Baloney! When you buy it, you own it. You can open it up to the public, and it’s done in a more or less open process—there are appraisals, hearings, and votes. You allocate the money once, and then it’s yours in perpetuity; it’s ours in perpetuity.

Regulation only gets you people who are paid to go around the regulation. It’s like the grammatical saying: “What is a preposition? Anything a rabbit can do to a log.” What is a regulatory process? Whatever a lawyer or lobbyist can do to that process.

Our processes that got us where we are today are: open market, private property, paying for it in a system that we all understand. Everybody knows: You write a check for a piece of property, you get a deed, and it’s yours. And if you’re doing that in the public interest, then it’s not “yours,” but ours. That’s what we need to do: simply pump the money into the projects, like transportation, and have the right people running it. We don’t need to change the system.

There’s nothing the Democratic Socialists want, and nothing in the Green New Deal, that can’t be done tomorrow with the right leadership. We don’t need utopia; it’s within our grasp right here.

David Abel:  Lastly, what should those in real estate development —developers, financiers, environmental stewards, city planners—be doing going forward to “build right” in the first place?

Terry Tamminen: There is a role for everybody in One Earth concept—that three-legged stool of 100 percent renewables, regenerative agriculture, and saving half for nature.

When it comes to renewables: In a city, it’s not just the electrical grid but also transportation that we’ve got to make clean. Given how many petroleum-powered cars are on the streets today, there are going to be a lot of interim steps. We’ve got to move much faster, and also try to incentivize others to do the same thing by showing leadership and paving the way.

As for regenerative agriculture, it’s true that we’ve got to stop destroying our soil. But predictions also show that anywhere from a third to half of our food will be grown in cities, without soil, by 2050. It’s already happening: In El Segundo, there are companies doing demonstrations in shipping containers where they’re using LED lights to grow leafy vegetables and cranking them out three or four times faster than if they were relying on nature.

Third is preserving half for nature: Most people will be living in cities by 2050. But if we relegate our cities to becoming giant heat islands, that’s going to counteract our effort to get more energy from renewables, because we’re going to have to use more energy. There’s an energy efficiency piece here.

What does all this mean for a developer? Right now, at times in summer, the grid is already strained. A developer could figure out how to remodel buildings for more energy efficiency. Every five years, the technology gets better such that it pays to revamp again and again because there are so much savings to be had each time. Certainly when you’re designing a new building, making it net-zero energy will help us get to our renewable energy goals that much faster and avoid exacerbating the heat island effect.

Another option is incorporating urban gardens into development so that food is grown much closer to where people consume it. The average piece of food in America has traveled 1,300 miles to get to your plate. If we could cut that down or eliminate it by growing food next door, imagine what that could do for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, as well as freshness of food and health.

The goal is to think holistically. If you’re building a shopping center, don’t just think about maximizing the square feet and the rental income and checking the boxes of regulations or design standards and codes. Instead, try thinking: What could I do here within the One Earth construct that would help our city, and therefore our planet, avoid warming of more than 1.5 degrees—and make this the most sustainable city in the world?

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.