April 24, 2019 - From the April, 2019 issue

LA County’s First Regional Sustainability Plan: CSO Gary Gero Highlights Its Ambitions

When Gary Gero was appointed Los Angeles County’s first ever Chief Sustainability Officer in 2017, he took on the hefty task of developing a comprehensive plan to drive the region’s 88 cities toward a clean and equitable economy. Now, a draft of that plan has been released as OurCountyLA—an ambitious document that integrates energy, water, transportation, urban development, technology, and jobs into one bold vision for the future of Los Angeles County. Gero joins TPR to highlight the steps needed to reach carbon neutrality, build half a million affordable housing units, and achieve even more aggressive goals by 2050.


"We set out to create the first truly comprehensive, most ambitious regional sustainability plan in the nation." - Gary Gero

When you were appointed Los Angeles County’s first Chief Sustainability Officer in 2017, you shared with The Planning Report that you wanted to broaden the county’s sustainability framework to include issues such as homelessness and housing, economic development, and social equity. Does the newly released OurCountyLA plan do so?

Gary Gero: The plan addresses all of those issues in a robust way. In particular, equity became an organizing principle and central focus of our work. As we worked with community stakeholders, we heard how important it was to ensure that what we were doing in the sustainability realm did not unintentionally make things worse for vulnerable communities.

Sustainability is often defined as the three E’s: environment, economy, and equity. But equity sometimes gets the short shrift in that equation. We wanted to lift it up and make sure that it was represented as a coequal value, beginning with the process we used to write the plan.

Our plan recognizes that we can’t be a sustainable community if people are unhoused or can’t afford their housing. Affordable housing and the provision of housing is critically important, and the plan provides a number of strategies to focus growth in a more sustainable way.

We also recognize that we can’t be a sustainable community if people don’t have good paying jobs. A number of our recommendations drive toward building up a cleaner economy, including innovative approaches beyond traditional “green” jobs.

All of these are ways that the draft plan fulfills the vision I had for this effort when we began.

Share more about the outreach process employed to craft the sustainability plan, and how that engagement has shaped the priorities and recommendations in the report.

What we set out to do with this plan was to create the first truly comprehensive, most ambitious regional sustainability plan in the nation. And if that’s your goal, you’d better get your stakeholder engagement process right. We’re proud of the unique and innovative process we undertook.

Before ever writing a word of the plan, we spent almost a year talking to 600 people and ended up with 6,000 ideas for what it should contain. We held more than 150 individual meetings with groups and organizations, as well as 11 half-day workshops at which 350 organizations—community-based organizations, the public sector, the private sector, and academia—were represented.

We also met with cities to explain what we were trying to achieve and how they could be a part of that process. This was critical, because we see this plan not just as a policy for the unincorporated parts of LA County, but as regional strategy that we work together with cities to implement.

Perhaps our most unique collaboration was with the city of Los Angeles, because they’re going through a refresh of their own sustainability plan. That timing created a unique opportunity to align our efforts across the 4 million people in the city of LA and the 1.1 million people in unincorporated LA. Too often, the city and county are not aligned, and we wanted to correct that. Moreover, our alignment can serve as a template for the other 87 cities in the region to engage in this vision.

This process formed the goals and ambitions of the plan. Stakeholders really embraced our goal of creating the most ambitious plan in the nation, and some of our most audacious, aggressive targets came out of what stakeholders believed we could achieve. Los Angeles doesn’t lack any willingness to grasp as far as it possibly can; it seems to be innate in the people who live here that we’re always striving for more.

We certainly swung hard on this one, and I think we’ve built a plan that reflects what we heard from the community. We’re now in the middle of another robust community engagement process to find out if that is in fact true.

Highlight some of the plan’s most “audacious” recommendations.

Our plan calls for the county of Los Angeles, as a whole, to become carbon-neutral by 2050. To achieve that, a lot of other audacious things have to happen. We have to completely transform our transportation fleets and systems to produce zero emissions. We have to get at the hard problem of emissions from buildings, which is why the plan calls for the adoption of a reach code for building decarbonization.

One action on this path that may cause some controversy is our call for the city and county of LA to jointly develop a sunset strategy for all oil and gas operations. Our goal is to end oil and gas operations throughout Los Angeles County by 2050 in order to meet both our carbon neutrality target and our commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Importantly, the development of that sunset strategy is paired with the development of a just transition strategy. This is one area where workforce and economic development are reflected. We are not going to leave workers in the oil and gas industries stranded, but build them a bridge to cleaner jobs and industries.

We have many more ambitious goals outside of the carbon neutrality sector. For example, we aim to source 80 percent of our water locally by 2045. We call for building half a million units of affordable housing. We strategize ways to achieve a significant reduction in Vehicle Miles Traveled and develop a transportation system that allows communities to focus growth internally instead of chewing up greenfields in the far suburbs.

What are some of the more “pragmatic” items, or low-hanging fruits, identified in the plan?

In general, OurCountyLA is meant as a strategic plan and vision for the region; it is not a detailed implementation plan. We haven’t prioritized or done a cost-benefit analysis on the 148 recommended actions. But there are two specific areas that focus on the details of implementation.

One is updating the county’s own contract requirements and purchasing policies. How the county spends its $30 million budget has an impact, so we didn’t want to ignore our own facilities and operations.

The other is continuing the collaboration and trust we’ve established with stakeholders throughout the implementation process. That means transparency—developing dashboards and putting out information about our progress, good or bad, and continuing to engage with people along the way. This will help us identify where we need to overcome barriers and make improvements, and where we’ve had successes.

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Speak to concerns about potential job dislocations—reflected in recent protests at the Port of Los Angeles over the introduction of autonomous drayage—as new, efficient technologies are employed to achieve sustainability objectives.

There are going to be transitions in the economy, and those transitions are going to have to be managed carefully to protect workers and our economy writ large.

There are places throughout LA County where things like metal finishers, auto dismantlers, and unpermitted landfills (dumps) are nearly adjacent to housing, schools, or any number of what we call “sensitive receptors.” Those impacts are a legacy of the historic lack of zoning in certain parts of unincorporated county, and we need to address them. But advocates have made it very clear to us that, as we eliminate toxic uses from neighborhoods, we need to backfill those uses with better, cleaner jobs.

How we go about replacing dirty jobs with clean jobs will be critical to the plan’s success. It’s important that people who were working at the auto dismantling yard or at the chrome-plating facility still have gainful employment in their own communities, and that we don’t end up forcing them into far commutes just to find similar dirty work and we don’t export our pollution to other communities. We’ve also called for the development of a Green Chemistry Incubator to look at alternatives to toxic chemicals in our communities.

We’ve thought a lot about where else clean jobs could grow in our communities. The construction trades are one example. Construction jobs aren’t always considered “green” jobs—but if we’re building cleaner, more efficient, storm-water-capturing buildings, then I would argue that they are. Likewise, if a job in the service industry replaces a job in a dirtier industry, then that’s a clean job.

The county is part of the Transportation Electrification Partnership at the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, where our key goal is to make Los Angeles a hub for clean transportation technologies. There are already three electric bus manufacturers located here, and we want to maintain that manufacturing edge as well as strengthening our position in maintenance, parts supply, and all the way through the value chain. As these new industries emerge, we want them to emerge here in Los Angeles.

During the development of LA County’s regional sustainability plan, you met with private, public, and academic chief sustainability officers. What do you expect they will take away from this report?

The first takeaway for the sustainability community is that all of our sustainability goals are interrelated.

Picture a stormwater capture project. It certainly has water quality benefits, because it diverts pollution from our watersheds. It could also have water supply benefits, if the runoff is sent to recharge our groundwater. Increasing our local water supply reduces the need to import water from Northern California, which is a benefit in terms of reducing energy consumption. A reduction energy consumption means a reduction in energy generation, which likely also means a reduction in pollutant emissions. That’s a climate benefit, an air quality benefit, and ultimately, a public health benefit. Meanwhile, it could have an urban greening benefit, creating open space access in our communities.

One innovation our plan brings to this field is that its structure reflects these interrelationships. We didn’t organize our recommendations around topic areas; you won’t find a water chapter or a climate chapter or an equity chapter. Instead, you’ll find 12 cross-cutting, broad goals, in which the recommended actions tagged with topic areas they might impact. You can go online and sort by tag to see all the things that touch, say, energy—and then you can see how they also touch other areas. What we hope we have provided is a template for thinking about sustainability in a new, more holistic way.

The second takeaway is that ambition is good. We need to set audacious goals that reach for what we actually need. Whether you’re the CSO of a company, an academic institution, or a city, don’t be shy—embrace assertive goals and then try to find ways to achieve them.

I also want to note that, when it came to improving the sustainability of the county’s own processes, facilities, and operations, we relied a lot on CSOs in industry and academic institutions. I learned from them as much as I hope this plan will inspire them on other fronts. 

How does LA County’s recent draft budget for 2019-2020 reflect the priorities of your office and OurCountyLA?

We didn’t make a lot of specific asks for this year’s draft budget because we didn’t want to presuppose what the sustainability plan would contain or whether the Board would approve it. But by the time the final budget is adopted in June, county departments will have their marching orders and will be able to make specific requests to fulfill them.

However, we’re not just relying on county money to implement this plan. If we did, we wouldn’t get very far. We need to pursue state and federal money. We’ll also seek portions of Measure A or Measure W or Measure M that may be appropriate. The philanthropic community has a role to play, as well; they’ve already been great supporters of the stakeholder engagement process.

I would be remiss not to point out that the Sustainability Office is within the Chief Executive Office, which is the budget analyst for the county. The CEO will want departments to look internally at what funds they could reallocate or reprioritize for these efforts while recognizing some new monies may be needed.  And, the plan actually directs the CEO to use a sustainability lens in considering future budget requests. That would be a big change in practice.

Lastly, as the first ever chief sustainability officer of a county with 11 million people and one of the largest economies in the world, are you sometimes overwhelmed by the challenge?

I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t know that the Board of Supervisors believed in the work and wanted to see it succeed.

When I interviewed for the job, I opened with an argument for a regional vision: that if we as a county were going to do sustainability, we should do it collaboratively with the entire region. That turned out to reflect the Board’s priorities, too. We have a relatively new Board that sees the role of the county as that of a leader among all the cities.

A good example is the Community Choice Aggregation program that we built with the Clean Power Alliance. That was originally presented to the Board as a program for unincorporated areas only. The Board said, “We love the idea, but we want to share these benefits with as many communities as want it.” My first assignment was to create a regional approach to that program.

Am I overwhelmed? No, actually. I’m optimistic. I have strong support from the Board, and probably the best sustainability team anywhere. With the help of good people and leadership from above, the job is just a lot of fun.

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