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Santa Monica General Plan: Opportunities for Sustainability: Policy Analysis

Thank you for the opportunity to address the commission. My name is Jennifer Wolch, and I am a professor of geography at the University of Southern California, where I also direct the Center for Sustainable Cities. I live in Santa Monica, and serve as a Recreation and Parks Commissioner as well as a member of the Sustainable City Task Force. My remarks tonight do not necessarily reflect the view of either the Commission or Task Force.

Perhaps more than any other single guiding document, the General Plan can promote the goals of sustainability, although historically they have rarely done so. So, the General Plan is an opportunity whose importance cannot be underestimated.

Your work to date means that the city is already well positioned to make major strides, in the sense that the community has identified environmental sustainability, reducing auto dependency, and other sustainability-related goals as critical to the planning effort. But to really achieve a quantum change, I would like to identify four principles for action that the new General Plan might be able to incorporate, as a means to make the city a more sustainable place – in terms of the environment, society, and economy.

1. Rethink the local economy and what it means for land use. Standard local economic development approaches emphasize job development and associated tax revenue implications. While this is understandable, it is not the best approach. It leads to big box retail, auto malls, regional destination shopping districts, and low-wage tourist-related jobs. It leads to exporting our waste to other places, including less developed countries, and maximizing the non-resident population and attendant waste-generating activities. And it could lead to the transformation of the city’s industrial district into housing and commercial development, leaving us with no industrial land. What we need in Santa Monica is a sustainable local economy – that produces locally many of the goods we need and want, minimizes water and energy use, provides living wage jobs with career ladders, utilizes waste products as the feedstock for future goods, allows people to walk or bike to shop and work, and produces minimal pollution. In short we need to adopt an eco-industrial approach, which would allow us to see our industrial district as a major resource for the development of cutting edge green industries, powered by distributed generation and solar energy, and providing quality jobs and career opportunities for Santa Monica residents to remedy a deepening social inequality that is already driving people of modest means and minimal chances for upward mobility from our city. And we need to think carefully about how much – and what kind of – retail space is allowed in our downtown, or else risk killing neighborhood retail to which residents can walk or bike.

2. Focus on the matrix as well as the buildings and thoroughfares. Planners and architects often focus on buildings, and formal connectors such as roads and transit lines. But the matrix of the city is critical to its sustainability. What is this matrix? I am talking about all the spaces between buildings. These spaces include alleys, parking lots, median strips, sidewalks, open space around all sorts of nonresidential buildings. The 20th century approach was to pave such spaces with asphalt, concrete or lawn, and to insure that large blocks of the build environment could not be traversed. But changing this approach through thoughtful land use and circulation planning could make the city far more sustainable and have crucial public health benefits. How? A first step is re-envisioning the city beneath the pavement, as it once was – a network on streams and creeks lined with riparian vegetation, set amidst prairie grasses, oaks and sycamores, leading to coastal dunes and the shore. We can’t recreate this, but we can think about how to provide some of ‘nature’s services’ that this landscape provided. For example, by making the matrix as permeable as possible, we could infiltrate more urban runoff, and provide other ecosystem services such as habitat and pollution reduction. By daylighting streams instead of keeping them trapped in culverts and stormdrains, we begin to restore the city’s hydrogeography. By greening as many of the vast acres of beach dunes now paved for parking lots as possible, we can reduce pollution of the coastal ocean and provide much-needed playing fields. By aggressively restoring our palisades with native plants, we could stability slopes and minimize erosion. And by adopting a Santa Monica plant palette for use in all of the city’s public spaces and nonresidential projects, and for distribution to households and nurseries as guidelines, our matrix could enhance its habitat value, allowing it to be become an ecological stepping stone to Ballona Creek and the Baldwin Hills. But there are other reasons to pay attention to the matrix that go to the quality of our everyday life. By incorporating more stairs and through-block passages, discouraging super-blocks that are often impenetrable and unfriendly to pedestrians, and converting alleys into permeable greenways, we offer residents greater access and interesting opportunities to walk and exercise. By creating shared streets (or woonerf) where streets are too wide, we provide more open space in our park-poor city for physical activity. And by bringing nature back into the city, we provide important opportunities for environmental education and inculcating stewardship values.

3. Get off the grid. It is increasingly possible for new homes and businesses to be ‘off the grid’ – in other words, generate their own electricity by encouraging the use of micro-turbines and solar energy collecting building materials. We can think of other parallels to getting off the grid – namely, using greywater to water all landscaping; installing waterless urinals in all nonresidential buildings; local composting. As you prepare the new Land Use plan, a question to ask is: do our approaches to land use incorporate possibilities for – and incentives to – getting off the grid?

4. Create access for people not cars. Planners have historically focused on increasing mobility, assuming that the circulation system should respond to the distribution of opportunities (in other words, land use patterns). There are some good reasons for this – if we don’t think about mobility to some extent, we leave people trapped without the ability to find jobs or get to services, for example, and the congestion associated with insufficient mobility is bad for any number of reasons. But increasingly, we understand that what people need is access, not mobility. This is certainly what is desirable from a sustainability perspective. What does an emphasis on access imply for land use and circulation? It means distributed, smaller scale retail and commercial facilities, as well parks, bike paths and walking trails – for what is in fact a very unfriendly city for cyclists and many pedestrians; fast, convenient transit and paratransit service to minor as well as major corridors; less land devoted to cars and parking and more land for recreational and cultural open space, and especially pedestrian facilities; transit-oriented affordable residential developments, especially along commercial corridors and near the planned Expo Line Station, with minimal parking requirements but plenty of open space in courtyards and green roof-tops. And it means thinking about the entire circulation network as a system — how bus lanes link to bikeways, alley-pathways, through-block steps and walks – how this system can be improved through your crafting of the Plan.

5. Monitor plan performance. Planners have not generally been too good about monitoring the actual outcomes of plans with respect to initial goals. For example, we often talk about jobs-housing balance as a strategy to minimize Vehicle Miles Traveled but rarely do we assess whether people do, in fact, drive less as the jobs-housing ratio shifts. Similarly, we want Santa Monica to be a more pedestrian friendly city, but do our street or sidewalk improvements result in more walking or less auto trips? And we want to promote recycling, but do our recycling efforts actually reduce energy, water or materials use? The city’s effort to measure its ecological footprint is a good way to handle a global assessment of our progress on the sustainability front, but we should be making land use and transportation decisions – and implementing requirements for developers – that involve actual performance levels, and monitoring and feedback. Insuring that the city has research capacity to collect data and track outputs needs to be part of the plan. Thinking about a performance requirements for landscape design may be another – so that any proposed landscape plan associated with a development must hit fertilizer, water use, and pesticide performance standards. And you might start expecting development proposals to come with life-cycle assessments, or to think about incentives for developers to become ISO 14000 certified.

There are many initiatives that the city is taking to make Santa Monica a more sustainable place. The General Plan’s Land Use and Circulation elements are major tools for promoting sustainability – not only for our city, but also for the region. In this regard, not only can we minimize our portion of the region’s footprint, we can serve as a model for other jurisdictions in this region that want an alternative to sprawl. I want to thank you for listening, and all the hard work you are doing for all of us who live, work, and play in this city.Ed. Note: This is the complete text of Wolch’s presentation to the Planning Commission on October 5

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