Matt Chinworth

If California were a nation, it would boast the world’s sixth largest economy. It’s also one of the most forward-thinking of the 50 states, setting new standards in efficient design and renewable energy that are exemplified by its most populous city, Los Angeles. A combination of progressive leadership and citizen buy-in has led LA to produce both county and city sustainability plans aimed at making this major metropolis into a worldwide leader in going green.

Take a closer look, though, and you’ll realize how badly the region needs an overhaul. LA is a land of contradictions: its residents voted for two major ballot measures to provide millions for homeless housing, yet the number of people experiencing homelessness continues to rise. Billions are being spent on public transit, yet people refuse to give up their cars. And while the steps proposed in these two sustainability plans are unprecedented for a metro area of this size and stature, they’re still just proposals.

“LA is made up of silos,” says Angela Brooks, FAIA, principal at Brooks + Scarpa, “and that’s been a big part of the problem. As we move forward, I can see the ship turning, but very slowly.”

Brooks wrote her master’s thesis 30 years ago at SCI-Arc on suburbia’s problems, all of which the LA area has faced in some capacity. Despite three decades of purported progress, it hasn’t done very much to solve them.

“I knew a long time ago that low-density suburban planning was killing us,” she says. And while the issues these plans wrestle with—energy, pollution, transit—are not LA-specific, conquering them will require both the city and county to prove that all this enlightened posturing can produce definitive action.

10 Million Residents, One Ambitious Plan

On Aug. 6, 2019, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted the OurCounty Sustainability Plan. The report itself was an ambitious 220 pages, compiled by a consultancy team made up of 14 partners and five anchor community-based organizations.

Along with several centers and schools at UCLA and the Liberty Hill Foundation—one of LA’s preeminent social justice organizations—the team at BuroHappold set out early to tackle the county’s sustainability concerns from an ambitious perspective.

“A lot of the topics we wanted to address in the plan—from water and energy systems to housing markets—didn’t necessarily conform to any boundaries,” says Chris Rhie, sustainability strategist at BuroHappold.

As such, Rhie and his partners wanted to approach the plan as a holistic set of cross-cutting goals, rather than start from the top down and regard each discipline as a separate entity. Fortunately, the county had funded the project appropriately and given them 18 months to complete it. That meant they were able to spend the first three to four months speaking with the county’s sustainability office—led by Chief Sustainability Officer Gary Gero—and figure out how exactly to structure such a plan.

“It’s daunting because you don’t start off by saying, ‘OK, we’ll be net-zero carbon by 2040,’” says David Herd, managing partner at BuroHappold Engineering, lead consultant on the project. “You say, ‘How can we become a fossil fuel–free county? And what are the social and equitable implications of that choice?’”

LA County is the most populous county in the United States, with 10 million residents spread out over 88 cities, and the team wanted as many of those people and places as possible to feel represented. That meant a remarkable amount of outreach; more than 125 different community-based organizations were involved in developing the plan. One of those was AIA Los Angeles.

“Our conversation with them was one of the most wide-ranging we had,” Rhie says.

“We encouraged a plan that would be actionable and also address the county’s operations,” says Greg Verabian, AIA, principal at HKS and 2020 AIA|LA president. “The idea being that, if it’s a model plan, other cities within the county would be able to pick up on it and have something to aspire to.”

Ultimately, the plan outlined a series of strategies that include sourcing 80% of water locally by 2045 and achieving countywide carbon neutrality by 2050, with distinct targets tied to advances in building design.

“They’re focusing on pilot programs to promote and elevate buildings that go beyond LEED Gold,” adds Jed Donaldson, AIA, principal at Johnson Fain and 2020 chair of AIA|LA’s Committee on the Environment.

“LEED Gold is mainstream; not many buildings go beyond to LEED Platinum. But to get to where we need to be, we have to go even greater than that. Living Building Challenge, Passive House, certifications of that sort: We need to adopt some really far-reaching goals.”

How Real Is the City’s New Deal?

As for the city’s Green New Deal, Rhie noted that there was “close coordination with that team on aligning targets and some of the most impactful actions,” including a transition plan to give up fossil fuels. “While the scopes were slightly different, they are not inconsistent,” he says.

Announced on April 29, 2019, the plan—effective immediately at the time—required all new municipally owned buildings and major renovations to be all-electric. It also set targets around renewable energy, wastewater recycling, tree planting, and green jobs to be accomplished by various deadlines, the earliest being 2021 and the latest being 2050. It’s the follow-up to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Sustainable City pLAn, which was released in April 2015 and—according to the mayor’s office—led to LA becoming the “number-one solar city in America.”

“As part of the 2019 plan, we really wanted to identify where we needed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,” says Dominique Hargreaves, deputy chief sustainability officer in the mayor’s office. “In tandem with a local design firm, Arup, we did a decarbonization pathway analysis to determine the industries responsible for the GHG being produced. We found out that 41% of our emissions citywide were from buildings.”

The plan addresses this accordingly; it accelerates targets around reducing building energy use per square foot 22% by 2025 and 44% by 2050. All new buildings must be net-zero carbon by 2030, and 100% of buildings overall must be net-zero carbon by 2050.

To the mayor’s credit, he hasn’t let the deal sit quietly since its announcement. On Feb. 10, 2020, he signed an executive directive to help push the plan forward; it specifically mandated that all new construction, major upgrades, and retrofits of municipally owned buildings must “demonstrate a pathway to carbon neutrality” while also amending the city’s Green Building Code to ensure all new and renovated roofs are cool roofs—which incorporate light- and heat-reflecting materials and can lower temperatures by up to 50 F. The city also became the first local government to formally adopt the state’s Buy Clean California Act, in which California’s Department of General Services will assess the “global warming potential” of building materials and require all materials used in civic projects be under a certain limit.

Unsurprisingly, AIA|LA has been counseling the city on matters like these for years now. “In 2013, we began engaging with Matt Petersen, LA’s first chief sustainability officer,” Verabian says. “We eventually created a 10-point plan for designing the future of Los Angeles. It advocated for the mayor to initiate a vision plan, incorporating the goals that eventually became the city’s Green New Deal.”

Some of Garcetti’s proposals can be enacted through code changes and executive orders; others won’t be so simple. For example, the mayor wants to see the nearly 60 million miles driven within city limits per day come down 13% by 2025 and 39% by 2035. This will require a distinct change in how Angelenos think; a recent USC study found that LA County residents are still hopelessly committed to their cars and find local public transit to be both unsafe and inconvenient.

And the plan itself is not without its critics. Sunrise Movement, an advocate of the national Green New Deal, has stressed that the 2050 deadlines in LA’s version will not meet the 2030 target deemed necessary by many other groups, including AIA’s 2030 Commitment.

“With Mayor Garcetti’s current plan for net-zero emissions by 2050, Los Angeles is on track to be 20 years too late,” the Sunrise Movement wrote in a publicly released statement. “That is not a Green New Deal.”

The Problem With Plans

The biggest problem with these plans seems to be that they’re just that: plans. While they can certainly set a tone for architects, engineers, and elected officials within the region, turning them into tactical strategies is far more complex.

Brooks feels the issues within LA go deeper than just trying harder to build green; she thinks the framework in which buildings are designed and constructed in the city is woefully outdated. As currently constituted, LA’s general plan does not allow for housing to be built in industrial areas. As a result, a current project that will add 323 units on top of a working wholesale flower market—not exactly heavy industry—took 3½ years to get approvals. Delays like these have led more than a few architects and developers to give up.

“There’s no one at the city who is looking at the region and saying, ‘What will this look like in 100 or 200 years?’ ” she said.

She listed off the Green New Deal’s housing and development goals: End homelessness by 2028. Increase new housing construction to 275,000 units by 2035. Ensure the majority of new housing is built within 1,500 feet of transit by 2025.

“That all sounds great,” she says. “But that’s just a wish list. How do we get that done? The only way is by fixing our zoning.”

“We’re making baby steps,” she adds. “We just put 2 megawatts of solar on the roof of the LA Convention Center. We’re making strides, but we have to look at the big picture if we really want to solve the problem.”

From his perspective, Verabian wants to see if the plans will provide practical benefits for those who wield the checkbooks.

“There have to be incentives,” he says. “Something like, ‘If you meet a higher threshold of energy conservation and water reduction, we’ll give you 10% more density.’ Developers aren’t going to say, ‘I’ll spend twice as much to give you want you want.’ At the end of the day, it’s a business.”

Donaldson emphasized a similar point: These plans aren’t laws. “They’re documents that strongly suggest strategies and standards to adhere to,” he says. “As an architect, I can’t force my clients to do anything. But at the same time, LEED was never a law either.”

“LEED demonstrated a better way of building,” he adds, “that the general public has come to understand as producing a higher-quality place to work and live. It helped elevate the performance of buildings, which in turn elevated their profitability. It reinforced that the two are linked, and most clients are sophisticated enough to understand that.”

Beyond that, stakeholder buy-in is essential. “The fact that all of these jurisdictions are aligning is very positive, and we should be encouraged,” Herd says.

He points to the City Services Building, which his firm is finishing in Santa Monica. It is aiming for Living Building Challenge certification, and he hopes it’ll set the bar high for similar local endeavors.

“Then it becomes incumbent on all of us to continue to raise that bar.”