One of the core elements that defines our city is the concept of sustainability and Santa Monica is, and should be, rightfully proud of its environmental legacy. Our pioneering Sustainable City Plan, unanimously adopted in 1994, is recognized as a model for the world. However, sustainability takes real effort and is not just about what other people do; we all have to participate.
Sustainability is more than just insulation, getting good mileage on your car, putting expensive solar panels on the roof and turning off the lights. It requires us to change the way we live. An ecological footprint represents the amount of biologically productive land area necessary to supply the resources a human population consumes, and to assimilate associated waste. Santa Monica, for all its sustainability, had an ecological footprint of 2,747 square miles in 2000, down from 2,914 square miles in 1990. We have a way to go yet! Full sustainability incorporates the environment, economy and social equity. It is not about preserving what we have; rather it is about systematically striving to reach sustainability goals.
What’s the connection between sustainability and development, and do the current developments measure up? The connection is that well located and designed density is a cornerstone of effective sustainability, and, yes, the current development proposals will increase, not decrease, the city’s sustainability and decrease its carbon footprint. So why is increasing density sustainable? It has to do with a mode shift in how we live and how our cities work. It means using our resources more effectively and sharing them more efficiently. Like sharing our roads for instance.
A bus with 20 people using twice the road area of a car is still a far better use of resources than a car with two people, by a factor of five, or a bicycle with one, sparingly using the public right of way, or, and this gets to the crux of the matter, pedestrians using even less space per person. Pedestrians as a mode of transit, what a revolutionary concept! Ultimately transportation is about people, even if we are encased in steel. So if we do not need to get in our car, bus, train, etc., then haven’t we attained nirvana? Density, the right kind, is the only way we can get there, a place where most of our needs are satisfied within an easy 10-minute walk, one that has the retail businesses, work and entertainment that can exist on its local customer base and that are needed to fulfill satisfying lives. A neighborhood, in short.
We are in trouble. It was announced in May that the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has exceeded 400 parts per million. Many experts view this as a critical point — maybe a tipping point. Our over energized (heat is energy) environment has created a “new normal” where killer storms are just a hint of what’s to come.
Are we willing to do our part?
In 2010 the city of Santa Monica updated its Land Use and Circulation Elements (LUCE) of its General Plan, which focuses on its land use, planning and transportation goals. It generated a focus on compact, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods near transit and services, and is built on “smart growth” principles that promote sustainability. Smart growth goals include achieving a sense of community and place; expanding transportation options, employment, and housing choices; preserving and enhancing natural and cultural resources; and promoting public health.
And Santa Monica is headed there.
Santa Monica is required to reduce its carbon footprint, mostly by reducing its inefficient and unnecessary use of energy. It is the LUCE’s increase in density that enabled the City Council to commit to no new net increase in afternoon rush hour trips. This commitment has the force of law. Only density can allow this to happen. This may be counter-intuitive. As propounded upon earlier, density is conducive to change in the way we live, and particularly in the way we move around.
Vancouver is a prime example of what happens and why it works. Over the last two decades Vancouver has increased its population significantly, yet fewer car trips are being taken. How can that be? They have a very effective multi-modal transportation system; cars, trains, trolleys, buses and bicycles. An analysis was done of why fewer car trips, as there were no overt restrictions on cars? Surprisingly, given the population increase, the other modes of transportation did not account for the increase in population. The city was as vibrant and livable as before, in fact in many ways more so. It wasn’t until they included pedestrians as a transportation mode that the discrepancy was accounted for. Pedestrians get to enjoy their neighborhoods with all the services they needed a walkable distance from where they lived.
Therefore, there’s a bigger environmental impact to development than traffic and it is very positive. Unfortunately, the only impact virtually everyone talks and testifies (loudly) about is traffic, despite the LUCE commitment.
We need to acknowledge that the Los Angeles region, let alone the U.S. and world, will continue to increase in population. Therefore, so must Santa Monica, by regional dictate and, more importantly, because we must do our part to enable people to live a sustainable life to reduce their carbon footprint. Because living closer together in smaller, energy efficient units is more sustainable, the proposed development intensity in the LUCE is positive for the environment and the Downtown Specific Plan needs to continue in this direction.
The authors live, work and have diverse architectural and consulting practices that include Santa Monica construction projects.
• Michael W. Folonis, FAIA, architect, principal of Santa Monica firm Michael W. Folonis Architects, former Architectural Review Board member, currently director of the Los Angeles AIA Board, board member of Santa Monica Conservancy, 41-year Santa Monica resident.
• Gwynne Pugh, FAIA, architect and engineer, LEED AP, principal of Santa Monica firm Gwynne Pugh Urban Studio, Inc., former chair of the Planning Commission, currently director of the Los Angeles AIA Board, 37-year Santa Monica resident.
• Linda Jassim, writer and editor, landscape designer. Principal of Santa Monica firm Studio J, former chair and current member of the Santa Monica Arts Commission, 37-year Santa Monica resident.
• John Zinner, sustainability and green building consultant, LEED fellow, principal at Zinner Consultants, former Planning and Housing commissioner, currently vice president of Santa Monica Conservancy, 35-year Santa Monica resident.
• Hank Koning, FAIA, architect, principal of Santa Monica firm Koning Eizenberg Architecture, LEED AP, former chair of the Planning Commission, 32-year Santa Monica Resident.