Rick Cole, Santa Monica’s new city manager, has suggested that despite the vigorous and sometimes acrimonious political debate in our city, residents may actually share common ground on many issues. Putting the focus on issues on which there is broad agreement can be a way to bring the city together successfully, and accomplish things that residents really want.
Here are several items on which we feel there is broad-based support in the community. In no particular order:
A green city
Most of the city’s residents are keenly interested in making the city environmentally more sustainable, healthier to live in, and more attuned to our environmental realities. Examples abound, but one is the strong interest in the city’s urban forest. Several years ago the city experienced strong conflict when much of the downtown urban forest was earmarked for destruction. Over 10,000 residents became involved in the effort to preserve the city’s trees, and the result is an active Urban Forest Task Force, and significant attention paid by otherwise less-involved citizens to the health and presence of trees in their neighborhoods and throughout the city.
There is much interest in alternative transportation as well, as has been seen with the great increase in bicycle ridership. The spectrum of interest ranges from bicycles, to electric automobiles, to public transit. Stop a person on the street to discuss any of these items and you’ll get an earful.
Other concerns about sustainability are crucially important too. The water shortage, for example, has made waves, of course, affecting many dinnertime discussions throughout the city. These are just a few examples, out of many, indicating residents’ intense interest in the city’s sustainability.
Solving (or lessening) the traffic problem
This years-long issue is probably the most widespread source of complaints, debates and arguments in the city. There’s hardly a conversation where traffic is not brought up in one form or another, linking separate issues together under the common umbrella of oppressive traffic’s impact on residents’ lives. Traffic has affected the city’s development plans, it is a factor in the arguments about the airport, and it even causes disagreement about solutions to the drought.
Differing views about how to fix traffic problems have led to the creation of political groupings – and indeed parties – with increasingly intense animosity on display. Bring together residents who are diametrically opposed on development issues to a conversation about traffic, and they will all express intense frustration, each from their respective corners. In many cases, the conversations about rents, development, sustainability and housing justice are really arguments about traffic. Alleviate the root causes of the traffic problem (including, not the least, the grossly inadequate public transportation system within the city) and much of the quarreling will fade.
A core motivating principle with Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, and a widely-held core value among large segments of the city’s residents, if not their overwhelming majority. Affordable housing is seen as a fundamental tool in helping to solve social and economic inequities. How affordable such housing might be, who is to subsidize and fund the construction of affordable housing, who gets to live in this housing, how much of this housing to provide-these are the subject of many disputes throughout the city. But there is little argument that providing affordable housing is an important part of this city’s social and economic commitment, and a central feature of the city’s identity.
Responsive and transparent government
Nobody who has visited the city after a long absence would dispute the observation that Santa Monica has grown dramatically. The city’s permanent population has increased modestly, certainly, but the daytime population has zoomed to unprecedented levels, and so has the city’s budget. What many people still think of as a small town by the beach has grown to be a city, with a city’s finances, problems and challenges.
The city’s government structure, however, has been sorely tested in the transition from a small town to a small city. In the past, personal relationships between members of city government, residents and businesses were key features of an unspoken social and economic contract in the city. But more recently, this same approach has become vulnerable to misunderstandings, inappropriate acts and poor governance. Recent scandals, such as the Elizabeth Riel matter, and alleged violations of the Oaks Initiative ordinance by the former City Manager and a sitting member of City Council have riveted much public attention on faults and fissures in the city’s government and its actions.
Many people gloss over the government improvements that have, nonetheless, occurred in recent years. This writer remembers vividly one example from 2007, when — during the public comment period at a City Council meeting — he was rudely shut down in mid-sentence by the then-mayor while responding to a question by another council member. Many residents also remember when companies owned by members of City Council were routinely selected to fulfill lucrative contracts with the city. Those days are gone. But the interest in clean government, free of conflicts of interest remains intense, and even heightened by recent scandals.
An increasing number of community discussions have focused recently on moving the city toward a more fiscally-responsible and transparent government structure, with fail-safe institutional tripwire mechanisms (such as an independent ombudsperson position accountable to City Council). Efforts to promote these values would not only bolster the city’s progressive principles in a real and tangible way, but would enjoy widespread support among residents.
These are just a few of the issues on which there is, in our view, broad agreement in the community. There are others, of course, including education, assistance to the homeless, housing for younger folks, and many others. For all of these, the devil (and the focus of widespread disagreements) is in the pesky details. But broad agreement on overall goals provides a tantalizing glimpse of opportunities waiting, like ripe fruit, to be picked.
Daniel Jansenson for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)
Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Parks & Recreation Commission. For previous articles, see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings.