A new sustainability plan for metropolitan Los Angeles

A new sustainability plan for metropolitan Los Angeles

By   |  Jan. 21, 2024

One of the toughest regional planning issues anywhere is the tension between urban development and natural resource conservation. This is especially true in Metropolitan Los Angeles where the nation’s second most populous urban area is also the epicenter of the “California Floristic Province,” the only internationally-designated “biodiversity hotspot” in the continental United States. Biodiversity hotspots are places where there are many endemic species combined with an extreme level of loss of their habitat due to urban development. 

From a regional biodiversity perspective, it’s especially valuable to pay attention to planning issues revealed in the work of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) and especially SCAG’s new regional plan. Every four years, this agency releases an updated regional transportation plan and sustainable communities strategy, as required by federal and state law, along with several associated documents relating to that plan. SCAG’s new regional plan, entitled Connect SoCal, was released for public review in November of 2023 and is scheduled for adoption in April of this year. It has an expansive service area covering ALL of Southern California EXCEPT San Diego County, a county that does its own such planning, conducted by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). 

Clearly the importance of the SCAG plan is enormous. And yet, there is a challenging tension built into the plan.  At the heart of the tension is the fact that SCAG, like SANDAG, is a “Metropolitan Planning Organization” (MPO), one of more than four hundred throughout the United States designated by the federal government to do urban transportation planning. The requirement to also create a sustainable communities strategy linked to the transportation plan comes from the State of California. MPOs function more like the United Nations than the United States. That is, their members are primarily elected officials from city and county governments that must rely on negotiation and consensus building to craft their multi-county regional plans. As such, they lack potent tools to ensure that all aspects of their plans are implemented. When it comes to transportation planning, consensus is achieved with considerable success because federal and state agencies carry so much weight in crafting and funding transportation plans and projects. But in California, when it comes to elements of the state-required sustainable communities strategy, the land use strategies depend on actions by local governments which have more freedom to ignore the recommendations of their MPOs.

This dilemma is evident in the 2024 version of Connect SoCal and related documents where efforts to resolve the tension between natural resource conservation and urban development have been controversial works-in-progress. 

The transportation portion of Connect SoCal is impressive from a sustainability standpoint. It features a robust and growing commitment to creating the kinds of infrastructure that can help lower carbon footprint and improve livability by supporting more use of transit, bicycling, walking, and similar non-automotive modes. But for those investments to work effectively, they must be tied to complementary land uses – typically anchored by higher-density, multi-family housing units located near concentrated nodes of multi-modal investments, and avoiding new development in places within the region lacking such investments. And land use policy is primarily within the jurisdiction of local municipal governments and even – as is the case within the City of Los Angeles – sometimes within the jurisdiction of official neighborhood communities. So, it’s not surprising that it’s challenging for an MPO to establish regional land use guidelines that will be acceptable to all local governments within the region.

Unfortunately, two land use controversies permeate the 2024 SCAG sustainable communities strategy, which can be described as controversies over where new development in the region SHOULD NOT occur, and controversies over where it SHOULD occur. But before considering these two controversies, there is some good news. In a very general way, both of those controversies have been resolved. Yet, as is often said, the devil is in the details. Two maps illustrate the places in general where SCAG and its local government partners have achieved a measure of consensus:

“Green Region Resource Areas”: Where future development SHOULD NOT occur.
“Priority Development Areas”: Where future development SHOULD occur.

These maps suggest two key questions: (1) Where exactly are the edges between the two large-scale areas? (2) At a small scale (e.g., individual parcels of land), what are the exact conditions and expectations of these small-scale areas? In this brief blog I will provide only teasers regarding current SCAG efforts to answer these questions. 

In 2020, SCAG began work on the SoCal Greenprint, which will provide data in a geographic information system format. This tool will help guide local efforts to identify and preserve specific nature-rich lands to offset potential impacts from infrastructure projects and streamline the development process. Because this effort generated considerable concern from developers and landowners potentially desiring to develop their land, the SoCal Greenprint is still being finalized. SCAG staff has indicated that it is anticipated to be complete in 2024, shortly after the adoption of the 2024 Connect SoCal.

A different kind of controversy blossomed regarding the lands in the Priority Development Areas identified as appropriate for new development or redevelopment. Alarmed by the pervasive and growing crises of homelessness and overcrowding throughout the urban areas of California, the state government in 2019 determined that its longstanding “Regional Housing Needs Allocation” process should expect MPOs to meet their entire backlog of housing needs for all income categories between 2021 and 2029. For SCAG, this meant planning for more than 1.3 million new housing units in Metropolitan Los Angeles during the 2021-2029 time period – in allocations that SCAG was required to determine for each individual jurisdiction in its service area. (For example, the City of Los Angeles was instructed to zone for nearly 500,000 new units on top of an existing housing stock of nearly 1,400,000 units within the city limits.) But, at the same time, the state invited MPOs and others to critique their new approach, with comments fielded through September of 2023. SCAG indeed has provided such comments, many of which focus on the impossibility of meeting such ambitious goals so quickly and express disappointment with the state for failing to provide sufficient collaboration and tools to enable local governments to make good faith efforts to try to meet the goals.

In short, the new Connect SoCal plan demonstrates that it’s an exciting time to be observing and participating in sustainability planning in Metropolitan Los Angeles. Much hangs in the balance as SCAG and its communities in the six-county region endeavor to find momentum and resources to match sustainability aspirations with detailed policies, projects, and outcomes.  
For additional information right away, you can go to this website to learn about the draft 2024 SCAG Connect SoCal plan:  https://scag.ca.gov/connect-socal. And also, note that I am updating my Sustainability Planning in Metropolitan Los Angeles e-book, originally published by the Chief Sustainability Officers Task Force of Los Angeles County in April 2023, to include an extensive analysis of the process for creating the new Connect SoCal plan. The publication of the updated and expanded version of this e-book is scheduled to coincide with SCAG’s adoption of its new plan in April of this year.

Mark VanderSchaaf is a Regional Sustainability Planner and author of e-book "Sustainability Planning in Metropolitan Los Angeles: An Overview."