Sustainability Planning in Metropolitan Los Angeles, an interview with Mark VanderSchaaf on his new book

Book cover graphic for “Sustainability Planning in Metropolitan Los Angeles: An Overview“, by Braley Design (c) 2023.

Sustainability Planning in Metropolitan Los Angeles, an interview with Mark VanderSchaaf on his new book

By   |  Mar. 24, 2023

We sat down with urban planner Mark VanderSchaaf to discuss his upcoming book, “Sustainability Planning in Metropolitan Los Angeles: An Overview.” It’s an astounding achievement, assessing thirteen Southland sustainability plans, and providing an overview for specialists and lay readers alike. The book is published in collaboration with the CSO Taskforce and the American Planning Association and is scheduled to be released at the Pando Days ‘22 Awards event at Caltech on April 16th.

PANDO: First off, congratulations on a groundbreaking book that brings together for the first time the various sustainability plans – thirteen in total! – in the California Southland. It is a remarkable achievement.

MARK VANDERSCHAAF: Thank you. Sustainability planning in the California Southland is a fascinating topic.

But, before we get into your book, I need to know, how does a religious scholar end up becoming an accomplished urban planner?

All religions have as their focal point a vision for good community, founded on stories that are believed to be deeply true. While many religions see such community achievable only in some sort of afterlife or transcendental realm, most see that a semblance of good community can be achieved in this life on planet earth.

The humanities are an important contributor to the goal of urban sustainability, by helping to articulate and manifest visions of community that find joy in the simple things of life – friendship, camaraderie and grass-roots creativity within a context where basic needs of food, shelter, and safety are met. And conversely, the humanities can help to unmask the powers that undermine such visions. 

So, as a city planner, one can help make stories of a prosperous community a reality in a more literal sense. But still, why the switch?

I decided that I was more interested in helping to make urban history than just studying and teaching about it. I am grateful that I was able to do so as the economic planner for the City of Saint Paul for seventeen years, and then as the regional planning director for our seven-county metropolitan area for more than twelve years.

After such a long and successful career in Minnesota, how have you ended up doing work with Pando Populus in LA? 

A year ago I learned about Pando Populus and right away saw it as an organization contributing positively both to the cultural history of Los Angeles and to sustainability endeavors in the region. I got to know Eugene Shirley and we decided on some ways that my knowledge, skills and abilities could contribute to the Pando Populus mission.

As a city-planner, you certainly have a more clear birds-eye view of the city and Pando’s role in it related to sustainability. Can you comment a bit on your take on the current state of sustainability planning in LA County?

I think it’s fascinating and highly commendable that nearly all public agencies in Metropolitan Los Angeles have sustainability as a high priority. It’s also hugely important that the State of California early in the 21st century established goals for the reduction of carbon footprint that became leading-edge standards for the rest of the nation. 

Yes, it is really quite commendable. 

The California context is especially vital when one considers how Metropolitan Los Angeles compares to the two other largest metropolises of the United States – New York and Chicago. Both of those metropolitan areas include multiple states – New Jersey and Connecticut along with New York state in the case of New York City, and Indiana along with Illinois in the case of Chicago. This gives L.A. a big advantage accruing from a single state policy framework within which to operate.

It definitely seems that that would make cohesive political action easier.

Well, that’s the good news. Some bad news is obvious; L.A. possesses some vulnerabilities that are extremely challenging. Examples are reliance on far-flung, diminishing water supplies; climate change impacts that are afflicting the region with alternating mega-droughts and mega-deluges. And a housing affordability crisis that is the worst of any metropolis in the nation. 

I would also include as bad news a possible greenwashing tendency. When everyone claims to be sustainable, one has to be skeptical about at least some such claims and view the region’s large collection of sustainability plans with a critical eye.  

I understand you are working on a book for release at the Pando Day ‘22 Finale on April 16th which does exactly that. Can you talk a bit about your book and what you have learned about these different plans?

The result of all my research is Sustainability Planning in Metropolitan Los Angeles: An Overview. It focuses on thirteen different sustainability plans that affect anyone just within the Los Angeles city limits. It includes information about the history of sustainability planning throughout the world, the U.S. and California, along with information about significant scholarly studies of Los Angeles that help provide context to the region’s sustainability planning. It also includes an Appendix providing very brief descriptions and Internet links to key sustainability activities in all of the larger cities of the Los Angeles region, as well as some exemplary smaller cities.

I heard that the book is meant to be structured like a “roadmap”. What does this mean?

I chose this metaphor because it encompasses two dimensions: destinations and journeys. Roadmaps identify fundamentally static places (e.g., cities and towns) along with pathways (e.g., highways, railroads) that are constantly dynamic and flowing. Or to put it in other terms, nouns and verbs.

How does the structure of your book reflect those ideas?

Part 1 of the e-book focuses on the destinations/nouns. It identifies a universe of historical decisions about sustainability, thirteen key sustainability plans in the Los Angeles Area, and scholarly studies and academic programs focusing on recent conditions in Los Angeles. It says very little about the processes that yielded these destinations/nouns.

And part 2?

Part 2, slated for completion next year, will shift the focus to journeys/verbs. It will look closely at the 2024 Connect SoCal plan currently being created by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). SCAG’s service area is all of Southern California except San Diego County, stretching in an easterly and southerly direction to the borders of Arizona and Mexico. It is also mandated by California state law to update every four years a “Sustainable Communities Strategy” that advises all other governmental units in its region.

Could you perhaps tell us a bit more about part 1 as it is coming out so soon?

One of the most exciting discoveries I’ve made in Part 1 of my e-book is an initiative from the City of Los Angeles that hasn’t yet made it into an official sustainability plan in the region. I’m referring to the biodiversity index that this city has created, and the reports that monitor the conditions of biodiversity in the city and its immediate surroundings. 

Why is this so important?

In my view, regional sustainability planning is undergoing a metamorphosis that appropriately may lead to establishing its foundations on well-designed and well-maintained natural systems. The metamorphosis, I think, will go something like this: Regional planning was initially focused on transportation planning, especially highways. In recent decades it also got indirectly involved in land use planning, especially housing and business locations, due to the need for ensuring that transportation and land use are well integrated, especially as other modes of transportation have become more widespread (e.g., rail transit, bicycles). 


More recently, there has been a move to integrate various kinds of planning and management of water infrastructure systems with one another (i.e., wastewater, drinking water supply, stormwater, surface water, and groundwater), which also requires integration with land use. In the process, we are discovering that the restoration of natural systems may be an especially effective way of managing water in our future of extreme drought/flood cycles. So the end result may very well be region-wide sustainability planning that integrates transportation, land use, water infrastructure, and natural systems.

Wow, fascinating stuff. We can’t wait for the book to come out. Thanks again for participating.

You are very welcome. 

Members of the Pando writing team include Rich Binell, Alexi Caracotsios, Amy Goldberg, Rebecca Schmitt, and Eugene Shirley.