New study analyzes sustainability planning in metropolitan Los Angeles

Cover of Mark VanderSchaaf’s updated and expanded book, Sustainability Planning in Metropolitan Los Angeles: Products and Processes. Click here to obtain a free copy.

New study analyzes sustainability planning in metropolitan Los Angeles

By   |  May. 30, 2024

April 14, the date of The Pando Sustainability Awards, served a dual purpose by marking the official publication date of the CSO (Chief Sustainability Officer) Taskforce publication, Sustainability Planning in Metropolitan Los Angeles: Products and Processes

A free resource provided as a public service, the book is written by noted regional planner Mark VanderSchaaf who has written on many regional planning topics such as One Water and Priority Development Areas in Los Angeles. The book is the first to identify and analyze the wide variety of contemporary sustainability plans affecting the L.A. region and is a treasure for all who are interested in better understanding the region’s sustainability work. 

Published in collaboration with the Regional and Intergovernmental Planning Division of the American Planning Association, Sustainability Planning in Metropolitan Los Angeles fills a void felt by many who work on sustainability issues throughout the nation’s second largest metropolitan area.

VanderSchaaf is the former regional planning director for the Metropolitan Council of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Area and has written on many regional planning topics such as One Water and Priority Development Areas in Los Angeles. He was inspired to write his book due to the common observation that Los Angeles is often at the forefront of addressing issues that all American cities will eventually face. So for a national audience, the value of this book is to learn how L.A. can help lead the way through increasingly difficult sustainability challenges into a brighter future.

To organize his thoughts, VanderSchaaf draws on a perspective sometimes called “strong sustainability.” It’s common to note that sustainability has three components: environmental, social, and economic. The “strong” perspective, however, also insists that the relationship among these three components regards the environment as necessary to the achievement of social sustainability, which in turn is the necessary foundation of economic sustainability. Most prominently, this perspective is propounded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as in this diagram:

From this perspective, two Metropolitan Los Angeles plans exhibit especially comprehensive approaches to addressing all three sustainability dimensions for a large-scale geography – the Los Angeles County OurCounty plan (2019), a plan for the nearly 10 million people in the heart of the region; and the Connect SoCal plan (2024) of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), a plan for the nearly 19 million people in the six-county Los Angeles megaregion. A key finding of VanderSchaaf’s book is that the goals of these two plans are largely compatible, although the county plan understandably has a stronger urban focus than does the SCAG plan.  

The new book also examines eleven more specialized plans, some for a multi-county geography, others for a county geography, and others for a city or neighborhood geography. The more specialized plans focus on issues such as water management, housing, economic development, energy production, and biodiversity. From the perspective of the diagram emphasizing environmental integrity, VanderSchaaf finds special strength in sustainability tools that promote that objective – particularly the “Green Region Resource Areas” and the “Greenprint” created by the Southern California Association of Governments, and the “Biodiversity Index” created by the City of Los Angeles. His book also highlights innovations in “One Water” management approaches that are being adopted by water agencies throughout the L.A. region. This approach breaks down historic divisions among various forms of water management (e.g., drinking water, stormwater, wastewater, groundwater) to insist that they all be integrated with one another and with other urban systems, particularly land use. 

Central to the pursuit of sustainability is reduction in carbon footprint. Here Metropolitan Los Angeles has already achieved some surprising accomplishments: population density is high and per capita vehicle miles traveled are low in comparison to other U.S. metropolitan areas. To further reduce carbon footprint, the region is now on an aggressive path to supplement highway infrastructure with a robust transit system and strategies to incent walking, bicycling, and other forms of rolling in neighborhoods with housing and employment patterns promoting walkable urbanity. And with the City of Los Angeles hosting the nation’s largest publicly-owned electric utility, it is now on a path to achieving 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2035, ten years ahead of the California state goal.

Finally, the book’s subtitle (“Products and Processes”) draws attention to the fact that “plan” is both a noun and a verb. While we often see just the results of a planning process in the form of a published plan (noun), all such plans are a result of complex processes (verbs). For metropolitan Los Angeles, the most geographically expansive and most frequently updated processes are conducted by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), which is required by both federal and state law to update its transportation plan and sustainable communities strategy every four years. The processes examined in the new book are those used by SCAG to create its most recent Connect SoCal plan, adopted in April of this year.

To obtain a free copy of this e-book, click here.

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