In addition to elected leaders such as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown, leaders at the local level are also working to make California a leader in carbon emissions mitigation. In order to share the perspective of local leaders on sustainable land use planning, TPR was pleased to speak with Ventura City Manager Rick Cole, whose planning experience yields solid advice for building sustainable communities in Southern California.
The recent UN meeting in Bali highlighted the challenges of international collaboration on climate change. With California seen as out ahead of our national government on this issue, what role do you see for cities and counties?
Climate change is only the most visible symptom of our unsustainable way of living. In his new book, Paul Hawken writes about "the largest movement in the world." The role of local government has to be seen in the context of this worldwide movement for sustainability.
Transforming the way we live is not simply a product of government decisions and actions. Movements operate simultaneously at a number of levels (international, national, and local) and across dimensions of society (governmental, social, economic, and personal). So, it's important to emphasize that it is the movement that is driving change, and it is people who are driving the movement.
But with that understanding, I think it is clear that cities are where the action will be-particularly as we learn to model the change we want to see in the world.
Local government is seldom seen as the cutting edge of change in California. Do they have the capacity to lead this change?
I see that changing in both perception and reality. Look at how local governments handled the landfill crisis. When AB 939 passed in 1989, local jurisdictions acted as if the sky was falling, claiming there was no way they could comply with the mandate to divert 50 percent of the waste stream from being buried. Yet today, most are proud of meeting and exceeding that goal. San Bernardino County squealed when Attorney General Brown singled them out for his test case on applying the California Environmental Quality Act to climate change. But they quickly settled and now boast about being statewide leaders on the issue. The nature of movements is to make possible what seems impossible. With so much in play today on the environmental front, local governments are finding themselves on the cutting edge whether they want to be there or not.
Yet local governments lined up against SB 372, the bill that seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by tackling current land use and transportation patterns.
I was disappointed at the League of Cities' initial position, but you have to understand local government's well-earned mistrust in state government. The bill's goal makes sense: to prod every region in the state to complete a "blueprint" process like the successful one in the Sacramento region. That's essential to forcing the question of how we collaborate on sustainable regional land use and transportation.
Although the state budget and healthcare may overshadow it, the bill and the issue will not go away. We can't reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet the AB 32 goals without smarter growth-and we need regional collaboration to achieve it.
The bill hasn't achieved a critical mass of support to be successful. But the movement, climate change, and peak oil will continue to drive us toward a more sustainable agenda. The Air Resource Board's chair, Mary Nichols, has the primary responsibility under AB 32 to set the state's standards, and she fully understands the land use/transportation linkage and is geared up to take on this issue. Still, we will need a mechanism like SB 372 to make sense out of all the well-meaning, but separate, state climate change initiatives going forward, not only by the Air Board, but with the Attorney General's office and the embrace of the "blueprint" regional planning model by Caltrans.
Stepping back to the broader theme of sustainability you've raised, what cities are emerging as the leaders in adopting the goal of sustainability?
Here it's important to distinguish between the hope, the hype, and the reality. Today, the environmental aspect of sustainability has the earmarks of a college town phenomenon-towns like Davis, Berkeley, and Santa Cruz are usually out ahead of the rest of us. Yet mayors of California's major cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Jose, are all driving a green agenda. So are councils and staffs in more mainstream cities. Some of the best examples in Southern California are Santa Monica and Pasadena. Ventura County cities are particularly proud of our efforts, particularly Ventura and Thousand Oaks.
What separates the hype from the reality?
There are three elements that are key to real change. First, measurable goals. Lots of cities and elected officials are climbing on the green bandwagon with ten-point programs, but accountability is critical. Are there specific, measurable goals with deadlines? If not, it's just "green air."
Second, a real partnership with the community. Local government can be a model of energy efficiency, water conservation, and carbon footprint reduction, but local government regulation is not going to transform the way we build, move people and goods, and conserve resources. That will take leadership from environmental alliances and initiatives with genuine participation from business, community organizations, and citizens.
Finally, tenacity. The International City/County Managers Association calls sustainability "the issue of our age." Local governments are highly reactive-after all, we are the level of government closest to the people. But this is an issue we are going to have to be strategic about-even as we work to apply the strategic perspective to everything we do day to day.
How is that playing out in Ventura?
Ventura is an interesting case. We have tended to naturally embrace environmentalism-it's not been something we've highlighted as much as we've simply put it into practice. You'd never see Ron Calkins, our Public Works director, in Birkenstocks and a beard. But even though he fits the stereotype of a public works engineer, my joke is that he must wear green underwear, because our Public Works Department is among the half-dozen greenest in California. We've reduced pesticide and herbicide use in our parks to well below an ounce an acre per month-with the goal of eliminating it entirely, which we've done in our largest park. Our transportation engineer is a card-carrying member of the Congress for the New Urbanism-who's spearheading an ambitious mobility plan to shift from auto-dependence toward walking, biking, and transit.
Our commitment to water conservation has been so successful that, in absolute terms, we use less water than the community did thirty years ago-when we had only two-thirds our current population. We have the same kind of record on water quality, alternative energy, and recycling. We're also becoming a national model for smart growth with our focus on infill development, primarily downtown and in the older parts of our community. We even have a green initiative working group in the Police Department, seeking ways to reduce their gasoline consumption and change the way they do business.
We've packaged all this into what we call our "Green Initiative," but we were already doing many of the things other cities are now announcing they are going to do, and we're measuring our progress on a monthly basis.
You've twice emphasized the importance of measuring progress. How is Ventura doing that?
Back in 2005, when the City Council adopted Ventura's General Plan, it represented a long-term commitment to what we call "The Ventura Vision." It's an integrated strategic plan organized around ten dimensions of how the citizens of Ventura would like to see their community evolve. The first is "Our Natural Community," which obviously emphasizes our unique environmental setting between two rivers, the Pacific Ocean, and our hillside backdrop. But it weaves the sustainability theme through not only the environmental aspect, but also the economy, equity, and engagement as well. So in the chapter on "Our Prosperous Community," there is an emphasis on green business-which comes naturally in a town where the most prominent private sector business is Patagonia, which Fortune Magazine recently called "the greenest corporation on the planet."
For each of the ten goals, we've identified a half dozen or so key measures that we focus on monthly through a half-day leadership team meeting. Our goal is not only to track the numbers, but also to work across department lines to meet our targets. We meet quarterly with the City Council with the same format-and publicize an annual "report card" to our citizens to let them know how well we are doing. I think that kind of accountability is critical to reach any goal-particularly if you are trying to change the way you do business, which is a crucial part of shifting us away from unsustainable practices toward sustainable ones.
What's the biggest frustration?
It's probably one that's shared in many communities and organizations: sustaining a sense of urgency. Look, there's tremendous inertia to continue business as usual-or to make only minor adjustments, like switching out lightbulbs. There are also innumerable distractions-concerns and issues that arise that clamor for attention but aren't strategic and divert us from making needed, fundamental changes. By and large, the people of California have it good. They may complain about traffic or crime or taxes, but if you look around the world, Californians have a remarkable quality of life and standard of living-and Ventura County is ahead of the state average.
The problem is that key drivers of California's success aren't sustainable. We won't be able to count on cheap energy, economic advantage, and debt finance to sustain our success. History is littered with examples of success stories that ran out of gas-although we will be the first where that happens literally. As the late economist Herb Stein rightly observed, "That which is unsustainable eventually comes to a stop." We are not there yet, but we don't have the luxury of waiting to make major change, despite the fact that such changes cause anxiety and discomfort. Because if we don't change, that anxiety and discomfort is nothing compared to the future calamity that will confront our children due to our failure to act today.
Does your experience in Ventura-and your observation of other communities-permit you to conclude there's now sufficient political will to make major change?
That question brings us back to the first. It takes a movement. Movements make up in intensity for the lack of majority support in their first stages. Of course, the real sign of success of a movement is that the majority eventually embraces key elements of a movement's goals, bringing it into the mainstream. We are not there yet, but in communities all across California, we are going in that direction. It is a great time to be working in cities. As John Kennedy said when I was a kid: "I do not shrink from that responsibility, I welcome it."