Santa Monica Kicks Off 2017 by Doubling Down on Plans for a Sustainable Future

Crowds explore Santa Monica’s streets by bike, foot, and any other means but motorized vehicle, for Santa Monica’s first open streets celebration. Photo Jason Islas/SBLA

While the incoming president has threatened to turn back many of the gains made in environmental conservation and fighting global climate change, Santa Monica remains committed to being a sustainability leader in 2017 and beyond.

The city, which has long been known as a leader in green policies, is entering the new year with optimism that its ambitious goals — reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, water self-sufficiency by 2020, and zero waste by 2030 — will transform Santa Monica for the better and serve as examples for other municipalities of what is possible.

“With the new year upon us, it’s kind of an exciting time. We’ve got these huge goals in Santa Monica with Carbon Neutrality and Water Self-Sufficiency and Zero Waste, and getting to each of these goals is going to be transformative in a positive way,” said Dean Kubani, the director of Santa Monica’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment (OSE).

The OSE was recently combined with the city’s public works office — Kubani is now also assistant director of Public Works — as part of an initiative to integrate sustainability into all of the decision-making at the department.

“We’ve been leaders nationwide in a lot of things we’ve done, but they have been a lot of the low-hanging fruit,” he said.

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Things like mandating solar panels on new single-family homes, encouraging charging stations for electric vehicles, and offering rebates to people who replace their lawns with drought tolerant plants have all been welcomed by the community as ways to be more sustainable.

But one of the city’s most ambitious goals — reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 — is going to require a lot more change.

Fighting Climate Change Locally

“We’ve done most of the easy stuff. And now we’ve got to do the hard stuff,” Kubani said. This city recently surpassed its goal for carbon emissions reductions, which originally was 15 percent below emissions in 1990. Santa Monica managed to get 20 percent below that level.

A breakdown of carbon emissions by source, from the City’s Climate Action Plan.

While Kubani and his staff are still drafting the plan that will get Santa Monica to carbon neutrality in just over 30 years, it’s clear that significant changes will have to be made to two different areas of day-to-day life: how we use energy and how we get around.

A New Way To Plug In

Currently, Santa Monica is working with other cities in the region on creating a “Community Choice Aggregation” option, which allows communities to buy their own power from whatever source they want, instead of being beholden to the power sources used by the utility company.

And while Southern California Edison will still deliver the energy, it can then be produced from more renewable sources.

Kubani noted that in cases where cities adopted Community Choice Aggregation, not only is it the more sustainable option, but it’s often cheaper than what the traditional utility companies offer.

Greener Buildings

The city recently passed a net-zero energy policy for new buildings, meaning that new buildings will have to generate at least as much energy from renewable sources as they consume.

“We got out ahead of the state on that,” Kubani said. “The state requirements are going to kick in starting in 2020 for residential [buildings]. We’re basically the first city out of the gate saying, ‘Let’s do this now; it’s feasible.’”

Kubani added, “If we’re going to get to carbon neutrality, we’re going to have to change the way we build buildings and how we run cities.”

The city is taking the lead to show just how sustainable new buildings can be. The Santa Monica City Council recently decided to move ahead with plans for a new 50,000 square-foot administrative building that would be one of the greenest in the country.

Through innovations like composting toilets, graywater systems, and sustainable energy production, the building will aim to achieve goals like net-zero water and energy use.

The project is as much a demonstration to other cities in the region — and the world — as it is to city staff. Kubani said that the new building will give city officials a chance to acquaint themselves with some of the leading technologies in sustainable buildings.

Getting Around

In Santa Monica, addressing the second part of the equation — transportation — has proven more difficult.

There are two ways to reduce emissions from transportation: encourage use of low- or zero-emission vehicles, though they are often expensive, or make it easier for people to walk, bike, or use public transportation to get around.

“Really the big thing is getting people out of cars,” Kubani said.

The Expo line recently opened to Santa Monica, connecting it to the region’s growing public transit network. The Big Blue Bus is realigning its network to make it easier to connect to the new train. Santa Monica hosted its first open streets festival in 2016, opened L.A. County’s first public bike-share system in 2015, and continues to build bike lanes throughout the city. Since 2000, the city has seen a more than 350 percent increase in the number of people riding bikes in the city, in part due to the ambitious Bike Action Plan (BAP), adopted in 2011. And last year, the city adopted a Pedestrian Action Plan modeled after the BAP.

But part of the problem is that Santa Monica is only part of a much larger region, and people still drive when they have to travel longer distances.

“We are doing all that we can here,” he said, adding that part of Santa Monica’s strategy is to do things that are replicable in other communities so that the city’s successes in reducing car-dependence can be exported throughout the region.

Leaving Suburbia Behind

It’s also one of the City Council’s stated goals to increase the amount of housing — especially affordable housing — in the city. Since Santa Monica is a major job center, the lack of housing growth in last several decades has begun to push rents higher and higher. As a result, the tens of thousands of people that can’t afford to live in the city now contribute to the city’s traffic woes by having to commute into town.

A recent article at Vox.com about Santa Monica’s sustainability efforts went a step further, calling many of the sustainability efforts by the city symbolic.

If there aren’t policies in place to meaningfully increase density — and therefore allow more people to live in the city — then most of the sustainability efforts would only benefit the lucky few who can afford to live in the city. The Vox.com article reads:

“The wealthy of Santa Monica, by living in a place with strong environmental laws and standards, will avail themselves of a low-carbon lifestyle. They will live in low-carbon houses, drive low-carbon cars, and patronize low-carbon local businesses. The per-capita carbon emissions of those lucky residents will be low compared to others in their socioeconomic cohort.

“But as job growth continues, people will keep coming to the city. That’s part of what keeps a city vital — people keep coming. If those people can’t afford a place to live in the city, they will be pushed to the periphery and beyond, to sprawling suburbs.”

Kubani acknowledged the need for more housing to help with the city’s sustainability goals.

“We do need to increase the amount of housing here, too, to make it easier for people to live closer to where they work and reduce trips,” he said.

Getting Santa Monica Off Imported Water

While carbon neutrality is a big goal, so is the city’s goal to be water self-sufficient by 2020 and Santa Monica has taken some bold steps in that direction.

Kubani spoke about a Sustainable Water Infrastructure Project (SWIP) in the city’s future that, while designed to be a demonstration project, is actually a big deal. The plan is to place a treatment plant beneath the Civic Center parking lot that taps into sewer lines. It would take sewer water, run it through a treatment process until it was up to drinking water standards, then reinject it into the water table.

The OSE has also been pretty aggressive about reminding people to turn off their sprinklers with the recent rains as well as encouraging homeowners to harvest rainwater for later use.

“The message has been getting through. You’ve seen the level of water usage really drop off,” he said.

In late 2015/early 2016, water usage dropped about 20 percent, according to Kubani. And despite a slight increase in the summer months, it has dropped again and remains about 20 percent less than it was two years ago.

In February, the Council will hear a proposed ordinance that would require net zero water usage for new buildings. Under the ordinance, new construction would have to offset any net increase in the intensity of water use at a site by paying into a fund that would be used to increase water efficiency elsewhere in the city.

“Basically [the money would go to] retrofitting older buildings with more efficient plumbing,” Kubani said.

While getting off imported water entirely by 2020 is a very “aggressive goal,” according to Kubani, he believes the city will at least get very close.

Waste Not, Want Not

Also on the horizon is the city’s plan to get to zero waste by 2030. Kubani notes that zero waste doesn’t literally mean zero, but up to 95 percent diversion from landfills.

“We’ve done a great job in Santa Monica for years with recycling and composting. We’re probably close to 85 percent diversion right now,” Kubani said.

To reach that goal, the city is looking at moving to a more simple “two-can” system. Waste would be sorted at people’s homes into dry waste and wet waste cans, which would then go to sorting facilities where recyclable and compostable waste would be pulled out.

Eventually, Kubani said, the city will be looking at conversion technology, which would allow the city to take the rest of that waste and put in a biodigester and break down the waste to generate energy. But that would probably require a regional partnership since there may not be room in Santa Monica for a biodigester.

Standing Up for Sustainability in the Trump Era

Kubani is optimistic that Santa Monica will stay on track as a leader in sustainable policy, even while a president who is actively hostile to the idea of combating climate change will takes office this week.

It helps that California Governor Jerry Brown has laid out, in no uncertain terms, that his state will aggressively resist the Trump administration’s anti-science agenda.

“With the hostile federal stance, you are seeing a lot more activity at the local level,” Kubani said.

Santa Monica certainly has plenty planned.