The purpose of plans is to help communities confront and prepare for their future. On preparing for a future with climate change, the downtown plan is an utter failure. Instead of focusing on the most salient environmental threat humanity has ever faced, the Downtown Plan focuses on constraining the physical form of the future downtown.

Within our children’s lifetime, it’s possible that the accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere will trigger a process of runaway climate change in which of a combination of subsea and Arctic methane emissions lead to accelerated warming of the land and sea, thawing of most polar ice, and resulting >8℉ increases in average annual temperatures, meter-plus sea level rise, tropical disease migration, and other disasters out of a science fiction or horror movie.

At 2016’s Paris Climate Accords, 146 nations decided to act as quickly as practically possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.This doesn’t sound like a future anyone wants. But the window where our actions can avert this nightmarish future is running out. This has motivated global action to address climate change.  But both the US and Santa Monica seem to be backing off of their commitments.

Last year, California’s state legislative leaders took action, passing a new mandate. While the state’s goal for more than a decade has been to reduce greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020, the new law seeks a drastic 40 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.

The state’s comprehensive plan to achieve this drastic and essential reduction in GHG emissions – at the same time that population grows – involves accommodating population and job growth in the most climate-efficient communities. This means communities near existing jobs, near transit, and that have lower air conditioning and building energy requirements. That perfectly describes Downtown Santa Monica.

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Santa Monica has a long-standing Sustainable City Plan and a Sustainability Bill of Rights (which enumerates a resident’s right to a sustainable climate). It would seem that a city like Santa Monica would make every effort to consider the impacts of its major decisions on our planet’s future climate.

Unfortunately, the downtown plan largely ignores its impact on climate change.

Short of a few token mentions, for instance acknowledging that will increase demand for building air conditioning and that emissions from transportation comprise 64 percent of the city’s climate footprint, the itself plan largely punts on the issue of climate change.

The accompanying Environmental Impact Report’s chapter on climate change is formulaic, essentially a copy-paste from similar reports by the consultant, and devotes only three lines to last year’s landmark SB 32 law, which mandates a 40 percent reduction in statewide GHG emissions before the plan is old enough to finish middle school. In those three lines, the chapter manages to mischaracterize the impact of the law.

Although the city didn’t consider the impacts of the downtown plan on future greenhouse gas emissions on climate change, scientists have.

Through a method known as Integrated Transportation and Land Use Consequential Life-Cycle Assessment, scientists can model the future climate change emissions that would result from planning decisions. The process considers not only emissions from electricity and fuels for operating buildings and vehicles, but also the emissions produced in order to construct buildings and manufacture vehicles.

The connections between transit-oriented development and greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles are well understood. Developments near jobs and transit reduce each household’s annual travel by reducing the distances between home, work, errands, and play, and by moving some would-be vehicle trips to transit, walking, and biking. Add in electricity savings in shared unit walls, equipment, and infrastructure, and transit-oriented developments are substantially more climate-efficient than developments elsewhere. Once one considers the more efficient use of raw materials and construction processes possible with constructing many housing units at once on a single site, combined with the fewer future vehicle purposes that car-light households will require, the magnitude of the difference becomes even more significant.

In fact, Associate Professor Mikhail Chester at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment has performed such a study for the neighborhoods along the Expo line, including downtown Santa Monica.  The study concluded that each new housing unit accommodated in a 7 to 12 story mixed-use building near Expo produces 33% less GHG emissions over 60 years versus a typical development elsewhere.  The Downtown Plan limits most residential buildings to 4 or 5 stories, allowing 7 story buildings in only 4 blocks, and a maximum of three 12-story buildings.

The decision to limit building heights downtown is a decision to not build housing units downtown.

For every 35 housing units not built downtown, that’s a equivalent to a decision to add a full year (2015) of the city’s municipal greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere over the next 60 years. Is this a conscious decision by the planning commission and city council? Perhaps not.  But it is still a real consequence of the City’s decision to overlook the connection between its land use and future global greenhouse gas emissions.  

The purpose of plans is to help communities confront and prepare for their future. On preparing for a future with climate change, the downtown plan is an utter failure. Instead of focusing on the most salient environmental threat humanity has ever faced, the Downtown Plan focuses on constraining the physical form of the future downtown.

Juan Matute, AICP, is a Lecturer in Urban Planning at UCLA, where he teaches Environmental Assessment for Urban Systems to future planners