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Los Angeles’ Sustainable City “pLAn,” A Four-Part Series (Part IV)

The fourth and final installment in a series on Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Sustainable City pLAn.

This is the fourth and final installment in a series on Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Sustainable City pLAn. You can read earlier parts here: Part I, Overview; Part II, Environment; Part III, Economy. This installment covers the third and final section of the pLAn, Equity. It is also the shortest

A few weeks ago, Jeff Bezos won capitalism by surpassing Warren Buffett to become the richest man in the world, accumulating something in the neighborhood of $90B in net worth. The Los Angeles Sustainable City pLAn obviously says nothing about Bezos, he’s Seattle’s problem, but considering that according to Oxfam the wealthiest 8 people control an amount of wealth equivalent to the poorest half of the world combined equity is a thing we should concern ourselves with, and sooner rather than later. Because that’s 8 dudes with one pile of cash, 3.6 billion people with another pile of cash, and both of those piles are the same.

Garcetti’s pLAn sidesteps this problem entirely by not mentioning money at all, since I suppose that was covered in the previous section on the economy. But the section synopsis makes interesting claims in this regard: “Building equity in our city ensures all Angelenos have access to healthy, livable neighborhoods. It also strengthens a sense of collective ownership of our common future.”

Access to healthy, livable neighborhoods is obviously important. It’s why we pay state and local taxes. But just what the fuck are we talking about here when we say “collective ownership,” if not actually owning things collectively? If pLAn went on to talk about worker-owned co-ops, nationalized banking in Los Angeles, or any number of the truly democratic workplace ideas proposed by Richard Wolff, I would be completely on board. But pLAn only wants to give us a “sense” of this communal stake, so we feel indebted to a larger civic notion of community while individually reaping none of the rewards that come with that community.

The Equity section of pLAn is divided into Air Quality, Environmental Justice, Urban Ecosystem, and Livable Neighborhoods.

Air Quality

Los Angeles has a long history of air pollution, and our air quality remains the worst in the country. Most of this is due to vehicular traffic, but we also have the great fortune of living in a natural basin, nice offshore breezes in from the ocean and mountains to our east. So smog has nowhere to go and our air doesn’t circulate very well. The pLAn acknowledges this, right up front with a “Did You Know” bullet point informing you: “According to the EPA, the LA region has the worst air quality of any region in the U.S.”

What you might not know is how much worse your air is if the Craigslist ad for your $1500/month studio boasted “easy freeway access.” Air quality within a mile of a freeway drops to dangerous levels very quickly, and the LA Times was nice enough to develop an interactive map where you can track your impending asthma here.

The pLAn’s air improvement plan is more of an addendum to earlier sections on electric vehicles than anything new. It does, however, add targets for zero-emission vehicles specifically in and out of and around the ports, which is good.

Environmental Justice

The history of environmental injustice — and the more pointed term, environmental racism — is little more than the history of economic injustice, as you need only look at the poorest areas of a city to find the most polluted, the areas nearest toxic manufacturing and waste disposal, neighborhoods bisected by freeways, and so on. One need not believe in an intentional white supremacist conspiracy to see the mutually-reinforcing factors at work. All urban and industrial development produces communal benefits as well as communal costs, and development that lowers surrounding property values is naturally planned for areas of already low value.

No one sets out to lower property values. Refineries, industrial rail infrastructure, landfills, and the like are viewed as unfortunate necessities. Parks and walkable streets, on the other hand, along with zoning for middle to high end retail raise quality of life and therefore property values. The California EPA completed an environmental justice map, called CalEnviroScreen, based on census tract information, and by law the state is required to spend 25% of the cap-and-trade program revenue to benefit communities disproportionately affected by pollution and the consequences of climate change.

The many severe problems with cap-and-trade generally and California AB 398 specifically have been well-documented elsewhere, including in KNOCK, but there are additional problems with pLAn’s approach.

First, the ranking scheme and the criteria for measuring improvement: CalEnviroScreen measures climate burden in comparative terms. Disadvantaged communities are defined by the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (SB 535) as those in the highest percentile, ranking as the most burdened 25% of all census tracts in the state. This is not a measurement against some objective, pristine wilderness, but rather a measurement against other communities as they actually exist in our polluted and changing climate. The pLAn’s targets reinforce this relative measurement, with the goal of reducing “the number of census tracts in the top 10% of CalEnviroScreen.” By 2025 pLAn hopes to reduce that number by 25%, and by 50% by 2035. At its worst, this is just shuffling the problem around since it is mathematically impossible for 100% of approximately 8,000 census tracts in CalEnviroScreen to be in the lowest-impacted 74%.

Second, while cleaning up polluted communities is an a priori, self-justifying good, cleaner, more livable neighborhoods have more shared benefits and correspondingly higher property values. And so LA’s “Clean Up Green Up” program could be just another name for state-funded gentrification, and push out the disadvantaged residents whom it purports to serve. And this is another reason it is so frustrating to see Garcetti’s pLAn attempt to address environmental injustice without simultaneously addressing economic injustice by providing real, substantive redistribution instead of warm fuzzy thoughts about 13 bucks an hour and pale green jobs.

A welcome note in this subsection is that it includes food deserts as an environmental justice issue, and by 2035, pLAn hopes, all Angelenos will live within a ½ mile of fresh food. One pLAn goal that has already been met is that all Los Angeles farmers’ markets are required to accept EBT, which is great.

Urban Ecosystem

Food security and access to fresh food provides a nice transition into the next subsection, as part of the urban ecosystem pLAn call for increased urban agriculture. The targets are uninspiring, and the Promise Zone grant initiative instituted by President Obama is a case study in using corporate jargon to say absolutely nothing. Still, allocating city land for community gardening, including at library branches and other city facilities, is a step in the right direction. Also good is the mention of a compost giveaway and distribution program, which the previous article in this series touched on briefly.

The main thrust of this subsection, though, is access to park space and revitalization of the LA River. Ideally, 65% of all Angelenos will live within ½ mile of “a park or open space” by 2025 and 75% by 2035. This could be great or it could be problematic, depending on how one defines an open space, but assuming we’re not talking about vacant lots we should be moving in the right direction.

More concerning is the river revitalization. Bike paths and parks are nice, but the rhetoric surrounding river projects and the geographical fact of the river’s location near Boyle Heights and the Arts District — two heavily gentrifying neighborhoods — are enough to inspire nightmares of the bourgeois “river walk” developments seen in other cities. See Rahm Emanuel’s launchpad for tours of Chicago and, especially, San Antonio, Texas. Fortunately for us, the sheer length of the riverfront and its isolation, surrounded as it is by railyards, make bike paths and open park space some of the only viable options for much of the river. The Albion River Side Park project in Lincoln Heights, however, does have the potential to serve as a focal point around which to further gentrify, but even that is cut off from the east side of downtown by Interstate 10 and a railyard.

Livable Neighborhoods

The two target objectives here are to fully implement Vision Zero, the pedestrian and cyclist safety initiative, and increase LA’s walkability score. But the ideal of a livable neighborhood encompasses a wide range of factors, and pLAn’s priorities include community events in public spaces, the overall vibrancy of city streets, local volunteer opportunities, and again access to local, sustainable, and healthy food.

These are all laudable, but these kinds of feel-good platitudes already receive plenty of hype and praise. The more troubling aspects are the least obvious, so let us consider the ways public spaces end up disproportionately benefiting private interests.

For starters, pLAn calls for streamlining the permitting process for “community events and festivals” in public spaces. Reading that, one might imagine small, local block parties where neighbors socialize and reinforce community bonds. But “festivals” comprise a whole different category of event altogether. Mardi Gras is a festival, the Taste of Chicago is a festival, and neither of these have anything whatsoever to do with “community.”

A vibrant city street to one person is a useless neoliberal hellscape to another, and gross income has a lot to do with which side of that divide one falls on. According to pLAn, a vibrant street aligns with the objectives of the Great Streets initiatives. Per pLAn, we will “use Great Streets and other public improvements to create complete streets that enhance economic development, improve commercial and civic life, decrease retail vacancy rates and enhance safety.”

Notice the first priority is to enhance economic development and the penultimate is to decrease retail vacancy — in other words, our streets will be vibrant for landlords.

A closer look at Great Streets is even more troubling. The first thing Great Streets does is secure funding for regular infrastructure maintenance and weekly street cleaning. So far, so good. Next on the list of priorities seems to be improved bus shelters, which include USB charging and wifi. It’s unclear at this point if smartphones should be considered an economic justice issue, since everyone seems to have one, but let’s not forget they do cost upwards of $500 and the ubiquitous free wifi is collecting your browsing data.

And if government and corporate surveillance are concerns of yours, you will absolutely adore the Soofa bench that Great Streets installs on nearly all of their great streets. This solar-powered bench has USB charging for your devices, seating for three strategically bifurcated as a passive anti-homeless measure by the solar panel, and its own internal sensors to monitor the surrounding area. This is not a paranoid fantasy, this is from Soofa’s own website:

“Monitor street level activity, get a better understanding of event attendance, and measure the return on investment from capital improvement projects. Visualize data with standardized and customizable data reports, export raw data, or access through our API to fit to the needs of your department or organization.”

Monitor the return on investment of your capital improvement projects. Sounds very livable and vibrant, yes? And a little farther down the same page:

“Know when there is significant activity in your outdoor spaces, either planned or unplanned. Compare different days of the week by looking at detailed hourly data of pedestrian activity. “Measure the success of events by analyzing how many people attend. Know how long events last and how long it takes people to arrive and to leave.”

Nothing sinister at all about monitoring unplanned activity. And finally, still the same page:

“In addition to measuring the activity of your public space, monitor how much your benches are getting used. Know how many people charge and for how long. Compare the use of benches in different locations. Correlate charging data with public space activity data.”

I’m sure this is just a good-natured attempt to understand how useful these benches are to you, and these data points would never be connected to other data points that might build a profile of you as someone who cannot fully charge their phone at home for economic, social, or other reasons. Advertisers and retail corporations wouldn’t need that information to know that offering charging ports to battery-charge deprived people will entice them to spend more time in certain locations, or to draw people toward police stingray devices that capture all incoming and outgoing traffic to individual cell phones. No, this is all solely for your benefit so you can enjoy your phone, instead of the outdoor public space or interacting with the people around you.

Oak Park, IL was an the early adopter of Soofa’s and a participant in a pilot project. Per Soofa’s website:

“The Park District of Oak Park is one of Soofa’s first smarter parks beta partners, joining our network of innovative park and recreation agencies nationwide in August 2016. The network includes agencies like NYC Parks, Prince George’s County, MD Parks and Recreation, Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation, and dozens of other forward thinking agencies. You can read more about the Park District’s installation in this Chicago Tribune article and learn more about how they engaged their community with a fun QR code scavenger hunt called SpotTheSoofa” (links in original).

The goal of the initial 2016 study:

“Compare pedestrian use of parks to inform capital planning decisions, measure the success of event programming and marketing, and tell a fuller story of how the Park District’s parks are used and just how valuable they are.”

Measure the success of marketing and to inform capital planning decisions. This called a feedback loop: the city makes the decision to invest in a certain area, promotes that area and stages events, then gathers data showing that this area draws crowds and uses that data to justify further investment in the area. And not because people are picnicking, but because they are spending money.

At the same time, this expensive technology is also remarkably stupid. For example, “Data in raw form provides the Park District flexibility to study how park use is impacted by events, weather, and more.” When a publicized event is scheduled, more people come to the park. When it rains, fewer people come to the park. My god, genius.

So far Great Streets has developed one corridor in each of LA’s 15 city council districts, and they plan to expand.

Just The Beginning

This concludes the Equity section of pLAn, and thus this series. The last pages of the document are dedicated to the acknowledgments and a very brief chapter titled “Leading By Example.” We have already detailed LA’s supposed leadership elsewhere in this series, so rather than spend any more time debunking that myth I’ll just say a few words in closing.

It cannot be repeated often enough or loudly enough that Mayor Eric Garcetti serves only developers and his own future political ambitions. The pLAn was developed in 2014 and received no major media coverage, only an article or two in LA Progressive mentioned it at all, and it has apparently been shelved since. The near-term outcomes were set for 2017, but there is no mechanism for keeping track of targets met or missed, nor are there any enforcement or accountability mechanisms. And many, if not most, of those near-term objectives were merely “to develop strategies” for accomplishing the pLAn’s various goals, which a cynic would claim is purposefully vague. In other words, Garcetti seems intent on kicking the can as far down the road as he is able, secure in the assumption that he will be in Sacramento or D.C. long before being held accountable — and not just for pLAn, which is already forgotten, but for any of his actions as mayor.

We can take from this otherwise worthless document a qualified optimism, though. We are slaying in the court of public opinion, and the fact this document exists in the first place is evidence of that, that Garcetti felt the need to assemble a team to scrape these disparate pieces of shit together into one comprehensive pile. Neoliberal hacks like Garcetti, in the mold of President Obama, will demur and greenwash asshole policies and attempt to co-opt the climate justice movement at every turn, but they know they need to say the right things. So now we hold them accountable to their own words, force them to act on their own words that are right there in print, and that is at least a start.