Mayor Villaraigosa, This is NOT How You Do Environmental Policy

Los Angeles City Hall looks like it’s covered in greenwash.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa likes to talk green at every opportunity, but most of his environmental initiatives fall flat due to lack of follow-through (no one has ever accused him of too long of an attention span), his own political incentives, or both.  He pushed a charter amendment to mandate the development of solar power for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, but voters rejected in when it became clear that it was a payoff for the Department’s powerful union.  He announced the Million Trees campaign for Los Angeles, but new trees have been few and far between.  He hired a visionary planning director, Gail Goldberg, but has not offered her strong public support.

And now they are repaving the street outside my house.

Why is that a big environmental issue?  Well, it isn’t, really, except for one thing: they are repaving it with blacktop.  Really black blacktop.  Blacktop that decreases surface albedo, absorbs solar radiation, and increases urban heat islands.  Just adding some chalk and lightening up the asphalt could reduce surface temperatures and thereby encourage energy conservation.  But that’s a lot less sexy than solar panels and doesn’t have any political payoff, so there’s no point in doing it.

Villaraigosa’s been Mayor for five years.  He likes to talk a lot about environmentalism.  And he can’t even get the color of the asphalt changed.  Aargh.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

14 thoughts on “Mayor Villaraigosa, This is NOT How You Do Environmental Policy”

  1. I don't know much about botany, Benny, but there are trees and there are trees. Here in a suburb of LA there are lots of palm trees, and not a lot of the trees I'm used to from more northerly latitudes. I hope the palms are water-efficient, but maybe they're just heat-tolerant.

    On the other hand, there are a lot of expansive, beautiful green lawns, just like up north but untroubled by overcast skies or inconstant sunshine, baking in the sunshine and using heaven knows how much water.

    Alex F, I dare you to suggest that a politician use the term "albedo". Too many of the people who didn't mishear the term as being something similar would accuse them of pointy-headed elitism.

  2. Benny, my undergrad advisor did a study and found that even with the water expenditure, planting 5M appropriate shade trees in CA would avoid the need for 17 new power plants. And that is just the energy argument. Plenty more where that came from. And the LA model for 1M trees is quite a bit different than my wife's model of planting 1M trees. And, and, and. AFAICT, zero other cities are emulating the LA model.

    And the Urban Heat Island is one of my minor specialties, and I spoke in Berkeley last year about it. Johnathon is absolutely correct about lower albedo on blacktop and the SCAQMD plea for lighter-colored roofs. No-brainer. No thought required. None.

  3. Warren: Would a mayor even need to campaign on it? Could he or she just ask the contractor to throw some chalk dust into the asphalt? (Would this require an engineering study of some sort?)

  4. Alex,

    I agree with you completely (and I know nothing about the requirements for engineering studies). I just think it's funny to contemplate the likely effect of a politician (correctly) using the term "albedo".

  5. Dan Staley,

    17 new power plants is nice and all…but I don't really think it is relevant. Granted I don't live in L.A., but from my perspective water usage is the biggest issue facing SoCal. I mean they can just put up solar panels in L.A., it is always sunny there.

  6. "Trees in L.A. seems like a bad idea. Correct me if I’m wrong but L.A. is in a desert and has major water shortages. More trees would simply require more water. "

    (1) LA has many, varied trees. It's actually a rather beautiful city in many ways, and you should not be so quick to accept the mocking "of course it's the ugliest city in America" tone of so many commenters.

    (2) LA is pretty parsimonious with its water, unpublicized and behind the scenes. To give some statistics, LA metro, though substantially larger now, uses as much water as it did in 1979; and LA uses less water per person than the oh so green (and oh so self-righteous) SF Bay Area.

    Of course the fact that the city can survive with its existing water infrastructure doesn't mean it can grow indefinitely. But IMHO the way to do that is to restrict population growth, not to make the place so unpleasant no-one would want to live there (which is what removing the trees would do).

  7. Maynard —

    Where did you get those numbers on comparative water use between Los Angeles and the Bay Area? I don't doubt you, but it would good to have them at my fingertips, the better to throw at my Bay Area friends.

  8. Hi Jonathan,

    Listening to Mount again, I realized that what he exactly says, along with a bunch of other stuff about what a great job LA is doing, is that what he says exactly is that LA is reducing consumption much faster than anywhere else; which is not exactly what I claimed.

    So I then looked around for the numbers. It's not easy to find exactly the numbers we want, but best I can tell

    – LA metro is using about 150 gpcd (gallons per capita day). You can find this in here
    (The numbers are not ideal, because that gives an average over the last 10 years, and presumably the number is lower now).

    You'll see in that list that various broken out cities, eg Beverley Hills and San Marino, have higher numbers, presumably mostly to gardening, but I suspect they are small enough that they don't really affect the overall outcome — for every Beverly Hills at 284, there is a Compton at 100.

    – Santa Clara County is at 170 gpcd (2008 numbers)

    – alternatively this document
    if you do the division, for the whole Bay Area (2003-4) gives 160 gpcd

    The pattern seems to indicate that the two are at least comparable (in spite of LA's rather more difficult circumstances) with LA probably ahead.

  9. Benny:

    until 15M people permanently vacate CA, there is going to be shortages of all kinds of things. I agree water is key. So is fossil fool-driven energy for cooling, much of which uses water at the source. So you can trade power for water or water for x or power for y. In the end, the multifold benefits of trees are many.

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