Can’t Our Governments Just Get Along?

Good Regional Planning in Southern California Is Hard to Find. Here's Proof That It’s Possible.

Isaac Newton’s Law of Inertia applies equally well to rocks and politics: A body in motion resists any change to its speed or direction. If you’ve ever sat in on a city council meeting, you know that new ideas can take a long time to get approved and implemented. And once a project starts to involve multiple cities, millions of residents, hundreds of businesses, county departments, and the state, the Newtonian resistance to motion builds, especially if these groups are all pulling in different directions. But there are issues such as rail lines, water delivery, and air quality that one city cannot solve—or affect—on its own. In advance of to Zócalo/Metro event “What Does Southern California Need from the 710 Freeway?”, we asked planning experts to move beyond the usual points of friction surrounding that controversial freeway and to think more broadly about the region we call home: What’s the best recent example of successful local planning in Southern California that required regional cooperation?

Rick Cole

The nation’s largest metropolitan planning organization’s efforts to change the California Dream

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) is the nation’s largest “metropolitan planning organization”—covering six counties in Southern California, 18 million people, and 38,000 square miles. Whatever its shortcomings (it clearly hasn’t solved our regional traffic or affordable housing challenges), SCAG is the regional United Nations for 191 of our region’s fiercely independent cities. It can kill any federally funded transportation project through the “Regional Transportation Plan” that oversees highway and transit investment—a potentially potent point of leverage on local decision-makers.

For most of its existence, SCAG enabled what author and San Diego planning director Bill Fulton called the “Southern California Growth Machine”—the nearly unstoppable road/home/shopping center combine that paved nearly every square inch of L.A. County and made impressive headway in the surrounding suburbs and exurbs.

But over the past 20 years, SCAG has come to lead an astonishing shift in direction for the California Dream. The profound change didn’t come easy. Powerful demographic forces punctured the dominance of the single-family tract home. The housing crash halted the outward march of red-tiled roofs.  California’s fiscal crisis emptied the highway lobby’s barrels of cash.  Environmental pressures finally caught up to heedless sprawl. So in 2012, representatives to SCAG voted unanimously for a far-sighted new vision for more compact, urban-centered infill development as the future for Southern California.

The devil is in the details, but Amanda Eaken of the Natural Resources Defense Council praised SCAG’s 2012 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy as “the strongest transportation plan” in the history of “car-loving Southern California.” The unanimous vote was achieved by the savvy leadership pairing of Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor and Simi Valley Councilman Glen Becerra. The blue coastal and red inland officials shared a common vision of prudent transportation investment to sustain both our environment and our economy. They brought along the entire local government leadership in a stunning display of bipartisan consensus-building.

The next chapter is implementing that vision at a local level.

Rick Cole is deputy mayor for budget and innovation for the city of Los Angeles. Formerly, he has served as Pasadena’s mayor, Azusa’s city manager, and Ventura’s city manager.

Bill Allen

Teams of college rivals

The biggest news in “regional cooperation” has been in an area that has not traditionally been so open to that concept: higher education. Two developments are worthy of note.  First, with the formation of the “C5” (made up of the five California State universities in Southern California: Cal Poly Pomona, Cal State Dominguez Hills, Cal State Los Angeles, Cal State Long Beach, and Cal State Northridge), we are starting to see collaboration that will transform the university campuses, build deeper community partnerships across the region, and ultimately lead to better and more sustained economic development for Southern California in areas such as advanced manufacturing.

The commitment from the C5 to collaborate across campuses in order to respond to the changing and varying needs of students and industry, and their willingness to partner in curriculum and funding opportunities, serves to create an unparalleled opportunity for students, faculty, and workforce development.

The other exciting new regional collaboration is the Blackstone LaunchPad. This Blackstone Foundation-funded partnership involves UC Irvine, USC, UCLA, and the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. While some might view these world-renowned anchor institutions as competitive with one another, they are uniting to foster entrepreneurial know-how across our region and are building entrepreneurship centers on their campuses. The universities have indicated these centers are open to all their undergraduate students to encourage entrepreneurial thinking and provide the resources and advice needed to build their own business. They will all operate along a common set of guidelines and set equally highs standards for excellence. The ultimate winner is our region, as young entrepreneurs succeed and add vitality and jobs to Southern California.

As we strive to create jobs, it is heartening to see successful local planning that will not only deliver a skilled workforce, but a workforce that will create their own jobs and many more.

Bill Allen is president and CEO of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation.

Alfredo Gonzalez

More trees, more access for the L.A. River

The concept of revitalizing the Los Angeles River has been marginalized for many years, but it’s a regional issue that is finally getting somewhere.

Once subject to seasonal flooding, engineers in the early-to-mid-20th century tried to contain the Los Angeles River to prevent loss of life and property damage. With flooding minimized, development crept up to the levies, leaving the current course of the river highly constrained. People grew up not realizing there was a river in Los Angeles because it looked like a concrete ditch. But some people imagined the river could be more than that—that it could be a place for nature and people. Through the years, groups advocated for access to and a revitalization of the river, meaning less concrete, more trees, more public access, and fewer pollutants in the stream. Since the early 1990s, the city and county of Los Angeles, in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has spearheaded the work. My own group, The Nature Conservancy, has been working with organizations such as the Friends of the Los Angeles River, the River Revitalization Corporation, and the Council for Watershed Health to talk through issues.

The efforts are gathering steam: the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed in favor of the alternative with the highest conservation value; the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works is thinking very creatively about the river; and Mayor Eric Garcetti briefed President Obama on the river and has offered to split the costs of revitalization with the Army Corps.

Our organization is planning on conducting a detailed study of the feasibility of restoring native vegetation and habitats. It will produce a set of options for the sections of the river that haven’t been fully paved. We are also holding outreach meetings in neighboring communities to get people excited about what a restored Los Angeles River could be and to hear their insights and suggestions. This process is just the beginning, but years of collaboration are finally bearing fruit.

Alfredo Gonzalez is the Los Angeles-based south coast and deserts region director for The Nature Conservancy.

Rick Bishop

A climate plan tailored to Western Riverside County

The Western Riverside Council of Governments (WRCOG), which consists of 17 cities, the county of Riverside, two regional water districts, the county superintendent of schools, and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, has taken a practical, integrated approach to sustainable planning for the future. This collaborative attitude is reflected in WRCOG’s most recent endeavor, CAPtivate Western Riverside County, a subregional climate action plan set to be completed in summer 2014.

CAPtivate provides a roadmap—a set of ideas—to help expand on the subregion’s successes to slow the effects of climate change and translate state laws and regional goals to the local level. The participating cities have agreed, for instance, to aim for 2020 to have 15 percent less greenhouse gas emission than 2010 and for 2035 to have 49 percent less. The plan proposes a number of cost-effective strategies that include expanding our HERO Program (a public-private partnership that offers financing for upgrading lighting, installing solar panels, converting to drip and weather-based irrigation systems, and other improvements for energy and natural resource conservation); increasing opportunities for biking, walking, and taking public transit; facilitating electric vehicle use; and converting local infrastructure to be more energy-efficient. It’s no secret that this will require an enormous amount of hard work and cooperation. It will require the commitment of not only governments, but of communities, individuals, and businesses in our subregion working together to identify ways to reduce energy and water consumption, increase efficiency, stimulate the local economy, and encourage people to explore alternative methods of transportation.

Our goal is to make WRCOG a vibrant example of how a subregion can collaborate to achieve climate protection goals and, as a result, enhance quality of life for all its residents and businesses.

Rick Bishop is the executive director of the Western Riverside Council of Governments, based in Riverside.