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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Some little cities are doing what many big nations cannot: striving for sustainability. Daniel Hinerfeld from member station KCRW reports on Santa Monica, California and its mixed progress on achieving sustainability.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Agenda 21 was a call to action that issued from the Rio Earth Summit 5 years ago. It was an exhortation to the world to recognize that every decision affects the environment. That every policy has global consequences. That all programs should be sustainable. It's a message most nations have ignored, but many cities have taken it to heart, including Santa Monica, a small affluent community in southern California. Santa Monica is famous for its progressive politics and penchants for the latest trends. From member station KCRW, Daniel Hinerfeld reports on the city's mixed progress on achieving sustainability.

(Crashing surf)

HINERFELD: An illustrated magazine ad from the 1930s shows the sweeping, sun-drenched coastline of Santa Monica Bay. "Summer Playground of the Travel-Wise," reads the headline. Sixty years later Santa Monica still looks like Paradise. Bordered by Los Angeles, the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, it's a thriving metropolis in the midst of natural beauty. The city's economic vitality has meant an ongoing struggle to balance growth with conservation. Inspired by the Rio Summit, Santa Monica adopted in 1994 what it calls a sustainable city program: a comprehensive set of goals and strategies to reduce energy and water use, produce less solid waste, and create an urban structure that can grow without damaging the environment.

PERKINS: We should be doing things now which will allow future generations to have a viable life.

CURWOOD: Craig Perkins, Santa Monica's Director of Environmental and Public Works Management, says the basic idea is very simple.

PERKINS: We can't expect to use up all of the potable water, to foul all the air, to fill up our canyons and deserts with waste and pollute all of our underground aquifers with toxic chemicals, and leave nothing for future generations.

HINERFELD: Though simple in concept, the sustainable cities program is complex in practice. Dozens of polities affect everything from purchasing and recycling to community gardens, transit, storm water treatment, and affordable housing. It combines mundane incentives with high-tech hardware. Again, Craig Perkins.

(Faint generator sounds)

PERKINS: We're standing underneath our electric vehicle charging station, which is powered by solar photovoltaic cells, which transform sunshine into electricity, which feeds into our City Hall building. Members of the public can drive up and plug in, and also city vehicles, electric city vehicles, can park here and charge overnight.

HINERFELD: Perkins says the solar charging station, which cost $90,000 to install, would take years to pay for itself. It's really about visibility, he says. But to some critics, that's exactly the problem. They say many of Santa Monica's programs are merely boutique. Others they fault for ignoring economic realities. Lynn Scarlet oversees public policy research at the Reason Foundation, a think tank that advances free-market solutions.

SCARLET: On the one hand, yeah, environmental improvement is lots of little steps. Tiny little steps, often invisible steps. But the real challenge you face is whether some of what they're doing is just faddishness as opposed to real change that makes a real difference.

HINERFELD: Santa Monica's goal is laudable, says Scarlet. But in many areas it favors micro-management over broad incentives that have elsewhere proved more successful. One example is the city's effort to reduce water consumption. Over several years, Santa Monica has spent roughly $5 million installing low-flow shower heads and toilets. The program has reduced consumption by 15%, and that has lowered costs. The city now spends less on procurement and also less treating wastewater. But Scarlet says her city, Santa Barbara, had a better idea. It drastically increased the price of water and overnight cut consumption by 40%.

SCARLET: So I would be very cautious about a city using taxpayers' monies to kind of subsidize the private sector to do these things. I would instead look at incentive mechanisms that kind of on their own drove them to make some of those decisions where they made sense for them.

(Beeping and motors, clanking sounds)

HINERFELD: Scarlet says the same thing applies to Santa Monica's handling of solid waste. John Root is the city's waste reduction coordinator.

(More clanking)

ROOT: Well, right now we're at the Santa Monica Community Recycling Center.

HINERFELD: Santa Monica began recycling long before the Rio Summit. Its curbside program, begun in 1982, serves 7,500 single-family homes. For multiple-family dwellings, the city designed drop-off zones that keep the recycling commute to less than 3 blocks.

ROOT: And I think that's one of the things that's fairly unique about Santa Monica's program, is that we have this pretty vast network of these drop-off sites. We do really make recycling as convenient as possible for the residents of this city.

HINERFELD: Under California law, using 1990 as a baseline, all cities and counties must divert at least 50% of their solid waste from landfills by the year 2000. So far, Santa Monica has achieved a 25% diversion. That puts it slightly behind schedule. According to Lynn Scarlet of the Reason Foundation, it's another area where the city could rely more on economic signals. Although Santa Monica uses a pay as you throw pricing structure, it hasn't achieved results like those of Seattle, where consumption is discouraged by steeply progressive waste fees.

(Crashing surf)

HINERFELD: Santa Monica is famous for liberal politics. It's the heart of Tom Hayden's State Senate district and it acquired its nickname, The People's Republic of Santa Monica, from landlords frustrated over strict rent control. The city showed its true colors again last year when it elected to the city council a founder of California's Green Party. Michael Feinstein says Santa Monica should be proud of its environmental consciousness.

FEINSTEIN: But at the same time, the commercial pressures, the priceyness of the land here, and the corruption on politics that that kind of money inevitably has, has I think led us to a mixed result. I think we've done some very good things, but I think we've made some very terrible land use choices here, because of the pressure to over-develop. And now we're trying to catch up. And sustainability says you can't just catch up. You have to do everything hand in hand.

HINERFELD: Feinstein says Santa Monica needs to create a more direct connection between short-term projects and long-range goals.

FEINSTEIN: Clearly, the Rio Summit talked about the need, ultimately, to bring down greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 80 percent by the middle of next century, stabilize global climate. What I want to see us do is actually take those goals to reduce emissions 20, 30, 40 percent, and then tie those to individual development projects so the new projects actually have to lead to a reduction rather than an increase. That's the only way we're going to turn this planet around.

HINERFELD: Getting that idea past the so-called "developer Democrats" on the council won't be easy, Feinstein concedes. In the meantime there are important goals more readily attainable. One of them is planning for the effects of global warming. Looking up the coast, Feinstein points out the Santa Monica pier, 2 oceanfront hotels, and the heavily trafficked bike path. They're assets that attract legions of visitors and generate millions in tax revenue.

FEINSTEIN: Our location at the ocean also, however, puts us at a very dangerous place in terms of global warming, with the predictions that ocean levels will rise. That means not only on a day to day basis could we lose part of our beaches, but when we get the severe storms, like we had in '82 and '83, their effects will be so much more pronounced with a higher ocean that we could lose a lot of our beaches, lose a lot of our coastal property. As a coastal city, what do we have to do in terms of rising tides? Should we be spending the kind of money we are to building the beachfront until we know what's going to happen? Ventura County just had a study done by USC, which suggested that up to 4,100 homes there are in danger of going underwater.

HINERFELD: Feinstein has introduced a global warming measure in the city council. It calls on the city to find a university that will study the effects of climate change on Santa Monica to help guide capital investment. So far, according to Santa Monica's own evaluation, its sustainable city program has had mixed results. An internal report last year cited progress on water usage, solid waste reduction, and alternative fuel vehicles. But it said little or nothing had been done to hit many other targets. Overall, the city was criticized for its piecemeal approach. But according to Craig Perkins, Santa Monica's Director of Environmental and Public Works Management, it's the process that really counts.

PERKINS: We're trying to be as aggressive as possible, in terms of meeting these goals, and it's much better to have a target and not need it than never have a target at all. That's the sort of motto we live by.

HINERFELD: For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Hinerfeld in Santa Monica.



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