Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown’s announcement of California’s first-ever mandatory restrictions on water use drew attention to the state’s uneasy relationship with its natural resources. “Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live here,” University of Southern California historian Kevin Starr told the New York Times.
If any city is known for violating natural boundaries, it’s Los Angeles. The city’s early water grab is the stuff of classic cinema. But its nefarious reputation hardly ends there. Unlike the bastions of hippies and geeks up north, L.A. is chiefly defined in the popular imagination by its crimes against nature, from pollution to freeways to blond dye jobs.
Some of these stereotypes are at best exaggerated. (For the record, you see mostly dark hair in this largely Latino city, and you see plenty of gray hair, too—on thirtysomething hipsters.) Other clichés are rooted more firmly in reality. The city’s Walk Score is a lackluster 64, compared with 84 for San Francisco and 88 for New York.
But, in recent years, Los Angeles has made headway on its most infamous environmental problems, and is even trying to position itself as a green leader. Smog has greatly diminished. Despite adding 1 million people to its population, the city claims to use the same amount of water as it did 30 years ago. Los Angeles is also heavily investing in mass transit while growing denser. (An EPA report found that between 2005 and 2009, the metropolitan area grew significantly more compact, as two-thirds of new housing was built on already developed land.) And Mayor Eric Garcetti’s new sustainability “pLAn” could have been drafted by Al Gore. It lays out a comprehensive suite of goals, such as eliminating coal from the city’s energy portfolio and diverting 90 percent of waste from landfills, both by 2025. In short, a place long known for its suburban character is becoming more of a city. And a place known for defying natural limitations is beginning to try to honor them—a goal that’s at once humbler and more ambitious.
Readers outside the region may have already seen an article or two about how this or that aspect of L.A. isn’t so terrible anymore. Within the region, these changes have collectively contributed to a sense of a new and improved L.A.—an emerging mythology of a more sustainable, responsible, and communal city. Granted, it’s a myth in more than one sense. To apply those adjectives to L.A. requires some squinting (and perhaps politely ignoring the Lexus that just cut you off on the 405). And the drought has the potential to pit water-consumers against each other rather than pulling them together. But this narrative could nevertheless reshape the city’s self-image. Indeed, outsiders who cling to the old clichés about L.A. have themselves become a target of ridicule. As the real-estate blog Curbed LA put it, “New York Times stories about Los Angeles are amazing because they’re like seeing the city through the eyes of a dorky time traveler from 1992.”
The most explicit attempt to capture the shift in the zeitgeist is the notion of the “Third Los Angeles,” a term coined by Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne. In an ongoing series of public events, Hawthorne has proposed that L.A. is moving into a new phase of its civic life. In his formulation, the first Los Angeles, a semi-forgotten prewar city, boasted a streetcar, active street life, and cutting-edge architecture. The second Los Angeles is the familiar auto-dystopia that resulted from the nearly bacterial postwar growth of subdivisions and the construction of the freeway system. Now, Hawthorne argues, this third and latest phase harks in some ways back to the first, in its embrace of public transit and public space (notably the billion-dollar revitalization of the concrete-covered Los Angeles River). Hawthorne’s focus is not specifically environmental. But a more publicly oriented city also tends to be a greener one. This is partly because mass transit and walking mean lower carbon emissions. And more broadly, willingness to invest in the public realm tends to coincide with political decisions that prioritize the public good, including ecological sustainability.
Any great city has its own mythologies. But perhaps in Los Angeles, as in California generally, myths loom particularly large. First, real estate boosters sold Southern California as an “Earthly Paradise,” a place for Midwesterners to bask in sunshine and to own an affordable single-family house. Before long, critics exposed class violence and sinister undertones, casting L.A. as a noirish hell or, in the words of writer and labor activist Louis Adamic, simply “a bad place.” Then, in 1971, came another overhaul to the myth, when British architecture critic Reyner Banham famously celebrated the city in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, praising its charming bungalows and exhilarating freeways. Two decades later, Mike Davis documented these competing myths in his 1990 best-seller City of Quartz, and sided caustically with the critics, offering a dystopian vision of “Fortress Los Angeles.”
For all the disagreement over whether Los Angeles was dream or nightmare, there was one point on which everyone seemed to agree—that it was not a real city. Adamic called it “a great, overgrown village.” Or, if it was a city, it was, in the words of an essay published in the late 20th century, “the first American city”—a model for the sprawl, privatization, and car dominance that was to become typical of U.S. municipalities. Jane Jacobs wrote neutrally but damningly, “Los Angeles is an extreme example of a metropolis with little public life, depending mainly instead on contacts of a more private social nature.” And in his great 1997 book, The Reluctant Metropolis, William Fulton showed how all the different parts of the metropolitan area scrambled to escape any sense of Los Angeles identity or community—the reverse, in a sense, of the kid from Long Island who implies he’s from New York City.
On all of those fronts, there are signs of change. One of the most obvious counter-examples is CicLAvia, the kind of phenomenon that makes Jacobs acolytes swoon. Launched in 2010, it’s a festive event during which miles of streets are closed to cars and swarmed by bikes. Taking place every two to three months, and rotating among different neighborhoods (Echo Park, the Valley, South L.A., etc.), each occasion attracts a diverse crowd of tens of thousands of people. They are the type of feel-good events—some might even call them utopian moments—where strangers smile at each other and ordinary life feels suspended. Traffic lights blink, and even cops whiz by on two wheels, wearing endearingly dorky helmets. In every sense—the car-shunning, the enthusiastic proximity to strangers, the exploration of different parts of the city—CicLAvia is antithetical to the guarded, privatized, auto-carved Los Angeles of lore.
CicLAvia remains a special occasion, but everyday transit is slowly improving as well. Banham wrote that the freeway “is where the Angeleno is most himself, most integrally identified with his great city,” and he predicted that “no Angeleno will be in a hurry to sacrifice it for the higher efficiency but drastically lowered convenience and freedom of choice of any high-density public rapid-transit system.” In 2008—pushed in part by unbearable traffic—Angelenos proved him wrong. On that Election Day, citizens of Los Angeles County voted for Measure R, which imposed a half-cent sales tax to support funding for transportation projects, including the expansion or construction of 12 rail and bus rapid transit lines. It is expected to generate $40 billion in revenue over 30 years. This choice stands in stark contrast to the famous Proposition 13, the 1978 California anti-property-tax law which has wreaked havoc on the state’s budget for public investment ever since. Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of the L.A.–based organization Climate Resolve and a former commissioner at the Department of Water and Power, told me, “The day we voted for Measure R, we voted for a new Los Angeles.”
Then there’s water. Another central part of the old Los Angeles myth was embodied in a quote famously attributed to water engineer William Mulholland at the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct just over 100 years ago: “There it is. Take it.” These words were interpreted as a slogan for a city that would siphon water from wherever it pleased to hydrate a burgeoning population.
Now, if only out of desperation, there is at least a strong competing ethos. Starting in the early ’80s, the city got more serious about conservation, as seen in its mass conversion to low-flow toilets. The city has been responding to the current drought on a number of fronts. It has significantly reduced its own water use, especially in the Parks Department. It has offered a rebate to homeowners who replace their lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping, as well as rebates for installing rain barrels, among a variety of other measures. (It remains to be seen how the city will implement the new mandatory state restrictions.) The Department of Water and Power is also preparing a new Stormwater Capture Master Plan, and L.A. has a target of reducing imported water use by 50 percent by 2025. According to Andy Lipkis, founder and president of the influential nonprofit Tree People, even in a drought, the proper technology can capture significant amounts of water—3.8 billion gallons per inch of rainfall.* Mayor Garcetti just launched a corny public awareness campaign urging conservation. Contra Mulholland, the new slogan is “Save the drop.”
Of course, Los Angeles is far from alone in its bid for environmental virtue. It is following national trends; like many cities, it now has a chief sustainability officer. Plans for an ambitious new recycling system (including food waste) are in the works. And let’s not forget that California is a pioneer in addressing climate change. Its groundbreaking 2006 law, the Global Warming Solutions Act, requires the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. As of this January, all components of this law, including a cap-and-trade program, are fully operational, and many of LA’s green initiatives are connected with that. What makes the developments in LA that much more remarkable, though, is that it’s … L.A. Observing them is sort of like seeing a guy get out of his Hummer and carry his reusable canvas bags into the grocery store.
For the same reason, L.A.’s evolution is particularly inspiring—that is, it could serve as a model for other not-so-green cities. Los Angeles started out as very strange, unlike the urban model found in Europe and the Northeast. And then it became more normal, as other places were similarly built around the automobile, subdivisions, and strip malls. Now, L.A. is becoming, in some ways, more like the cities that preceded it. In other ways, it has begun to capitalize on the natural assets it does have to become a 21st-century city: According to Environment America, Los Angeles now ranks first in the country for total installed solar PV capacity.
And yet, many caveats are in order. Indeed, one could easily live in L.A. with little sense of its supposed reinvention. Almost none of its new transit projects has been completed yet. According to a new UCLA report, 73 percent of L.A. County residents drove to work alone in 2013. A 2012 ballot measure to extend Measure R narrowly missed the needed two-thirds majority. A housing shortage is causing economic pain and ensuring long commutes.
On top of all that, the city still imports more than 85 percent of its water, and the current drought is likely a foretaste of the future. Due to climate change, the Southwest may experience megadroughts lasting decades. As attempts at water independence become more necessary, they also become more difficult. Meanwhile, the drought has eroded decades of progress on smog (since rain clears away air pollution), and water scarcity also leads to higher energy consumption.
Given this state of affairs—the exciting momentum, the daunting status quo—what role will the city’s emerging mythology play? The danger, of course, is that the narrative of a more environmentally sound, civic-minded city could in some cases amount to mere lip service. It could gloss over the city’s social and economic disparities, some of which could even be exacerbated as the city’s new attractions lure more creative-class types.
But more charitably, in some ways the new storyline could be self-perpetuating. It could affect how people vote—another transit measure is expected to be on the ballot in 2016—and how they perceive each other. Perception can’t manufacture water, but it can encourage conservation, and it can foster the public street life that coincides with sustainability—the opposite of the fortress mentality so often ascribed to L.A. At the most recent CicLAvia, in the Valley, I witnessed the following exchange: A woman emerged from a Porta-Potty, and a man, apparently a stranger, asked her if she’d watch his bike while he took his turn. Every element of that scene was disorienting. Generations of seekers did not head West with the fantasy of sharing outhouses and entrusting bikes to each other. But if, as we keep hearing, California needs a new dream for a new age, that scene is not a bad place to start
Correction, April 22, 2015: This article originally misidentified Andy Lipkis as the executive director of Tree People. He is its founder and president. (Return.)