Environmental Ecstasy

What does nibbling “tasty treats at organic cooking demonstrations” have to do with running one of the environmentally cleanest cities in the nation?

A great deal, in the case of Santa Monica, which this month embarks on a 10th-anniversary celebration of its Sustainable City Program with a weeklong festival designed to give a higher profile to Earth-saving ideas. Organic cooking and tours of “green” buildings may be crowd-pleasers — in Santa Monica, at least — but they also underscore the dozens of more prosaic and groundbreaking programs and practices the city has put in place over the last decade.

Inspired by the United Nations’ 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the Santa Monica City Council voted on September 20, 1994, to become a “Sustainable City,” committing to a series of environmentally friendly changes in the way it does business. Some were straightforward, such as converting the famous Big Blue Bus fleet to natural gas in order to drastically reduce atmospheric pollutants. Others have been a bit more creative, like teaching city employees not to leave cookies in their desks — to discourage pests without resorting to chemical pesticides.

Hundreds of cities around the nation have climbed onto the sustainability bandwagon. But none approaches the achievements of Santa Monica, which, according to a March report by Oakland-based Redefining Progress, has an “ecological footprint” — described in terms of the acreage needed to sustain the city and its people at the level they are consuming resources and emitting pollutants — far below that of the national average.

The city still has a “footprint” that extends far beyond its borders and reaches almost to the desert. But in an era when most cities continue to gobble up formerly arable land and build housing and other structures that pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, Santa Monica’s footprint has shrunk by a half-acre for each resident, or a total of 167 square miles.

“They’ve made some real progress,” said the report’s primary author, Jason Venetoulis. “Especially in reducing energy consumption. But they still have a long way to go.”

Heal the Bay executive director Mark Gold chairs the city’s Task Force on the Environment, a volunteer board that helps city leaders put their Sustainable City Plan into effect. He said the most noteworthy aspect of the program has been the enthusiastic buy-in of city employees.

“The leadership is not just coming from the environmental community, but from the city staff itself,” Gold said.

Sustainable City Coordinator Dean Kubani was the only person specifically hired to work on the program. That may be part of its success — under Kubani’s guidance, Santa Monica department chiefs and employees have made an environmentally friendly orientation an integral part of the city’s way of doing business, instead of tacking an environmental component on top of the status quo.

“The real idea behind the program is that we didn’t want to do something that costs the city money,” Kubani said. “It works in part because what works for the environment also saves the city money.”

For example, Santa Monica’s electric bill — for traffic signals, for the lights on the pier, for streetlamps — actually costs the city 5 percent less than what Southern California Edison would charge for similar service, Kubani said. That’s remarkable, because every kilowatt comes in the form of renewable energy, without coal-burning or other Earth-damaging electric production.

There was some luck involved. The city locked in its rates with a long-term contract before the deregulation fiasco that drove up rates around the state. But there was plenty of planning involved as well. Through efficiency programs and education, Santa Monica cut its power consumption by up to 15 percent.

“We had money from our savings to be able to do the right thing” and purchase only renewable electricity, Kubani said.


So if Santa Monica is such a leader in practices that are both Earth-friendly and cost-saving, why isn’t the whole world beating a path to its door?

Actually, it is, according to Kubani.

“I’m seeing that Santa Monica actually is quietly taking the nation by storm,” Kubani said. “I’ll get a phone call once a week from some community in the U.S. to find out what we’re doing in Santa Monica.”

One reason the city’s successes are so little known outside the community of environmental activists may be that the changes have been so incremental — and painless. Gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles are still allowed to drive down a Santa Monica street, for example, and residents can still water their lawns and wash down their driveways. The emphasis is not on coercion, but on making sustainability appealing.

“We can’t get from where we are today to where nobody has a vehicle and everybody eats organic food,” Kubani said. “It’s going to happen in steps.”

The next step is in many ways the most difficult, but it is already well under way. Like many cities, Santa Monica is attempting to change land-use patterns by encouraging mixed-use development to put housing closer to work sites, reducing — planners hope — the amount of fuel needed to keep people working. The idea is that eventually, instead of seeking an environmentally friendly SUV, a driver will decide there’s no need for an SUV at all.

The Redefining Progress report noted that the city still has a footprint that is, on average, 16 acres above its “fair earthshare,” a kind of break-even point. And many of Santa Monica’s advances were offset by increased usage of electricity and gasoline.

But there’s a lot to celebrate. A schedule of events marking the program’s 10th anniversary can be found online.

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