The geographic center of Los Angeles is marked by a brass plaque near the intersection of Mulholland and Coldwater Canyon drives, in the chaparral and eucalyptus above Beverly Hills. A short jog from that spot, surrounded by trees, sits the glass walled, LEED platinum certified TreePeople Center for Community Forestry.
The conference center is the brainchild of Andy Lipkis, the president and founder of TreePeople. On July 23, leaders of government, business, academia, and the non-profit world – 60 in all – gathered at the center to talk about how to make Los Angeles, and ultimately the world, a better place.
Andy Lipkis kicked it off. “We built this conference center specifically for today – and for days like today. Just as this building integrated all kinds of new thinking, all of us are here looking for a breakthrough in the way we think about infrastructure in the 21st century.”
“Let’s ground the discussion in the serious facts,” Andy continued. “Instead of building infrastructure in ways that end up costing us, our goal is to bring public health – our health – into the discussion, so that our infrastructure serves us rather than hurts us.”
Lipkis then introduced Dr. Richard Jackson of UCLA, who led the audience in an overview of health mega-trends affecting Los Angeles, California, and the world.
Dr. Richard Jackson
“By 2050 we are expecting to see 54 million people living in California,” Jackson said, “with a substantial elderly population that will demand a much higher level of health care expenditures. Forty years ago, about 7% of the American economy went towards health care. Now it’s 16%. Manufacturing in this country is 14% of the economy. So we have a lower level of manufacturing than any other industrialized nation in the West except for France, and our medical sector is absorbing more money than our manufacturing."
“At the same time, we’re looking at declining health in this country. In 1991, 10-14% of California teenagers were obese. By 2005, it was 20-24%. There’s been a doubling of diabetes in twenty years."
“In Northern Europe about 40% of short trips are walked or biked; in the U.S., it’s 7%. The U.S. has paved over 60,000 square miles, an area the size of Georgia. We have created a massive infrastructure that is automobile dependent."
“Who is more likely to die in a pool of blood, the suburbanite or urbanite? The surburbanite, because cars lead to fatal crashes. Despite the advances in auto safety, the number of overall deaths has not declined, because we have more cars that are driven faster. Plus, the more time you spend in a car, the more likely you are to be obese."
“These health challenges are tied to our environmental and infrastructure challenges. If you walk into the National Academy of Sciences, you will see on a wall the Keeling Curve, showing the increased concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. What’s alarming about the Keeling Curve is the trajectory. Given the temperature increases in the last 100 years, any doctor ignoring a patient running a temperature like this one would be guilty of malpractice."
“Where do we go from here? We need solutions that cross the domains. Look at the Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge. When were they built? During the Depression. If there’s ever a time to build, it’s during a depression."
“So what can we do? First, people need to walk! Walking 10,000 steps a day reduces your risk of obesity by one half. We need walkable cities because they equal healthy cities. We need to tax sugar, a penny a teaspoon, and invest that money in upstream disease prevention measures, instead of using it to staple stomachs.”
Andy Lipkis then posed a question to the group. “Dick’s ideas sound good, but the question is: How do we pay for them? Part of my job is to reboot the question and ask where does the money come from today?”
Andy continued: “Let’s ask ourselves: What happened with infrastructure? A tree is one basic unit of integrated infrastructure. When we disintegrated our ecosystem, we also disintegrated the production of oxygen, the filtration of the air, and the storage of water. According to the Center for Urban Forest Research, one mature live oak with a 100 foot canopy has the capacity to store 57,000 gallons of rainwater in its root system. But what’s important is what happens when you take the tree out. Then you release all that water, so you have to create a flood control agency, and a water conservation agency, a soil conservation agency, an ocean pollution control agency, and so on."
“Each agency has to build infrastructure, has to put in a budget.
“We have with us today David Nahai, who leads an agency, the Department of Water and Power, with a $4.5 billion DWP budget. If we capture rainfall here in Los Angeles, we could have as much as 75% more water. Up to 40% of our waste stream is mulchable materials. We could reduce pollution and preserve open space by harvesting those materials."
“What we want to do today is to cross-pollinate, to think about ways to duplicate what once happened naturally, to use our minds to integrate these challenges.”
Andy went on to describe one of Tree People’s early projects.“We re-engineered a house in south L.A., where not a drop of water or any green waste left the property. We then invited agency people to come and look at it. When they came, they literally got 21st Century Infrastructure workshop Page 3 July 23, 2009 dizzy. Not from sickness. When they started connecting the dots, they got dizzy with excitement."
“One of the agency leaders who got dizzy when we did the demonstration house was Carl Blum, of the Los Angeles Department of Public Works. He needed to build a flood control system in Sun Valley, an area of Los Angeles where chronic flooding occurs. Through an intensive cost-benefit analysis, we discovered that if we re-introduced trees and created a watershed, we could generate benefits totaling $300 million. This integrated solution was developed with TreePeople and the engineering firm, MWH. This is an example of what is possible if we can think in a new way, if we can redesign existing projects. If we bring enough people to the table, we can come out with new collaborations that can solve problems and save money.”
Andy then introduced Patrick Condon, who has successfully led outcome-driven planning processes in both the U.S. and Canada. Peter’s experience with design charettes has shown that early engagement of multiple stakeholders can lead to wellintegrated infrastructure and public health solutions.
In the City of Vancouver, Condon said, we had to plan for growth from 2 million to 4 million people by 2050, and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent. The planning process resulted in several key principles that everyone agreed on:
- Jobs close to home
- Different housing types
- Mixed use corridors
- Safe, complete streets for walking
- Access to natural areas and parks
- Lighter, greener, cheaper, smarter infrastructure
“So often ideas for sustainability run into a process in which one bureaucrat after another says ‘no,’ because that is what they are supposed to do,” Condon said. “They have no ability to say ‘yes’ in a system that doesn’t value sustainability, because their job description has no place for it.”
“Almost all of us want to make a change, but how do we collectively make a change within institutions that really don’t want to change?” Condon asked. He then described a form of charette that encourages people to think and solve problems in new ways. He described the principles he uses in these charettes:
- Everyone can design.
- Everyone can think in an integrated way.
- When everyone designs, design improves.
- Talk is the most important thing. It creates a common language.
- It takes two days to go from a stakeholder to a team member.
- Doodle: Make everyone a designer.
- Draw: To bring it all to life.
- The overall task is to lead without leading.
Workshop Breakout Groups
At this point, Eric Douglas, the facilitator of the conference, invited people to join three breakout groups. He asked each group to brainstorm specific strategies and examples for implementing outcome-driven decision making. Ninety minutes later, the groups reported back with dozens of ideas that fell into the following three groupings:
- Develop new governance systems and frameworks e.g.:
- Ask the state Legislature and Governor to create an overall policy framework based on long-term outcomes (i.e. human well being)
- Align agency goals and programs with overall outcomes
- Convene leaders regularly to share best practices and celebrate successes
- Instill new planning principles
- Plan for and fund outcomes, not projects
- Conduct life-cycle analyses of health impacts for all infrastructure projects
- Require a health impact assessment report for every infrastructure project
- Incentivize local agencies to collaborate, not work in silos
- Unshackle state, regional, and local capital improvement budgets from singlepurposes
- Establish the principle of local production and local conservation
- Have one coordinating council for all related projects, e.g. water
- Require local governments to develop sustainability metrics
- Create new tools and capacities
- Create new university and college-level disciplines in outcome-based decision making
- Develop cadres of leaders who can facilitate complex decision processes
- Create incentives for “silo-busting” engineers, architects, landscape architects, planners, etc.
- Train leaders to achieve outcomes, not manage projects or outputs
- Create tools and training to conduct life-cycle analyses
The topic of a health impact assessment generated much discussion. Douglas asked the group: “Environmental Impact Statements are designed to protect the environment. Yet they seem to be more about process than generating better outcomes. How could a Health Impact Assessment avoid that trap?”
Mark Pisano, of USC, replied: “By relating strategies, projects, and programs to ultimate health outcomes – that’s how it differs. An EIS encourages developers to think of alternatives, but not about outcomes.”
Some participants decried the lack of health data, saying that there’s no incentive to collect health data related to infrastructure. Others said there was data, but it wasn’t being used.
Douglas asked people to reflect on other barriers to achieving this kind of planning. One participant cautioned people to be realistic about developers’ interests. “Zoning and land-use policy are an obstacle at every turn,” he said.
Another participant pointed out that local and regional governing boards are not aligned with the populations they serve, because of the way elections are financed. Others talked about the lack of information and publicity about sustainable models that work.
21st Century Infrastructure workshop Page 5 July 23, 2009 At this point, Andy Lipkis introduced the next speaker,Don Smith, Vice Chairman of MWH Global. At MWH, Smith has led the fixing of the Hyperion Treatment Plant in Los Angeles and the cleanup of Santa Monica Bay.
“I’ve been an engineer for thirty-six years,” Don said. “Engineers are often blamed for the challenges we’ve been discussing today – and I subscribe to the theory that this is fair and accurate.
“My experience has taught me that we need a framework that provides both top-down guidance and bottom-up creativity. All too often, a project is begun without overall policy goals – especially as they relate to public health.
“The first five percent of a project is where all the opportunity lies,” Smith said. “In the first five percent, you can change direction for the better and add significant value. You can focus on outcomes; you can scope the project differently. But once you get past the first five percent, things get locked down.”
Smith outlined the lessons he’s learned about outcome-driven decisions:
- There needs to be a policy framework that encourages collaboration.
- People have to create urgency before the events do. When a crisis hits, it’s too late for people to maintain discipline. People end up doing the fastest thing, not the best thing.
- Time horizons need to expand for vision, and shrink for implementation.
- We need good metrics to assure the public that progress is being made.
- Advocating for regional policies must come from within – it won’t work from outside.
The Next Steps
Eric Douglas asked: “So what can we do to sustain this conversation about sustainable, outcome-driven decision making? What ongoing systems do we need to create a new way of thinking and acting as leaders?”
One participant said: Let’s engage the funding process in a different way. Another suggested “mutual aid” compacts between agencies. A third suggested an “emergency command center” for making infrastructure decisions.
Andy Lipkis talked about the process used by the city of Los Angeles in its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for managing water. “It included tax-cutting groups, like the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association. Because they were included, they were listened to, and because they were educated, ultimately we all went to the city council and lobbied for funding. When the City Council put the proposal on the ballot, in a year when even public safety bond measures for police and fire were killed because of opposition from the Jarvis group, our measure passed.”
Lipkis then handed out pages from the phone book. “Imagine this is our crisis,” he said, holding up an intact phone book. “Imagine the solution requires tearing all these pieces of paper. To rip the phone book in half, we’d have to build a huge power plant, with enormous hardened shears. But if each one of us tears our portion, we’ll solve the problem. The paradox of integration is that the answer is within our reach, with the power of working together.”
In an instant, you could hear the buzz of a thousand pages being torn in half! “Going forward,” Andy said, “we will pull all this information together and come back with additional thoughts on how to move forward, based on the strategies we’ve identified.”
Andy closed the conference this way: “Today was all about learning, we took baby steps. We invite your feedback. The ultimate bottom line is that we are in a learning community with everyone else, including our leaders. We need to cut everyone some slack and learn from each other.”
The final presentation was a taped message by Van Jones, special advisor to the president on green jobs, innovation and enterprise. Jones is also a member of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the founder of Green for All.
“We need to move from talking about smart growth and green jobs and real community to having concrete examples to show (they) can work,” said Jones. ” The exciting thing that’s happening in L.A. is the ability you’ve shown to identify strategic initiatives that bring people together… We now have an opportunity in L.A. to show the world that we can change.”
As people exited the center, they talked animatedly about how this was the beginning of something important, the beginning of a new community of leaders. Beneath their feet, invisible, was a large 10,000 gallon cistern, containing enough rainwater to meet TreePeople’s needs for an entire year. It was invisible, but very real.
For More Information, Video recordings, slides, and other materials from the conference are available at http://megacities.usc.edu/research/workshop-2009/. Please also visit the website to learn about ways to get involved and success stories of outcome-driven planning. Follow-up activities are in the works and will be posted on the website.
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