By Melonie Magruder
September 28, 2012 -- The City’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment released its 2012 Report Card Thursday and while grades are generally trending upward, the numbers speak to the aggressive standard the City sets for itself, as well as the intractable challenges attributable to a modern, thriving metropolis.
In 1994, the City Council adopted its first Sustainable City Program to ensure that Santa Monica can continue to meet its current environmental, economic and social needs, without compromising future generations’ ability to do the same.
In 2003, the City adopted a comprehensive Sustainable City Plan and, in 2005, issued its first “Report Card” as an assessment of data from eight different indicators that make a city sustainable: resource conservation, environmental and public health, transportation, economic development, open space and land use, housing, community education and civic participation, human dignity and arts and culture -- a new addition to the report.
Dean Kubani, director of the City’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment, said that while the goal is always continued improvement, he was gratified to see no real disappointments.
“I was pleasantly surprised to see further proof that our economy is doing well compared to the rest of the country,” Kubani said. “Environmentally, we have all kinds of challenges but it keeps getting better. I attribute that to increased awareness of the importance of sustainability. Back in 1994, if you mentioned that word, please would ask, ‘What’s that?’”
To assess the City’s efforts in the different indicators, Kubani said they hired consultant Sally Livingston to examine all areas and provide a general guideline. He would then take those evaluations for review by the City Task Force on the Environment.
Some of the rated categories, such as economic development and human dignity, might not be the first items to come to mind in assessing the sustainability of an urban center, but, Kubani insisted, are vital components to a city’s ongoing viability.
Basically, Kubani said, “the Report Card’s purpose is educational. How sustainable are we as a city?”
Some of the successes over the past year were notable:
- The food waste composting program kept more than four million pounds of food waste out of the landfill.
- Community members using the Household Hazardous Waste Programs kept nearly 250,000 pounds of hazardous materials and 32,000 pounds of household batteries out of the landfill.
- Sales are up 5 percent at four thriving farmers' markets that provide fresh, locally grown produce to nearly a million visitors each year.
- 1,384 new trees were added to the existing 34,500 public trees in Santa Monica's urban forest.
- More than 100 affordable housing units were completed and construction began on an additional 354 affordable housing units.
- Project Homecoming helped 266 previously homeless individuals reunite with family and were able to offer permanent housing and ongoing support.
“A lot of the grades reflect outside influences over which we have no control as a city,” Kubani said. “So improvement at all is very encouraging.”
For example, when Santa Monica first purchased its own ground water wells, 70 percent of the city’s water needs was supplied by them, with 30 percent being purchased elsewhere.
In the 1990s, underground gas leaks contaminated the wells and the numbers were reversed. Thanks to new water treatment systems in place, along with graywater systems and conscientious conservation efforts by residents and businesses, those numbers are turning around again.
“We’d like to see Santa Monica be water self-sufficient by 2020,” Kubani said.
Environmental and Public Health assessments were graded slightly downward, sliding from a “B” in 2005 to a C+ this year.
Kubani attributed that to declining water quality at city beaches. Replacement of the storm drain at the Pier has helped, he said, but policing water, air and land quality formed by larger regional activity is challenging.
As noted, a bright spot for the city is ongoing respectable economic development activity. Kubani attributes much of the improvement to partnerships with the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau in fostering a “green” attitude amongst city businesses, leading to a friendly competitive drive to see who can be the most sustainable business.
“When you come down to it, businesses’ bottom line improves when they lower their energy costs,” Kubani said. “The Buy Local campaign has been a successful contributing factor also.”
One area calling for improvement is in Housing, where the city was graded a failing “D-” in 2005 and a “C” this year.
The goal is to provide a mix of affordable green housing options for people of all socio-economic levels. But the vacancy decontrol law passed in 1999, which allowed landlords to raise rent-controlled property rates on newly vacant properties to market levels, saw the city’s number of affordable housing units tumble by 50 to 60 percent.
When asked how the indicator for Human Dignity (“B+”) came about, Kubani said it was simple.
“Back in 2003, when we were updating the Sustainable City Plan, community leaders suggested it,” Kubani said. “How can you have a sustainable community where some residents can’t meet basic needs like food and housing? We’ve reduced homelessness and seen crime drop.”
The next report card will be issued in two years, giving the city enough time to focus on the activities that will improve grades.
“It’s good to acknowledge the City’s efforts,” Kubani said. “The goal is to see a lot of ‘A’s’.”
The 2012 Sustainable City Report Card is available to download here.