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Solutions May Be Closer Than You Think

By: Paul Bunje, LASC Advisory Board

 

Achieving blue-sky goals in sustainability may seem like we must be trying to achieve singular, global goals. After all, addressing climate change requires reducing carbon on a global scale. And slowing the loss of biodiversity means rapidly scaling back habitat destruction in far-flung places. But in reality, these global challenges all come down to localized decisions and actions. And those solutions are closer to us than you might think. These solutions have the opportunity to drive change that everyone wants to see, because it benefits them and not just the environment.

Consider the localized aspects of addressing presumably global grand challenges, like climate change. Reducing carbon emissions quite literally means specific trade-offs on how much energy is used and from where it came (an EV powered by solar panels on your roof, or a gasoline-powered conventional car). Someone somewhere will make a change, either due to mandated policy or personal behavior choices, that impacts these global challenges. In aggregate, these are the solutions to global problems.

It is at this nexus of global sustainability where building better communities come in. Decisions that impact individuals as well as economies require thoughtful tradeoffs between other demands. So the opportunity comes when we can improve other aspects of life that, by their very nature, also lead to sustainability goals.

The classic examples are things like transit-oriented developments, where reducing carbon by decreasing vehicle use is combined with positive community development through mixed-use. But other, often less obvious, opportunities also exist.

Consider the desire to increase density in places like downtown Los Angeles. Residents are flocking downtown, leading to a booming social scene and increased sustainability through the benefits of density. But most of these new residents are either young people or empty-nesters. What happens when young urbanites start to have families? Very often other priorities, such as schools, become paramount.

So why can’t we align environmental goals, such as increased density to decrease carbon emissions, with social goals like improved schools in the inner-city and the crime reductions that come from more walkable and vibrant streets? We can, of course. And it means taking a new approach to sustainability: one that doesn’t necessarily start with improving the environment, but looks for the win-win-wins that will ensure long-term improvement in the quality-of-life for everyone impacted.

This is exactly the type of creative work that the Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative supports. Improving our streets, or driving creative solutions to the lack of parks in Los Angeles are not necessarily the most obvious ways to make a huge impact on the environment. But peel back the layers a bit, and it becomes obvious that incentivizing the millions of people in our region (not just the environmentalists) to walk to a local park because it improves their lives and health, will result in much more impact than asking everyone to swap out their car for public transit.

This is a strategy of using people’s inherent needs and motives to benefit them, through safer and more enjoyable streets for instance, to lead to fewer vehicle-miles-travelled and ultimately less pollution. And as a bonus, we build the most important piece of local action for global good: civic pride. Once a “sustainable” way of life is really just the Los Angeles way of life, we’ve achieved a real breakthrough. And if LA can do it, any city can. And that’s how we solve global challenges one community at a time.

 

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