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Los Angeles looks to a Green, Sustainable Future

Jacob Scherr

Posted March 28, 2014

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Matt Petersen, recently appointed as Chief Sustainability Officer for Los Angeles, has a perspective way beyond that city’s limits.  In this interview with reporter Sarah Glazer, Petersen reflects on his earlier experiences responding to major natural disasters in New Orleans and New York and on how Los Angeles is engaging with other cities worldwide to meet global challenges.

Matt PetersenWhen Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Matt Petersen watched in horror as government officials at every level failed to help those facing the loss of their homes and entire neighborhoods. “I thought, ‘What could I do? Maybe we could adopt a family.’” In the end, Petersen adopted a neighborhood.

 As then- president of the environmental group Global Green, Petersen headed to New Orleans and met Pam Dashiell, chair of the Holy Cross neighborhood association, in the hard-hit, already deprived African-American neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward. She cherished a vision of rebuilding Holy Cross as the first carbon neutral neighborhood in the nation.

Global Green conducted a design competition for energy-efficient new houses in Holy Cross, and the neighborhood now has more houses bearing the industry’s premium LEED Platinum label than anywhere in the country. Of the five winning homes, the first uses net zero energy; the other four get 70 percent of their energy needs from solar. The average bill is $24 a month in the summer, compared to $250-$400 in older homes in the city, according to Petersen, putting more money in deprived families’ pockets.

 Today, Petersen is applying some of the lessons he learned from Katrina in New Orleans and from Hurricane Sandy in New York to his new job as chief sustainability officer for Los Angeles under Mayor Eric Garcetti. He outlined some of those lessons in a recent phone interview.

In New York, Petersen turned his attention to people who couldn’t evacuate after Hurricane Sandy, like seniors and diabetics, who still needed refrigeration for their medicines in the midst of a city-wide blackout. In community centers in historically poor Red Hook, Brooklyn, which lost power for weeks, and New Jersey, his group created the Solar for Sandy initiative and installed backup systems that could draw on solar power during the day but also charge a battery at night so lighting and other needs were met.

 “Now I’m taking those lessons and looking at our unique challenges in LA,” Petersen says. Los Angeles doesn’t have New York-style storm surges, “but we do have fires and mudslides and earthquakes and we need to make sure we’re able to meet critical needs in a severe blackout due to natural or climate-related disaster,” he says. The city is looking at putting in solar backup systems in schools and other buildings that would serve as evacuation facilities in a disaster.

 “Our most vulnerable populations—low income communities—are the ones that suffer the most from climate change,” Petersen says. “We saw that in the Lower Ninth. We saw that in Red Hook.” After climate disasters, it’s the poorest families who have the toughest time recovering, Petersen says. “We need to help them prepare and make sure we build truly resilient cities to help everyone.”

 Low-income families are also among those who benefit the most from green solutions. As a result of financing incentives introduced by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and others, California now has “some of the most energy-efficient affordable housing in the country,” Petersen says. “When you’re making affordable housing energy-efficient as well as installing solar, it’s got a great payback because you continue to decrease electricity costs.”

With its famously clogged freeways, Los Angeles is often held up as the opposite of an energy-efficient city. “We do have a culture of single-occupant vehicles,” Petersen acknowledges. “I don’t know that we’ll ever change that, but how do we make it easier for people to get out of their cars and walk or bike or take mass transit?”

 To help do that, the city will be providing open data so third parties can develop phone apps that give LA residents real-time information about when the bus is coming-- or “When I get off the freeway, how can I park, leave my car and take the subway the rest of the way?” The city is looking at adopting a bike-share scheme like that in Paris and New York. A phone app could provide up-to-the minute information about which stations have bikes available, as it currently does in London.

 Los Angeles is trying to learn from other cities, too. Garcetti went to Manhattan before he was sworn in eight months ago to seek Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s advice. “One of the things Mayor Garcetti and I have really looked at is PlaNYC,” says Petersen, New York City’s comprehensive sustainability plan under Mayor Bloomberg, whose measurement-based goals for reducing carbon emissions and tracking progress helped create cleaner air and radically transformed the walkability and cycle-friendliness of the city. Los Angeles is writing its first-ever citywide sustainability plan, and looking to similar plans in Chicago, Denver and Seattle as well as New York.

 “I pull some of the metric-based leadership from Bloomberg,” Garcetti recently told the New York Times, an influence that is likely to continue to be felt in Bloomberg’s new role as U.N. envoy for cities and climate change.

And by participating in the City Energy Project, a ten-city initiative working to improve energy efficiency in large existing buildings, Garcetti is looking forward to a little “coopetition” among the participating mayors to drive down energy use and carbon pollution across the nation.   “Los Angeles has long been a leader in environmental policy and we look forward to working with cities around the country to jointly implement policies that stimulate our economy, save money, and reduce our carbon emissions,” Garcetti said in the Project’s press release.

 Los Angeles is also looking across the globe at cities like Sydney, Australia, which is faced with similar drought, water scarcity and wildfire threats. Los Angeles is sharing its own experience with Beijing, which is interested in how Los Angeles, once storied for its smog, reduced its air pollution. Both the international group of mega-cities C40 and the North American-based Urban Sustainability Directors Network “provide an enormous amount of ideas and information exchange,” Petersen says.

 Petersen also thinks that it is important that the United Nations recognize the key role that cities will play in the new development agenda now being negotiated to replace the Millenium Developmenty Goals which expire in 2015.  The adoption by the United Nations of an urban Sustainable Development Goal in 2015 would make a difference in Petersen's view with the acknowledgement that “Collectively cities are where the action is: Mayors are closer to the action than any level of government and they’re expected to take action and fix local problems that are part of global challenges.”

For more details on NRDC's efforts to secure a stand-alone Sustainable Development Goal on cities, click here.





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