100_0997Yet another friend with whom I’ve re-connected on Facebook asked me, as if I hadn’t heard this before, if I know that Los Angeles is the smoggiest city in the country. True, at face value, LA is about as green as the lead paint on the hamburger joint down the street from our home in Silver Lake. The only reason Silver Lake reservoir isn’t green with envy, I mean, algae, is that it’s part of the city’s water drinking system. And yes, I do forget that LA has spectacular mountains nearby—when I see them—and I count my blessings that I can sometimes see the Century City skyscrapers from my backyard. Beverly Hills residents always seem to knock down houses to build McMansions, plastic bags fly around Beverly Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, but hey, I can hear the ocean from our house—wait, sorry, that’s actually the sound of the 101 Freeway during rush hour.

The only stars in LA seem to be the ones commemorating forgotten celebrities in the cracked pavement on Hollywood and Vine, since we surely can’t see the ones in the sky at night. Woody Allen’s snide quotes about LA are probably true . . . we don’t throw our garbage way, we “make it into television shows!” And all those emissions probably result from the one culturally redeeming quality of LA according to Allen, in that we can turn right on a red light.

Well, Facebook friend, your little comment wasn’t quite accurate. It reminded me of
an article in The Economist last year that (gasp!) proclaimed that LA is one of the greenest cities in America—as stated by the Brookings Institution, hardly an organization that sticks up for us slackers in the West. Angelinos eked out 1.41 tons of carbon each in 2005, narrowly beating—don’t laugh—residents in Portland, Oregon!

Okay, before we get excited about Botox-Land beating the capital of Granola-Land, we should acknowledge in fairness that Brookings excluded local traffic and industry carbon statistics because they are unreliable. But if you think about it, this study is onto something. Despite LA’s reputation for sprawl, many residents pack into the bungalows and ranch houses that dot the city’s landscape—and no, I’m not just talking about immigrants. Countless homes in our neighborhood are split into two or there units and have an in-law—and Brookings notes that many people live two or even more in a ROOM. And yes, though our sprawl goes on for miles and miles, you don’t find the huge suburban homesteads on one-half acre plots that you’d see in outer Washington, DC, Philadelphia, or New York. Our weather is mild, so many houses don’t have heating or cooling, so we’re not using and abusing our utilities to the degree our relatives in Florida or Minnesota are during the changing seasons. We use coal as a fuel source much less than many areas in the Midwest.

Finally, even though California’s government barely functions, the environmental laws for better or worse have worked: Los Angeles does not have the brown sky that my father recalled in the 1960s and 70s, the smog alerts from my grammar school days are gone, and neighborhood groups have been successful in building neighborhood parks on what once were patches of concrete. The fact that the city government of Los Angeles loses millions of dollars each year from folks who clean out recycling bins to make some pocket change is one anecdote that the city is greening. And recently, I can’t find gardening equipment at a big box store or local nurseries to save my life—thanks in part to the Obamas’ White House garden, vegetable gardening is taking the city by storm across all demographic groups.

Indeed, Los Angeles wants to become the capital of green technology, and based on what I’ve seen at local conferences, the sincerity is there. Pasadena has become Silicon Valley of the solar industry, and the ports of LA and Long Beach are taking steps to reduce emissions from diesel trucks. The area has had an ambitious project to encourage even more telecommuting (some argue the concept was invented during the 1984 Summer Olympics here). Few here would brave a bus ride from downtown LA to the ocean, but the city does have a respectable public transport system that residents use, and I always tell visitors that if they are staying in downtown, they can see much of LA by Metro’s Red Line during a conference or business trip and can skip the car.

Yes, there is much work that needs to be done. I grit my teeth when I see more trash than I’d like on the sidewalks, the Exposition light rail line is a joke, and residents could be smarter about their shopping habits and water consumption. But the Brookings Institute study shows that thinking “green” is not just about air quality, sprawl, or recycling. There’s not just one true way of measuring what being “environmental” means. We have a ways to go before we shed the image with which pop culture has burdened us, but Angelinos are off to a green start.

About The Author

Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye is the founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com. Based in California, he specializes in social media consulting and strategic communications. A journalist and writer since 2009, his work has appeared on Triple Pundit , The Guardian's Sustainable Business site and has appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. His focus is making the business case for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Areas of interest include the <a Middle East, sustainable development in The Balkans, Brazil and Korea. He was a new media journalism fellow at the International Reporting Project, for which he covered child survival in India during February 2013. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (Leon Kaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). Since 2013, he has spent much of his time in Abu Dhabi, UAE, working with Masdar, the emirate's renewable energy company. He lives in Fresno, California.