Matt Petersen: 'If we can do it in LA, we can do it anywhere'

Matt Petersen: 'If we can do it in LA, we can do it anywhere'

Matt Petersen

Catch Matt Petersen in person at VERGE SF 2014, October 27-30

About 15 months ago Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Matt Petersen the city’s inaugural chief sustainability officer. Considering that Los Angeles consistently ranks among the most polluted, most sprawled-out and most traffic-congested metropolitan areas in the United States, the veteran environmentalist has not been lacking for things to do.

“It’s been intense, in the best sense of the word,” said Petersen, reflecting on his first year leading LA’s new Office of Sustainability, which has grown into a five-person team focused on developing environmental initiatives and creating healthier neighborhoods with cleaner air and water for Angelenos.

The former long-time chief executive of Santa Monica-headquartered environmental non-profit group Global Green USA took the reigns of LA’s sustainability efforts amid California’s historic drought and major push to conserve water and expand the city’s efforts on transit, renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Many of the initiatives that Petersen found already in place when he became the city’s sustainability czar are programs he had advocated while head of Global Green USA. Those include the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s distributed solar feed-in tariff program, which the city is now preparing to expand.

Launching new sustainability plan

Growing distributed solar power in Los Angeles is just one facet of a comprehensive new sustainability plan that Petersen and his team are spearheading.

“Creating our first-ever comprehensive sustainability plan has been a real big undertaking. We are doing stakeholder outreach across the city, and our goal is to release the plan by year-end,” explained Petersen. The plan will build on existing initiatives in areas such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, housing, transportation and water. As part of the plan, the city will launch new sustainability programs and goals, he said.

While Petersen and his team still are “in the middle of a deep dive” into the details of the plan, the chief sustainability officer clearly is excited about its potential impact, even if several items may still require action by city council, he added.

“We really want to become the leader in electric vehicle infrastructure and water conservation. We want to continue to clean the air and increase energy efficiency in our building stock, and we want to continue to lead by example,” previewed Petersen.

Water will be a central element of the plan.

Los Angeles, which uses about the same amount of water today as it did in 1970 despite adding about a million more people, has been at the forefront of water conservation amid the state’s ongoing drought. The city’s current water restrictions date back to 2009. LADWP gives away free water-efficient household items, and offers rebates for measures such as installing storm-water capture systems and replacing water-intensive laws with more native landscape options like cactus and succulent gardens.

“The drought also underscores the vulnerability of water supply. How to increase the amount of water in the LA Basin?” said Petersen. The $7.5-billion water bond on the Nov. 4 ballot “is going to be key for more water supply for Los Angeles,” he added.

Safety first

Among the most important sustainability initiatives currently underway in Los Angeles, according to Petersen, is Mayor Garcetti’s Great Streets Initiative. Its long-term goal is to transform LA’s city streets, which make up approximately 13 percent of its land, into revitalized, thriving neighborhoods and communities. This summer, Mayor Garcetti announced the first 15 streets in the initiative, which is kicking off with the help of $800,000 in the city’s 2014-2015 budget.

Immediate, near-term actions include the creation of temporary “parklets” and plazas, as well as planning and outreach for each of the 15 corridors. These will be followed by long-term, permanent measures such as changes to sidewalks and curbs, street lamps, trees and public seating areas.

“Our streets are our largest public asset, forming and reflecting the character of our neighborhoods, our people and our city,” stated Mayor Garcetti when he made the announcement in June. “By reimagining our streetscape, we can create transformative gathering places for Angelenos to come together, whether they travel by foot, transit, bike, or car,” he added.

“Mayor Garcetti has been passionate about sustainability for a long time. It’s exciting to be involved,” said Petersen. “Whether it’s urban sprawl, a fossil-fuel dependent transportation system or a growing population in a region dependent on imported water, our climate challenges are the world’s climate challenges. We want to prove that if we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.”

Top image by Melissa Valladares