Make no little plans

jc-mg-200-names.jpg"Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big."--Daniel H. Burnham

Daniel Burnham was the architect of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and the first comprehensive city plan in the United States. His words are inspiring still--despite the gender bias of the day--but in some important ways utterly wrong. To be sure, we need big plans more than ever to find our way to environmental sustainability. But we need lots of little plans too.

That was the sentiment that emerged from a "conversation in place" that brought historians, architects, design thinkers, and urban sustainability researchers to Rancho Los Alamitos this weekend to consider one of LA's biggest plans ever: the 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew plan for a necklace of parks and parkways around Los Angeles. The ambitious plan still has a ghostlike presence in all conversations about parks in LA, said USC historian Bill Deverell, co-author of Eden by Design, a book that resuscitated the Olmsted-Bartholomew plan from the dusty archives where it had lain buried for decades after it was quietly killed by the Chamber of Commerce.

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The motive for the strangling? Deverell says the chamber feared the creation of a "super-jurisdictional parks body" that would have the authority to actually do regional planning and thus have more power than the chamber.

Stephanie Pincetl, director of UCLA's California Center for Sustainable Communities, said this desire for regional governance regularly resurges. The Los Angeles Regional Collaborative for Climate Action and Sustainability, which she coordinates, is just such an effort--this time to craft an agenda to lower greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change "from the mountains to the sea," Pincetl said, across the 88 cities in Los Angeles County. "People are hungry for governance," she added. "Good leadership--coming in to these new ways of living, with proposals that have an ethical base and humane perspective, that are inclusive and appeal to people's better senses--can make a big difference."

"Cities have the capacity to think bigger," agreed Tom Gilmore, a pioneer of "adaptive reuse" development in downtown LA.

But creating space for little plans is essential, cautioned architect Alan Pullman, who is also active in downtown redevelopment projects. "We're retrofitting our cities and thinking about how can we evolve them," he said. But planners now need a different paradigm from the "make no little plans" of Burnham, Olmsted, and Bartholomew. Today's planners need to make room for "letting go of control," Pullman said, "irrigating possibilities, making something flexible, not authoritarian, where interesting things can happen in the spaces we create."

Frances Anderton, the host of "DnA: Design and Architecture" on KCRW, said there is a "poetry" to small changes like green alleys, parklets, and other little ways of connecting with nature that complement the big sky, ocean, and mountains of LA.

We need a regional vision for what Los Angeles can become in the 21st century, to be sure, but it has to have room for the creativity of millions of citizens, property owners, and businesses across dozens of different cities to fashion their own visions of a vibrant future for their communities.

* * *

Nowhere does this question of scale come more clearly into focus than when we look out across the Pacific and contemplate the threats to our own beaches and oceans worldwide.

Heal the Bay leads more than 500 beach and river cleanups a year in the LA area. The organization has fought successfully for numerous local government bans on plastic bags and Styrofoam. Working with the Natural Resources Defense Council and LA Waterkeeper, Heal the Bay successfully pressured state and regional water boards to approve far-reaching requirements to keep all trash out of the LA River, Ballona Creek, and Santa Monica Bay. Over 50,000 storm drain openings in curbs have been outfitted with catch basins and screens as a result. These are success stories that have put a major dent in the amount of trash flowing into the Pacific and washing up on our shores. But they are no cure for the global scourge of plastic pollution in our oceans.

At UCLA, we recently released a study on the international legal mechanisms available to curb this global crisis. We concluded that global treaties with real teeth are the best long-term solution. Unfortunately, most of the current international efforts are voluntary and even the toughest ocean dumping treaty, which covers ships at sea, has numerous loopholes and is unenforceable between nations. With an estimated 20 million tons of plastic per year entering our oceans--plastic that essentially never biodegrades, it just slowly photo-degrades and breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces--the future does not look bright.

Progress at the local level has been incremental and hard fought. Countless collaborative relationships have been formed and educational efforts have reached millions of people. Jeremy Irons narrated a now famous mockumentary, "The Majestic Plastic Bag," that went viral with over 5 million views. Plastic bag bans will soon affect more than 10 million people in cities and counties statewide. The LA city ban kicks in for large retailers on January 1st. Happy new year! And the ban takes effect at smaller retail stores in June. Still, California-wide plastic packaging ban efforts have failed year after year in the state legislature.

Maybe next year will finally be the year for a statewide plastic-bag ban that creates some consistency in the current patchwork quilt of local bans. Or, perhaps, the state water board will build on the success of our local trash ban regulations and approve a statewide policy to keep trash out of our local waters through municipal stormwater permits. If these two actions do occur, that may provide the momentum for other cities and states to adopt similar policies.

But with the growing scope and scale of the global plastic pollution crisis, can local action alone solve a problem of this magnitude? Is it possible to both think and act globally? The world's oceans are so important that we should never stop acting locally, but acting locally is not enough. We need big plans and big action too.

[Full disclosure: Mark Gold has been part of about 100 beach cleanups over the past 20 years as staff, president, and volunteer at Heal the Bay, and he is a co-author of the UCLA report on ocean plastic pollution. Jon Christensen is a senior researcher in UCLA's California Center for Sustainable Communities and a colleague of Stephanie Pincetl.]

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