Meet Matt Petersen, L.A.’s Chief Sustainability Officer

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What’s a Chief Sustainability Officer you may ask? Guy Horton interviews Matt Petersen, L.A.’s first “sustainability czar.”

mayor and Matt petersenHot off the heels of a report last week warning of sudden changes to Earth’s environment caused by climate change, President Obama signed a memorandum, ordering the federal government to step up its use of renewable energy sources in order to reach a 2020 target of 20% clean energy use, up from the previous target of 7.5%.

According to PV Magazine, which is pleased by this new target, “the federal government occupies more than 500,000 buildings and utilizes an estimated 600,000 vehicles across the States. Furthermore, it spends in excess  of $500 billion on goods and services each year, which means that any progress the government can make in securing more renewable energy sources is likely to be  keenly felt.” 

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Meanwhile, across the country, some cities and counties are taking action, appointing sustainability “czars” to whip local government buildings into greater energy efficiency. Now Los Angeles has its first Chief Sustainability Officer, Matt Petersen, recently appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Petersen (shown right of picture, with Mayor Garcetti; courtesy, earned this position through 20 years of work nudging government from his perch as president and CEO of Global Green. That’s a Santa Monica-based advocacy and advisory group that has effectively marshaled Hollywood celebrities, politicians and policy wonks in support of greening affordable housing, schools and cities. Guy Horton met with Matt at Global Green’s headquarters, just before he took up his new role in city government.

GH. Los Angeles has a municipal green program as well as ordinances. Why do we need a chief sustainability officer when we already have these programs in place?

MP. Global Green and myself personally have been involved in helping the city of Los Angeles become a leader in solar and green building for well over a decade now. And when Eric Garcetti first got elected city councilman, we worked with him to create the first large city municipal green building ordinance and one of the first municipal green building ordinances in the country, which was really groundbreaking at the time.

So I’m taking that experience along with many other things we’ve done with LA and cities across the country in this new role as chief sustainability officer. Now we will help create a plan for the future to really guide this city. There are a lot of great policies in place, some not so great that we need to address. What we really need is a plan that really creates a pathway to the future and one of the first tasks is to work with the mayor and the city to create a sustainability plan.

millennium_hollywood_01GH. What are some of the policies that are working?

MP. I think the municipal green building ordinance has really been a success. It’s creating healthier, more energy-efficient buildings, libraries and so forth across the city. What hadn’t worked is the private-sector green building ordinance that we helped then Mayor Villaraigosa pass and get in place and Councilman Garcetti also advocated for.

Now we need to revisit that and get a new policy in place. Fortunately this state has aggressive energy codes already. Calgreen is an important piece of why I feel better about the fact that the private sector green building ordinance in Los Angeles didn’t get renewed, it’s at least shored up by the fact that we have Calgreen at the statewide level.

For example, we don’t have a building ordinance to require the Millenium towers (rendering, above) to be LEED gold, but we do have a Calgreen code that is going to make sure that they are more energy efficient/healthier regardless. Equally important is getting in place policies that are going to increase the energy efficiency of our current buildings and our water efficiency. We know we need to use energy and water a lot more efficiently.

GH. Should we rely on these private rating systems if something like Calgreen is taking care of that?

MP. Calgreen code is a great set of tools for cities to use to make our buildings healthier and more efficient. I think the new version of LEED does a better job of prioritizing the right things and making sure that verification is both more rigorous and manageable. When we’ve worked with cities at using LEED as a tool, LEED is the most comprehensive in our experience, but cities have also implemented pieces of LEED, making it defacto a LEED equivalent . So those are a number of tools you can look at. It’s about using them together.

GH. How will you make sure these goals are implemented across departments?

MP. One of my specific responsibilities is to help the mayor and the deputy mayors hold city department heads accountable to the sustainability goals that they put into their proposal to the mayor for them to be rehired (general managers who reapplied for their jobs were asked for their ideas and priorities on four questions, one of which was sustainability.)

That entails looking at department heads’ goals that they have and asking, are ambitious enough, can we add to them? How do they make sure that their departments are running as energy-efficiently as possible, and as environmentally responsibly as possible when they are purchasing. Each department obviously manages its operations and particularly the DWP and the ports and the airport operate really unique enterprises, but we can take a deeper dive to really look at how do we help them create a more sustainable path for the city to become the greenest city in the nation – which is our goal.

LA Port GH. Is the LA port (left) one of your priorities?

MP. L.A. has its unique challenges and opportunities. Transit, traffic, and air pollution are all tied together. There are only so many levers the city has to bring influence to bear, especially on traffic and freeways. We also have a unique set of enterprises, the DWP, the ports, and the airport. DWP is the one that’s most often talked about and the port is talked about as the biggest source of pollution in this city, it controls, it’s in the basin of Los Angeles.

I know it’s something at the top of the mayor’s mind, and it’s something I hope to contribute to facing forward.

The other unique thing in LA is the LA river and the mayor is really passionate about it (image from the LA River masterplan, by Mia Lehrer and Associates, below left). I think a lot of incredible advocates have been working a long time to reinvent the LA river. It could be such an incredible amenity in so many ways, environmentally, in terms of biodiversity, in terms of creating a connection to the natural environment in our city instead of a concrete freeway to move water out of LA quickly.

GH. Is being green only for the wealthy? How will your office work for different neighborhoods?

MP. As the mayor has said, City Hall can’t solve every problem, but he wants to know what city hall can do better, and what ideas do citizens have to do better. There are citizens and residents across this city who have their own ideas to make their neighborhood a great place to live.

I look forward to spending some time listening to people. My long-term goals are: let’s create 20,000 green jobs, let’s make every neighborhood a healthier better place to live. Let’s find ways for the city to innovate rather than just regulate and be an obstacle for progress whether it is parkway gardens, or a clean technology coming here.

lariver GH. How can a neighborhood become healthier?

MP. How can we encourage more gardening and farming in neighborhoods? Let’s create places where farms and gardens are accessible to the public in a way that doesn’t interfere growing food, maybe improving pocket parks, or taking back parking spaces and turning them into little cutout parks (Spring Street parklot, below, courtesy Sam Lubell, Architects Newspaper.) I think we need to listen to people to see what needs are out there.

The city can deploy its resources if we get a street repaving bond, but how do we use those billions of dollars to really make sure we get better storm water runoff, that we have better streetscape that is not only more friendly to drivers, but to bicyclists, and to pedestrians, and to mass transit.

There are a number of tools we can use citywide, and a number of great ideas that citizens have. One of the things that I will bring from Global Green into my role as CSO is the search for citizen entrepreneurs. We’re going to launch a citizen entrepreneur search for L.A. and offer some micro grants to individuals to implement their ideas to make their neighborhoods a better, greener place and be a part of solving the bigger problems of global warming and clean air.

GH. When did you first become interested in environmentalism?

MP. My dad told me a story that I was at a park after a busy Sunday, and he said I looked around at all the trash and said, “Dad, we have to do something to take care of our planet.”

Parklet with Deborah Murphy