THE BLOG
01/28/2013 01:56 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

Building a Resilient Los Angeles

"Get out of L.A. It's one of the least resilient cities in the U.S." This was the advice of every scientist I spoke with at the Fourth International Eco Summit in Ohio last October.
1,600 scientists were at the Summit to exchange information about how to restore the planet's ecosystem services and build ecological resilience to cope with the effects of climate change. The scientists' advice was unanimous. No equivocation, no hedging: "Get out of L.A."

Resilience is defined as the capacity of a system to absorb shock and still maintain its identity and function. Resilient systems -- business, social, ecological, you name it -- all have redundancy so that, when a shock or increased stress occurs, there will be back up. There will be some elasticity: someone or something will be able to step in and perform when the usual relationships fail.

In Nature, one can see this in the presence of a variety of pollinators -- native bees, beetles, flies, etc. -- so that the loss of honey bees through Colony Collapse Disorder is not utterly devastating to food production.

We need to take a hard look at all of Los Angeles' systems -- transportation, electricity, water and food supply -- and figure out how much redundancy we have. And at the same time, we need to make an all-out effort, akin to mobilizing for war or preparing for a long siege, to build resiliency into all our systems.

Water, particularly in the West, has always been an unreliable resource, though our dams have persuaded us otherwise. Increasing amounts of particulates in the upper atmosphere could inhibit the formation of the Sierra snow pack that gives L.A. much of its summer water. Increasing our demand on the Colorado River and Sacramento Delta is simply not an option. These systems are already over-allocated. Per year, a couple million acre-feet of non-existent Colorado River water has been guaranteed in a meaningless promise to consumers. We are pumping water out of our aquifers faster than we are replenishing them. The vast majority of us have planted gardens that feed neither people nor wildlife and yet take unconscionable amounts of water. So, I was told repeatedly at the Eco Summit, with decreasing snow packs and drought as the norm, there is little, if any, resiliency in L.A.'s water supply and no long-term viability to L.A..

Solutions exist. We need leadership that exhibits the political will to enact them. As a start, every building should have a large capacity rainwater catchment system. Every building should be surrounded by rain gardens. Other than edibles, everyone should be landscaping with native plants, whenever and wherever possible, to decrease water use and support biodiversity.

The issue of food supply is equally scary. Every week I attend the Montrose Farmers' Market and think, "L.A. County should be making hefty payments to all the farmers that sell fruits and vegetables at these markets across the county." U.S. farm subsidies go excessively to commodity crops such as rice and cotton. Specialty crops -- fruit and vegetables, the stuff that people need to stay healthy and avoid the processed foods that help propel the U.S. obesity and diabetes epidemics -- are under-funded 16-to-1. And the pittance that farmers of fruits and vegetables receive is usually not in the form of direct payments, but in the indirect form of research, marketing and nutrition programs.

"In any given year, only about 10 percent of California's farmers receive direct subsidies. This money is then concentrated disproportionately in the hands of a very small number of producers of five subsidized commodities -- cotton, rice, wheat, livestock and corn -- with the vast majority going to cotton and rice growers. Fruit, vegetable and nut producers, the so-called specialty crop growers who account for about half of the $36 billion value of the state's agricultural economy, get almost no direct support." (Farm Subsidies in California: Skewed priorities and gross inequalities, by Kari Hamerschlag, Senior Analyst, Environmental Working Group). That $36 billion figure from 2009 is now closer to $45 billion, and the same skewed priorities remain.

Los Angeles needs the fruit and vegetable farmers that supply our farmers' markets. The last thing we need is for these farmers to sell their land to developers, who are attracted to farmland near urban and suburban areas because it's flat and easier to build on than hillsides and because of the proximity to jobs. Orange County was once a food basket; no longer. Ventura County farmland is being gobbled up by subdivisions. You can see the change just by driving along the 101 and 126. Where will our food come from? Argentina? China? Mexico? The tenuousness of depending on other countries for our food supply should be screamingly obvious.

Again, solutions exist. We need leadership that exhibits the political will to enact them. For a resilient food supply, we need to keep our specialty farmers farming and we need to make it monetarily worth their while not to sell out. In our urban and suburban areas, we need to build community gardens everywhere. We need to replace abandoned acres of asphalt with small allotments and grow crops.

I wouldn't wish a shock to the system for L.A. like the one Detroit has been grappling with, but Detroit, with its plethora of new parks, community gardens, orchards and food banks is a model for what we should be doing now, ahead of the time, and not just because it's finally an emergency we can't ignore. For the last several decades, Detroit was one of the supremely dysfunctional cities in the United States. Now, Detroit is an inspiration.

We need to convene an Eco Summit for Los Angeles for the sake of the nearly 10 million people that live here. We need to bring the best minds together, stakeholders from all areas, government and agency officials, to begin doing the analysis we need and figuring out how to build redundancy into our critical systems. The city of Stockholm has the Stockholm Resilience Center. Los Angeles needs its own think tank for resilience as well.

Los Angeles is not viable long-term even in its present form, and climate change will make it all the more imperative that we establish resilient systems that are well-adapted to our present and projected environment. It is only with such robust systems for our natural and built environments that the life and vibrancy of Los Angeles will continue. Failing this, almost all of us will have to get out of L.A.... and go where?

We need to build resilience and stay. This is home.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and not necessarily of the Theodore Payne Foundation.