Use cases

3 public participation examples in LA-based sustainability projects

How these LA-based sustainability projects are encouraging public participation? We share some examples of best practices.

3 public participation examples in LA-based sustainability projects
11 minute read

Los Angeles has uniquely positioned for sustainability projects thanks to its culture of creativity and innovation, along with a favourable climate and landscape.

And with a large and steadily growing population, LA has several recent and proposed projects coming up to help meet demands on infrastructure and ensure long-term sustainability.

But how does LA score on public participation for recent sustainability projects? There’s certainly room for improvement…

Public participation in LA falls short

A recent report on infrastructure in LA revealed that 49% of people surveyed felt they ‘did not have an opportunity to provide feedback on public infrastructure issues’ during the previous year. And only 14% said they’d had an opportunity to give feedback on planning for the future, with a little over half of the surveyed respondents sensing that feedback was requested too late in the process for it to have an impact.

Overall, organizations and projects in LA will need to lift their game when it comes to public participation and engagement – especially ensuring they reach out to people earlier on to ensure meaningful participation and impact.

So, how can they do that?

Let’s take a look at three examples of LA-based projects in the sustainability sector and how they have encouraged public participation throughout.

Project 1: San Gorgonio Pass wind farms

Solar and wind energy are a big deal in LA. Last year, California voted for 100% renewable energy sources by 2045, including solar, wind, and geothermal. Large, sunny deserts with strong winds make California ripe for this kind of energy. 

And LA has been a pioneer in this space for decades now. San Gorgonio Pass wind farms just outside of LA were approved for development back in 1982 after a study showed favourable conditions for wind energy generation in the San Gorgonio Pass area. You can still find the Project Draft Environmental Impact Statement online.

Since then, thousands of wind turbines have been built, with an estimated 2,300 in operation today

When the development was first approved, the San Gorgonio Pass wind farms perhaps served best as a public participation example of what not to do. Many residents in Coachella Valley weren’t exactly thrilled at hundreds or even thousands of massive wind turbines popping up in the area. According to Palm Springs Mayor (back in 1985), the machines were ‘ruining the mountains and desert floor views’. 

Despite this, the project surged ahead and the public gradually accepted the wind farm as a valuable source of renewable energy. And in fact, a local iconic and source of pride. In 2014, the Palm Springs Mayor proudly referred to the area as ‘the most environmentally safe wind energy site in North America’.

But just because the San Gorgonio Pass wind farms have been established for several decades and the public generally favours it doesn’t mean they can take the focus off public participation. This project continues to evolve.

Turbines don’t last forever – they’re built to last around 25-30 years. And many of the original turbines stopped operating a lot sooner than that due to poor quality. Over time, older turbines need to be repaired or replaced with larger, more powerful models – and many have been. But market uncertainty and high expenses mean some contracts have run out and solar farms have shut down over the last 4-5 years.

The future of the San Gorgonio Pass wind farms isn’t clear at the moment, but with legislation supporting renewable energy and other incentives, hopefully, more energy companies will step up and take over the old or existing contracts. And when they do, they’ll do well to properly consult with members of the public (this time around) to ensure a more long-term, sustainable approach with minimal negative impacts on local social, economic and natural environments.

Project 2: Sepulveda Transit Corridor Project

LA’s transport system is complex, with:

  • A large port
  • A large freeway and road network (cars are the primary mode of transportation)
  • Light and heavy rail systems (including subway lines)
  • Bus networks
  • Multiple airports

Together, these serve a population of over 4 million people in the city, and many more on the outskirts, with over 50 million visitors annually in 2018. And demand on the system is set to increase with a growing population and increasing visitor numbers – particularly with the fast-approaching 2028 Olympics in LA.

Many large Metro construction projects and upgrades are planned to increase capacity in the system, including:

  • A Bus Rapid Transit on Vermont
  • The Westside Subway Extension
  • The Downtown Regional Connector 
  • The LAX Automated People Mover
  • The Crenshaw Line

But the project we’ll focus on here is the Sepulveda Transit Corridor Project. This project is still in the early planning phases, with current opening dates projected to be 2033 for the Valley-Westside section and 2057 for the Westside-LAX section. Although these dates may change, with talk of expediting the process to potentially complete the Valley-Westside section in time for the Olympics.

This project makes for an interesting public participation example because it’s still in the planning phase. At this point, it’s ideal for the public to get plenty of opportunities to participate, provide input and influence outcomes. Here are some public participation options they’ve provided:

  • Extensive information and FAQs on the project landing page
  • Public meetings to discuss plans and seek input on issues (including major ones like property acquisitions and feedback on proposed routes)
  • Contact information (including email and phone) to get involved and provide feedback
  • Presentations on initial concepts at Service Council Meetings

Plus, a good portion of funding for this project comes from Measure M, a sales tax approved in 2016, which had its own public participation processes, including:

  • Conducting surveys and focus groups to learn from previously failed measures and better understand public opinion and create messaging that would resonate
  • Turning to local communities (including 9 sub-regions) and empowering them to identify the most essential projects for their area – created “buy-in” and meant that Metro had more diverse perspectives to inform their planning process
  • Providing communities with tools to identify these projects, including cost estimates, forms and optimal targets for their local area
  • Hosting a vote in November 2016, where voters were asked if they approved of Metro M’s funding methods via a sales tax and traffic relief tax
  • Using text messaging to increase voter participation
  • Hosting town meetings to provide info and answer questions, including simulcast options with both English and Spanish (they engaged with approximately 75,000 people via telephone town halls)
  • Inviting the public to ‘keep up to date on Metro milestones and share your comments on social media with #metroplan’
  • Encouraging locals to register so they could vote and have a say
  • Setting up an Independent Taxpayer Oversight Committee which meets regularly to keep Metro projects accountable on how they use funding, and reports directly to the Metro Board of Directors and the public
  • Hosting one-on-one meetings with key stakeholders to build consensus and minimize conflict
  • Receiving comments on draft guidelines
  • Inviting and responding to committee meetings and public comments
  • Making real changes to plans and budgets based on public comments, feedback and suggestions

Without public participation, Measure M could not have passed. And without Measure M, many of LA’s current and future transportation projects likely would not have funding. It’s a great example of the power of public participation.

Project 3: West Basin Ocean Water Desalination Plant

For our final public participation example, let’s shift the focus over to water. Water has long been a challenge for LA because there’s a lot more people and demand for water than what local water sources can supply and sustain. So the city pipes water in from other locations, including the Colorado River and snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada, along with some local groundwater sources.

Limited water sources aren’t the only problem. While California is currently drought-free, dry conditions could soon return. Plus rising temperatures mean there additional challenges, like more and more transported water lost to evaporation. So the city of LA is actively looking for more sustainable ways to supply water. They’ve set a goal to reduce reliance on imported water down to 50% by 2035 (from 85% in 2018).

For LA, desalination could make a lot of sense. After all, there’s plenty of ocean water to go around – and it’s not affected by drought. But the problem with desalination is that it’s more resource-intensive (and expensive) to produce drinking water locally than piping it in from external sources. So from a sustainability perspective, it needs to balance reliable water supply needs with minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. Although it’s still an important consideration for cities like LA who need to ‘diversify their water portfolio’.

One such desalination project is the West Basin Ocean Water Desalination Plant. If plans go ahead (they’re currently in early planning/scoping phases) it could produce between 20-60m gallons per day of drinkable water to the local population. But local community members and groups are divided on whether it’s a worthwhile pursuit. Here’s are some ways the public have participated (or can still participate) in the planning phase of the project:

  • Local community groups have submitted letters against the project
  • Several cities in the region are in support of it
  • They’ve conducted several city council presentations
  • There have been multiple public comment periods following initial scoping and environmental review 
  • There’s a sign-up form on the site to get updates
  • They’ve run public meetings and events to share information and provide a platform for participation, questions and comments (two meetings were held in 2018)
  • The site offers information on how stakeholders can provide feedback and get involved at any point: ‘Interested parties should send an email to [email protected] to request an appointment to review the documents
  • Plus, West Basin also regularly engage with the community through many programs and events, although these may not be directly related to the Ocean Water project

In 2018, California water officials approved $34.4 million in grants to fund 8 desalination projects across the state – so we should see a lot more of this type of water supply soon. And hopefully a lot more public consultation around the issue.

Key lessons and findings

We’ve looked at three projects here, but there are hundreds more.

And if you’re looking for inspiration or public participation examples for your organization or sustainability project, you only need to read a few recent news articles to find out what’s going on and what types of participation communities respond best to.

But to sum it up, here are 8 key lessons and takeaways from these three examples:

  1. Public participation can help shape projects so they’re more sustainable and better serve the community
  2. You can learn a lot and get more buy-in from communities when they actively participate from the beginning
  3. It’s never too early to start working on public participation activities, like running surveys and focus groups, starting education programs and hosting events
  4. Public participation is a great way to keep your finger on the pulse about what the community wants and needs (especially concerning sustainability), as well as build strong relationships that’ll serve everyone long-term
  5. Not everyone’s going to be happy about your project 
  6. You’ll come across a huge range of differing perspectives and interests
  7. Expect conflict between different people groups and differing sustainability goals
  8. Public participation is about getting input from as many of these perspectives as possible to create the best overall outcomes for the community as a whole

Most importantly, organizations that care about sustainability can’t afford to skip the public participation process or they might miss important details and opportunities to do better. 

Following rigorous public participation, the process is worth it, but it can be complex when you’re dealing with large communities and different groups. That means you can’t get away with using spreadsheets to manage your processes. You’ll need stakeholder engagement software to track your activities, key stakeholders, issues, tasks and communication.

Need a stakeholder engagement tool to help you manage your public participation activities and events?

We can help, contact us if you have any questions about setting up your stakeholder management software.