A burned-out tree in Los Angeles' Elysian Park
A burned-out tree in Los Angeles' Elysian Park in December 2017 Damian Dovarganes/AP

Los Angeles struggles with inequality and the threat of natural disasters turbocharged by climate change. Its new resilience plan seeks to address both issues at once.

Wildfires, floods, mudslides, earthquakes, tsunamis—the list of natural disasters that haunt Los Angeles reads like the 10 Plagues of Egypt. What’s more, the city’s size and diversity mean that different neighborhoods are vulnerable to different events, and because of the city’s level of inequality, some residents are much better equipped to handle disaster than others.

In response to these challenges, last week the City of Los Angeles, in coordination with the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, released a resilience strategy. Many of the 96 action items in the new plan follow tried-and-true formulas for mitigating the damage from natural disaster. More resources for seismic safety through the state of California’s “brace-and-bolt” program will help protect older buildings from earthquakes, while increased neighborhood outreach in the hills will complement brush-clearing efforts that prevent wildfires.

Some of the actions are already funded, and the mayor’s office is seeking funding for the rest, both from city funds and from outside partners.

The plan also treats environmental resilience and social equity as interdependent. “The ability of a city to survive and thrive in the face of disaster is as much about its social fabric and social footprint as it is about its infrastructure and its technical treatment of the big risks,” said Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities.

Some of the longer-term actions reiterate the city’s commitment to ongoing initiatives, such as its ambitious metro expansion and its plans to produce 100,000 new housing units by 2021 and cut homelessness in half by 2022. While these might not appear connected to climate or disaster resilience at first glance, they help create a stronger social fabric by improving the health, safety, and economic position of L.A.’s communities.

Currently, many of the city’s most vulnerable residents—as determined by health, economic, and demographic measures—are cut off from the city’s resilience infrastructure. The map below shows large concentrations of vulnerable residents living far from parks and green spaces.

(Resilient Los Angeles)

A lack of access to green space is not simply unfortunate for these residents—it actually affects their neighborhood’s resilience to climate change. The map above tracks closely with a map of urban heat islands, below. In neighborhoods where there are few trees and most of the built environment is paved, temperatures can be up to 10 degrees higher than if there were ample green space and vegetation.

(Resilient Los Angeles)

Urban heat islands, which disproportionately affect the most vulnerable Angelenos, will only get worse as the atmosphere continues to warm. In preparation for more days with extreme heat, the city plans to begin paving roads with “cool pavement” technologies; mandate that new buildings have reflective roofs; and expand a neighborhood cooling-center program. The city also intends to plant more trees in tree-poor neighborhoods in coming years.

Taken in sum, these small steps could add up to a cooler, more disaster-hardy, and more equitable city. The city is now trying to integrate resilience into more of its government operations. Los Angeles plans to add chief resilience officers to 28 major city departments, which would make it unique among the 100 Resilient Cities cohort, many of which have only one CRO whose position is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. (The Los Angeles city government will fund the 28 departmental CRO positions, and already funds the CRO position in the mayor’s office.)

To Berkowitz, L.A.’s resilience strategy represents a shift in mindset as much as it does a series of concrete goals. “This is a more institutionalized change as opposed to any one-off single initiative,” he said.

Despite these proposed steps, the path forward for Los Angeles, and other cities investing heavily in the physical and social infrastructure of resilience, could be a difficult one. The threat of “green gentrification” looms over some of the city’s marquee efforts, like the L.A. River revitalization. While it could produce major recreational and environmental benefits for underserved areas, that project has already been compared to Manhattan’s High Line, which sparked the rapid gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods. Improving a neighborhood’s access to high-quality public spaces without producing a real-estate bonanza remains a vexing problem.

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