2022 Green Cities Lecture Series #1: State of California

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By Kevin Connaughton

The Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (CSU) kicked off the first of its 2022 Green Cities webinar lecture series with a discussion around sustainability and development efforts in the state of California. 

The Green Cities series serves as spaces for conversation about innovations and policies concerning urban sustainability on a global scale. This webinar was led by Samuel Assefa, who serves as the Director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research for the State of California as well as Chair of the state’s Strategic Growth Council. Having worked in eight different cities and three continents, Mr. Assefa is no stranger to the nuances of urban design and the centrality of cities in the conversation surrounding climate change. Lance Jay Brown, the President of CSU as well as a devoted and prominent urban designer and educator, provided a warm and welcoming introduction for Mr. Assefa.

Mr. Assefa spoke about the importance of cities in terms of equity and economic development, highlighting California’s role as a leader for the national community as unafraid to propose bold policy and programs. Due to the state being heavily affected by wildfire impact, extreme heat, droughts, and floods, it is especially motivated to combat climate change effects. Mr. Assefa and the rest of the Governor’s office emphasize commitment to improving California’s emergency response system as well through a Wildlife Urban Interface for rural areas, as well as established new wildfire and flood guidelines and supporting emergency services through grant-funding. 

Aside from emergency response, The Director highlighted several of California’s policy strides that have already been implemented: minimum recycled content requirements for beverage containers (the first in the world to pass such a policy), zero emission fuel infrastructure technologies, and climate change assessments, with sixteen prospective policies in the works. Mr. Assefa emphasized the urgency of this bold environmental policy, emphasizing that “there’s no time. We must make significant investments in adaptability and resilience.” The Director also highlighted some substantial budget allotments for environmental development within the state, with large sums being devoted to clean energy investment, transit infrastructure, housing, and adaptation in low-income communities and communities of color. He highlighted the importance of collaboration as well with reference to the Intergovernmental Climate Action Team (ICAT), an agency based on inter-state climate cooperation of which California is a member state. “Climate actions are at the center of the governor’s policies,” Mr. Assefa confirmed. “There is a deliberate intent by the governor to interconnect the environment and the economy.”

Mr. Assefa spoke not just on California specifically but on the importance of urban design as a whole. Seeing as cities generate around 70% of greenhouse gas, they are of paramount importance when designing environmental countermeasures. Going beyond their pollution, however, Mr. Assefa emphasized the positives of cities as well, noting their tendency to be hubs of innovation and stating that once cities are intensely developed, “the per capita energy usage and waste is less in comparison to [suburban] sprawl.” In terms of this development, he emphasizes a holistic approach which includes intersectional issues like transportation, agriculture, and housing. The Director’s years of experience in a variety of areas shine through, as he emphasizes the need to “carve out urban design that is relevant to the context” of a specific place, as policy that may be apt for Los Angeles is likely inappropriate when applied to a different locale like Chicago or Atlanta.

Ultimately, Mr. Assefa asserted California’s role in the national sphere, remarking that the state is “presented with an unprecedented opportunity to make a major impact in combatting climate change.” He is committed to improving quality-of-life and equity for Californians and reducing environmental footprints. “The world follows our example,” he concluded.

About the author: Kevin Connaughton is a junior English and Global Studies major at the University of South Carolina Honors College. His studies concentrate on writing as well as sustainability and development.