Reframing Cities Through Green Urbanism with Global Green’s Walker Wells

March 20, 2015

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to the Global Green edition of Green is Good Radio. We’re here today with Walker Wells. He’s the Vice President of Programs and the Director of Green Urbanism at Global Green. This is the 12th annual Global Green pre-Oscar party. We’re honored to be here today, and we’re honored to have with us Walker Wells. Welcome to Green is Good, Walker. WALKER WELLS: Thank you. Happy to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Walker, this green urbanism thing, I want to understand that more. We talked a little bit before with Les McCabe about it. Can you start fleshing it out for our listeners and our viewers to explain what green urbanism means, not only here in L.A., but on a national and potentially international basis? WALKER WELLS: Sure. The idea is that we can take the beneficial qualities of the environment and environmentalism, the green part, and we can connect it to all the great things about cities, dynamism, the diversity, the creativity that happens in cities and connect them. We can actually end up with the result that is less impactful on the environment and more dynamic as a place to live and work. What this would mean is it would be looking at a city and really at neighborhoods and identify ways that we can reintroduce nature, or really natural or ecological processes, and in the process we can connect or reconnect people to nature and actually heighten or augment the human experience in cities and make our cities more beautiful, but also more dynamic by bringing in this natural ecological component. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Walker, talk a little bit about your background leading up to this position. How did you become an expert in this, and why is this such an important topic now versus other environmental topics that are ongoing right now? WALKER WELLS: In terms of how one becomes an expert, this is a field that doesn’t necessarily exist, or maybe a better way to say it is this is a field that is constantly evolving. There was no way to go study about it and then do it. You sort of invented as you go along. I think all of us are a little bit self-taught. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Since it’s such a new topic, talk a little bit about why it’s so important, though, in terms of you’re here in L.A. with Global Green’s headquarters, and how this can be the messaging center for green urbanism, not only across America, but even potentially globally speaking. WALKER WELLS: Global Green established itself in L.A. on purpose because the basic idea was let’s go someplace difficult, a place that’s not historically been associated with the environment. It’s associated with smog and sprawl and bad development. The idea was that if we can identify solutions that can work here, then they can be transferred and replicated in other places that have similar patterns of development. That would be through much of the southwest, but we also see rapidly urbanizing parts of China, India, that are following what you could say is a not responsible pattern of development, auto-based, sprawling, resource intensive. The idea was to say let’s look at how L.A. can be retrofitted, let’s demonstrate the possible here, and then the goal is to make the possible commonplace. Then you can say here’s a solution that actually is economically vital, environmentally responsible, socially engaging. Then it could actually be demonstrated to work here, then again it could be moved to other parts of the country and the world. Our strategy here is we’re working in some selected neighborhoods, often places that have suffered a lack of investment over time. We’re working with community-based development organizations, nonprofit developers, to build these hubs of sustainable activity in East L.A., in South L.A., up in parts of Hollywood, then to cultivate that and nurture that and start to create a network of this activity and expand that in the city, but then share that with our fellow travelers nationally as they’re doing related types of community development and community revitalization. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Walker, how is your message of green urbanism and bringing it to the streets, how is that being received here in the city of Los Angeles? WALKER WELLS: So far, so good. I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm about this idea of green urbanism. I think it’s exciting, because it lets you look at things from a slightly different vantage point. Instead of a vantage point of disinvestment or environmental degradation and looking for problems and maybe just trying to get back to zero, this idea of green urbanism is to look for opportunities, look for assets, and then to say how do we make things better? We don’t want to just remediate back to a benign point. We’re actually looking for benefits, again, to people and to the environment. I think it’s inspiring because you get a different frame to view cities and environmental activism from. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Walker, let’s talk a little bit about politics. We have a very activist mayor here in terms of environmental policies and his green credentials, Eric Garcetti. A lot of people are telling me now that Washington is really stuck in the mud. Nothing great is happening in Washington, and all the real action for progressive environmental policies are happening in the cities. Is this really one of the exciting parts of your opportunity and your job here at Global Green and your new push for green urbanism? WALKER WELLS: Yes, very much so. There is this narrative that things are locked up in Washington, so we need to look at cities. The real history is that innovation has always come from cities, and it’s always come from neighborhoods. Cities are inherently a place where you get people and ideas mixed up, bouncing into each other, and this is how innovation gets bred. I run into somebody, I’m an urban planner, you’re interested in media, maybe you have some other background. We go wait a minute, our two backgrounds can fit together and we can create something new. I actually feel that right now, politically, the opportunity is in cities, but I also feel like you demonstrate the possible in a city by working at the neighborhood level. I think most of us as people will say sure I’m from LA or I’m from wherever, but you really identify with your home and the neighborhood that your home operates within. What’s exciting is to try to bring this work to a point where you can get people engaged because then they can take action on their own or in their informal groups, and they don’t have to wait for government. Our city is doing phenomenal things, but we don’t have to wait for the city of L.A. to launch a program. You can get together with your neighbors and clean up the alleys, plant trees, collectively buy solar power, bring in people to provide fresh food, all of those things can happen bottom-up. I think we need the bottom-up, we need the top-down, and that’s how we can realize this idea of green urbanism. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love what you’re saying about bottom-up. We have listeners and viewers around the world on Green is Good. Walker, talk a little bit about that activism. How do we activate our listeners and viewers around the world if they want to participate and they love what you’re talking about and it resonates with them, how can our listeners and viewers get involved? WALKER WELLS: To be honest, I think probably the best way is to go out and share your ideas with your neighbors. It sounds old fashioned and folksy, but I’m not the person to say go to social media and throw it out there into the social media landscape. I’d say that you learn a few things in life, and one of the hardest things is to just know when to ask for help or know when to share an idea. I think a lot of us have phenomenal ideas about how the place we live could be better. We think about these things all the time. We go home and talk to our kids or our spouses and say I don’t know why they don’t do this. I don’t know why there’s a stop sign on that street or why that lot isn’t cleaned up. How come nobody puts this kind of land use in here? Often the question is what are you waiting for? A lot of us have some sort of social group that we’re connected to, our kids’ soccer league, a church, some other affinity group, where often people would be happy to go out and do something together on a Saturday morning. The reality is that gets the attention of the politicians because they respond to a constituency. If somebody says, “Do you know that these 25 people showed up and did that thing on Saturday, Councilmember?” The councilmember is like, “Oh my God, something is happening that I don’t know about. I better go talk to those people.” Then you have an opening. You could have a conversation about expanding, getting citywide support. I really do feel it takes some individual initiative and the action of a small group. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Get involved is your message. WALKER WELLS: Get involved, but really take initiative and take action. JOHN SHEGERIAN: This is your event tonight. It’s a wonderful event, pre-Oscars Global Green, the 20th anniversary and also launching Global Green 2.0. Last words. Anything you want to also share with our listeners and viewers around the world? WALKER WELLS: I’ll just say that we at Global Green are excited about this event, but excited about Global Green 2.0. We have 20 years under our belt of figuring out how to engage in the environment at this point in the history of environmentalism, and we’ve also had 20 years of track record of doing projects, successfully testing things out. I truly feel that we’re in this moment where we can synthesize all that and become much more effective and give a lot greater guidance and direction and inspiration across this whole spectrum, from the people in Washington, international even, down to the individual on the street. I think we can be much more pointed to say here’s a good way to expend your energy and your effort and your enthusiasm to bring together this idea of environment and city and green urbanism as we go forward. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We thank you for your time tonight. We wish you a great event, and we wish you continued success for Global Green 2.0 and everything you’re doing at green urbanism and as the Vice President of Programs at Global Green. WALKER WELLS: Thank you so much.