live / 2014

Sustainable Little Tokyo: A Cultural Ecodistrict

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Little Tokyo Community Council

The Little Tokyo Cultural Ecodistrict accelerates and models the transformation of LA into a region of greener, more livable neighborhoods.

Please describe yourself.

Collaboration (partners are signed up and ready to hit the ground running!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

The LTCC is a coalition of businesses, nonprofits, residents, and others in Little Tokyo, of which we represent and advocate for.

Does your project impact Los Angeles County?

Yes (benefits a region of LA County)

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

  • Central LA

What is your idea/project in more detail?

Sustainable Little Tokyo sees our cultural ecodistrict as a framework for achieving long term environmental performance, economic inclusion, and cultural continuity at the neighborhood scale. This innovative concept can serve as a model across the city, and even the nation. Armed with a community-generated vision and the resources of a national platform, the 2-year EcoDistricts Target Cities program, we are building the foundation of the neighborhood of the future, just as construction of Metro’s Regional Connector begins. We are exploring green infrastructure pilot demonstrations, becoming more water and energy efficient, and launching inspiring and engaging cultural programs that highlight society’s connection to nature.

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

Sustainable Little Tokyo has a clear implementation plan with the support of the two-year national Target Cities pilot program to explore this brand new concept. We have built a coalition of local stakeholders and organizations, national resource partners, and public sector agencies. With capacity led by the Little Tokyo Community Council and our partners, we are recruiting volunteers to participate in research, arts and cultural activities, and civic engagement.

Our innovative community-driven vision for Little Tokyo has gained national attention. Little Tokyo accepted an invitation to take part in the Clinton Global Initiatives-backed Target Cities pilot program – a two-year program of EcoDistricts, a national non-profit based in Portland Oregon that works to “amplify and accelerate district-scale community regeneration and create replicable models for next-generation urban revitalization” (EcoDistricts).

As a grassroots, community-driven project, LTCC has created a Task Force, open to public participation, and a smaller Steering Committee working group. This structure provides a venue for community input and engagement to help shape the Cultural EcoDistrict concept, goals, and activities. Three work areas - Real Estate and Built Environment, Educational Initiatives and Community Engagement, and Arts and Culture – are defining tangible projects and outcomes for this two year initial workplan.

These projects include pilot demonstration projects of cutting edge green infrastructure such as district stormwater retention and infiltration, district heating and cooling, “living machine” graywater filtration, landscaping, and a mini-solar electric grid. We are looking at enhanced green space, energy efficient buildings, and increasing walkability with complete and green streets. We are also engaging businesses and residents to implement water and energy efficiency measures, strengthening their bottom lines and household disposable incomes.

We also seek to shift the behavior of the community in a way that resonates with community values. The Japanese concept of ‘mottainai’, which roughly translates out to ‘what a waste to shame’ or ‘too precious to waste’ is already a common cultural value in the community. We are taking the idea of ‘mottainai’ and using it to connect and engage the community to the work of Sustainable Little Tokyo, and exploring related arts and cultural programming.

How will your idea/project help make LA the healthiest place to LIVE today? In 2050?

Sustainable Little Tokyo is not just about creating a cultural ecodistrict in Little Tokyo, but also developing a framework for sustainability that can be replicated by other communities, neighborhoods, and cities. Through our groundbreaking approach that combines green infrastructure and initiatives with community organizing, arts and cultural productions, just and equitable economic development, we offer a model for other neighborhoods seeking long term economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

As concerns over climate change continue to mount, global cities like Los Angeles must innovate policy, financing, infrastructure, and collaborative governance that reduces our carbon footprint and dependence on imported water and energy. We can also simultaneously improve public health outcomes, strengthen our local economies, and celebrate our rich cultural diversity. However, this future will take a tremendous amount of work, collaboration across many sectors, and leverage dwindling public resources with private capital investment.

We believe the Los Angeles of 2050 will have become a greener, healthier region one neighborhood at a time. We are just the first in what can be a network of interconnected neighborhood laboratories to discover new solutions, inspire future generations, and connect to our neighbors and our histories.

Neighborhoods along the Los Angeles River, along emerging transit corridors, and all throughout the region are struggling with questions and fears of gentrification and displacement. Without clear demonstrations and equitable public policy, Los Angeles just might tip back in the reverse direction of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, vehicle miles travelled, rising rents, and lost opportunities.

At the neighborhood scale, the right approach can start to achieve the multiple benefits we are aiming for. Through district-scaled infrastructure, we can achieve water and energy efficiencies of 30-50% better than baseline. Businesses can join together with marketing and visibility as going green, saving money and attracting new customers. Residents and community members can come together and engage one another to share ideas about healthy living, saving resources, and improving their quality of life. Through the Little Tokyo Cultural Ecodistrict, we hope to demonstrate that we can accelerate the process of achieving the Los Angeles of 2050.

Whom will your project benefit?

Like Little Tokyo itself, Sustainable Little Tokyo is both specific and broad, with overlapping layers. While there are direct benefits for those that live and work here, Sustainable Little Tokyo also serves the broader community and Los Angeles.

At its most immediate, Sustainable Little Tokyo benefits Little Tokyo stakeholders – businesses, residents, nonprofits, tourists, and other community members. In building this Cultural Ecodistrict - with tangible environmental sustainability targets while retaining our historic and cultural context - we are working towards a future that preserves our sense of community, culture, and neighborhood while placing us squarely in the future of innovative environmental developments. By making our neighborhood greener, we make the lives of our residents, businesses, workers, and visitors healthier and vibrant. By preserving our cultural and historic roots, while focusing on the economic health of our community and in particular, small family-owned businesses, we maintain our distinct community identity.

Because Little Tokyo holds a significant role and space in the larger Japanese American and Asian American communities, these broader communities will also benefit. Recognizing that Little Tokyo is more of a symbolic home than a residential home to most of the Japanese American community, there nonetheless remains a sense of urgency to maintain the community for future generations. Indeed, Sustainable Little Tokyo it is rooted in long-held cultural and community values passed down from generation to generation. We have integrated fundamental community values like ‘Mottainai’ (what a shame to waste), ‘Kodomono tameni; (for future generations), and ‘Banbutsu’ (interconnectedness) into a contemporary environmental context.

Sustainable Little Tokyo and the concept of a cultural ecodistrict is also something that benefits the entire city, region, and even the nation. Our groundbreaking and pioneering work can serve as a model to other neighborhoods, the city, and all across the country. Already public agencies have seen how Little Tokyo can serve as a place to pilot innovative projects that can be replicated across the region. Because the conditions of gentrification, development, and transportation planning in Little Tokyo are issues that are mirrored in marginalized communities across the greater Los Angeles region, we hope to create a model of sustainability in all the ways for communities to use for themselves.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

The Little Tokyo Community Council is working with exceptional partners and collaborators. This project began with a small core of partner organizations developing a sustainability plan for Little Tokyo. It has grown to a cross-sectoral collaboration encompassing local community organizations and national resource partners.

While many member organizations of the Little Tokyo Community Council are actively participating in this initiative, organizations providing committed key leadership include the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Kizuna, and Great Leap. These organizations provide deep cultural roots, a large and growing base of support throughout Los Angeles County, and staff and volunteer capacity.

From the community development field, we are working with confirmed partners such as LTSC Community Development Corporation, Enterprise Community Partners, NeighborWorks America, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and the Low Income Investment Fund. These partners bring sophisticated understanding of real estate development and finance, equity and affordability, and capacity building.

From the environmental sector, our confirmed partners include Ecodistricts, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Global Green USA. These partners bring expertise around climate change, sustainability planning, and green technology.

How will your project impact the LA2050 “Live” metrics?

  • Percent of imported water
  • Walk/bike/transit score
  • Acres and miles of polluted waterways
  • Percentage of LA communities that are resilient (Dream Metric)
  • Percentage of tree canopy cover (Dream Metric)

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

The ecodistrict framework is a new model for resiliency through building and enhancing community governance, local economic development, and reducing dependence on imported energy and water. Little Tokyo is a perfect laboratory for creating this model, because of its 130-year history as a cultural and ethnic neighborhood. We believe that resiliency is, at its core, based on strong social connectedness, high functioning community governance, and inclusion of diverse stakeholders. The neighborhood’s social networks, small business community, culture and arts have thrived despite periods of relocation, displacement, encroachment, and intense economic downturns. We will demonstrate how the ecodistrict concept can be replicated in neighborhoods around LA, creating neighborhoods resilient to the forces and patterns of climate change and economic cycles.

A major goal of Sustainable Little Tokyo is to work with the City of Los Angeles to create brand new strategies to retain stormwater and reuse water. Based on a feasibility study of a catalytic 15 acre development concept in Little Tokyo, new water infrastructure can save almost 10 million gallons of water per year, or 36% above baseline. If successfully piloted, public-private partnerships for new stormwater and wastewater facilities throughout the city could help Los Angeles reduce our dependence on imported water. These facilities will also divert runoff into street stormwater channels, reducing refuse and pollutants from entering our waterways. We will demonstrate new strategies for retaining, filtering, and recycling water on-site.

We are also focused on creating green streets and new green parks to achieve a higher walk/bike/transit score and greater tree canopy. Our goal is to create infrastructure and community benefits that provide multiple benefits. As we work with the City and Metro to upgrade the street infrastructure, we are advocating for both complete streets accessible to cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers as well as green streets which retain stormwater and provide new tree canopy. We also have envisioned new open space which would create new trees on privately developed land.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.

We aim to change individual behavior, demonstrate collective strategies, and imagine new ways to build neighborhoods, all towards making Los Angeles a more sustainable and livable city for all. The specific metrics for success in this initiative will be increases in civic engagement, commitment of public and organizational partners, and establishment of a demonstration/catalyst project.

Sustainable Little Tokyo is built on a foundation of active civic engagement of individual Angelenos as well as organizational collaborations across sectors. We will track and measure individual participation in this initiative at various levels of commitment, via engagement in ongoing task force and committee activities, participation in cultural and educational programs, and interaction in social media and internet-based communications. This strategy will allow for participation at many different steps of the ladder of participation, from low-barrier activities such as clicking web pages to high commitment activities such as volunteering on committees or at programs. Throughout, we plan to use cultural and artistic projects to excite and inspire mass participation.

Organizational partners are crucial to success of this project. In particular, public-private collaboration is needed to advance innovations in district-level green infrastructure and development of affordable housing and community facilities. We will measure and track the engagement level and number of partners, including specific city and/or county agencies, community partners including businesses, non-profits, and religious organizations.

The bold innovations envisioned for the Little Tokyo cultural ecodistrict are encapsulated in a proposed catalytic real estate project which can be undertaken as a public-private partnership. This catalytic development includes various components including district energy, water capture and recycling facilities, affordable housing and mixed-use development, and is centered around a new light rail station. By the end of one year, we are aiming for identification and progress toward implementation of at least one demonstration project in partnership with the City of Los Angeles and/or the Metro Transportation Authority.

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

Sustainable Little Tokyo has emerged out of two critical lessons learned by the Little Tokyo community. First, that big innovation happens with public sector collaboration. Second, that community governance defines resilient, sustainable neighborhoods in the long run. The cultural ecodistrict framework is built on these lessons, so that we can advance innovative district infrastructure and new collaborative strategies that can go the distance in reaching the Los Angeles of 2050.

The Little Tokyo community has a long history of collaboration with the public sector, largely with the now defunct Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles. Like many CRA project areas, this history of collaboration was not without blemishes. Large-scale urban renewal in the 1960s and 70s resulted in the displacement and destruction of housing affordable to new immigrants, community facilities, and small businesses. However, through partnership with the public sector, the community built new assets such as the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, new subsidized affordable housing for low-income seniors and workers. More recently, as Metro has made investments citywide in new light rail lines with stations located in historic neighborhoods like Little Tokyo, the Little Tokyo Community Council realized that we needed a strong community voice and active collaboration with the public sector in order to continue to thrive and grow into the future.

Through a community visioning process to generate plans for transit oriented development around the new Little Tokyo/Arts District light rail station, we reached out to the public sector to convene a roundtable with representatives of the departments of Cultural Affairs, Planning, Transportation, Water and Power, Economic Development, Housing, and Metro. As we move forward, we will continue to build on these partnerships in order to implement pilot demonstration projects.

All of this sustainability planning would not be possible without the existence of the Little Tokyo Community Council. Established in the early 2000s, the Community Council represents a broad spectrum of stakeholders from the Little Tokyo neighborhood and the Japanese American community of Greater Los Angeles. The strength and power of this united neighborhood voice has driven the neighborhood victories over the past decade.

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

Sustainable Little Tokyo’s shift from visioning to implementation has a clear pathway for the next 12 months. Our participation in the EcoDistricts Target Cities program provides a framework for achieving (1) District Organization, (2) District Assessment, (3) Project Development, and (4) District Monitoring. Our workplan includes an interactive process of organization, assessment, and monitoring, with specific projects slated for the upcoming year.

This framework will anchor our collaboration with public agencies and national resource partners to identify a green infrastructure pilot demonstration project. Formal, structured collaborative sessions will bring partners together over the course of 12 months to assess feasibility, identify financing, and locate a physical space for a pilot project.

Our work in community education and organizing, and arts and culture will follow a more linear workplan in the next 12 months. Indeed, a few of the educational projects begin this summer, as we begin to brand our initiative to spread awareness about our work and encourage sustainable practices. Whether it is something small – like using recycled materials to make the kazari (paper ornament streamers) for the annual Tanabata festival, or showcasing a water filter system at events, we will integrate environmentalism into community arts and cultural events wherever we can.

We believe these activities will inspire our community members to make individual behavior changes, invest in building upgrades, and learn more about being sustainable. Through social media and communications as well as intentional peer-to-peer learning, we will achieve visibility for our work that can inspire and connect to other neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.

Support from LA2050 will leverage other sources of support for our work. In addition to the EcoDistricts partnership, we have a formal partnership with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. National partners are leveraging grant support with in-kind technical assistance and capacity building.

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

Although the Little Tokyo community today is highly organized and the LTCC is able to speak with a unified voice on behalf of the community, we must still consider that our primary community – that of the broader Japanese American community – does not in fact live in Little Tokyo. Little Tokyo is the historic home of the Southern California Japanese American community - yet the community is dispersed across the greater Southern California region, making it difficult to engage and connect to the community. The challenge then is how do the LTCC and our partners educate and engage the broader community?

In the Little Tokyo Community Council’s Sustainable Little Tokyo subcommittee – Educational Initiatives and Community Engagement, we believe that through education projects and community organizing that we will be able to address this challenge. Already, our committee is working on a number of projects to educate the community at the numerous community gatherings. Events such as annual Nisei Week festival bring out both local Little Tokyo residents as well as members of the Japanese American community from all parts of the southland, giving the LTCC a chance to connect with both constituencies. We also plan to take advantage of the vast networks that connect the Japanese American community, such as the Buddhist temples and churches, the basketball leagues, and local Japanese cultural and community centers. Finally, we intend to augment our organizing with social media engagement and an accessible website.

A second challenge is working with public sector – specifically bringing together all the necessary agencies to the table. LA is notoriously large and hard to navigate, and it can be difficult to discern who the appropriate players are – much less getting everyone to work together in concert. However, another Sustainable Little Tokyo subcommittee – our Real Estate and Built Environment committee – has already begun the legwork on this difficult path by holding meetings with various city agencies such as the Bureau of Sanitation, Department of Public Works, and City Planning Department. Although this process takes time, by individually meeting with all appropriate agencies, we hope to develop buy-in and support while also building important relationships for this project. The Target Cities program provides a perfect vehicle to assemble these agencies as well, as it carries the platform and prestige to bring everyone to the table.

What resources does your project need?

  • Money (financial capital)
  • Volunteers/staff (human capital)
  • Publicity/awareness (social capital)