Playa del Rey: Interactive environmental center displays sustainability goals
By Gary Walker
High-ranking city officials joined students from the Los Angeles Unified School District and sanitation representatives at the grand opening of an interactive educational facility at the Hyperion Treatment Plant in Playa del Rey Sept. 16.
The Los Angeles Environmental Learning Center is a 20,000-square foot learning laboratory, where children and adults can learn how the wastewater treatment plant functions, engage in interactive games and simulations designed to teach lessons in sustainability and receive a wealth of information on how city officials are planning their strategies for improving the region’s water quality.
Braving an unseasonably hot morning, more than 100 people listened to city authorities talk about the history as well as the functionality of the new facility. Mayor Eric Garcetti told the audience at a press conference prior to the ribbon-cutting ceremony that it was possible to live a sustainable life in Los Angeles.
“People say that we can’t live off what we have, but we can,” Garcetti said.
The mayor talked about the history of Los Angeles and how water from the Owens Valley was used to transport water to Los Angeles approximately a century ago, and those same engineering techniques that export it from as far away as the Colorado River to be washed out in a more polluted way indicates “how we have our priorities backwards.”
“But today we can begin to change that,” Garcetti continued. “We can change that through things like Proposition O, which refiltrates our water and puts it back into our aquifers.”
Proposition O is a 2004 bond measure passed overwhelmingly by Los Angeles voters that allowed city officials to authorize general obligation bonds of up to $500 million to clean up pollution from the city’s beaches and the ocean.
According to Bureau of Sanitation Director Enrique Zaldivar, while the learning center will welcome visitors of all ages, the target audience that sanitation and city environmental representatives are trying to reach is fourth to eighth graders.
Addressing the students sitting in front of him, Garcetti said it would be their charge to continue towards creating a healthier environment in the coming years.
“Those of you who are the strongest leaders are the ones who are sitting in the front row,” the mayor told the children. “You will change the behaviors in your household, of your parents, in your community, and in your neighborhood.”
Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Playa del Rey, remembered a time when he was a deputy for former Councilwoman Ruth Galanter and a facility such as the Environmental Learning Center was being discussed. “I can remember when this facility was just a gleam in the eye of a commissioner under (former mayor) Dick Riordan. A guy named Todd Burnett called me up one day and said, ‘hey, wouldn’t this be cool?’” Bonin recalled.
“A few years later, people like Enrique and others picked up that ball and decided to make this a reality.”
Inside the two-story learning center are a variety of colorful exhibits on sustainability. There is an area dedicated to alternative technologies, explaining what a transfer station does and a model of a sustainable kitchen, featuring a refrigerator and other sustainable appliances.
There are also interactive games where visitors can test their sustainability IQ by placing items flashing on a screen into the appropriate container. Players have a choice of directing the items into a hazardous waste or e-water container, a trash bin or a recycling container.
Zaldivar said the learning center was designed to be interactive. “We wanted it this way because the primary audience that we wanted to attract was fourth through eighth graders,” he reiterated. “With them, what works best are interactive tools, computers and electronics.”
Westchester resident Denny Schneider was impressed with the facility’s exhibits and learning stations.
“Los Angeles has lofty goals, but few projects exceed them like the Environmental Learning Center. The Sanitation Department deserves accolades for its national leadership in conservation and clean water programs,” said Schneider.
Bonin also paid tribute to local environmental leaders such as Mark Gold and Andrew Lipkis.
Gold, who attended the grand opening, is the former executive director of the environmental group Heal the Bay, a nonprofit organization working to improve the water quality of the Santa Monica Bay. He is now the associate director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
Lipkis is the founder of Tree People, which trains and supports communities to plant and care for trees.
“They are the stewards and the champions of the environment here in Los Angeles,” Bonin said. “When I started out in Los Angeles city government 15 or 16 years ago, people like Mark Gold and Andy Lipkis taught me about the environment, just as they have taught literally tens and hundreds of thousands of Angelenos about the environment.”
Zaldivar said schools can arrange to visit the center and the water treatment plant on tours to see what water quality officials are doing firsthand.
“Reconnecting with the land itself is what brought us here,” Garcetti said. “People settled here because of three things: the weather, the coastline and the people. And those three things will sustain us.
“Sustainability is the future,” he added. “It is the foundation, and it is the future of this city.”