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Los Angeles is a city of contradictions. It's a city of both breathtaking natural beauty and mind-numbing artifice; a city that prides itself on both its laid-back, laissez-faire vibe and its resounding eco-activism; a city with gray, smog-choked air and green, manicured landscapes; a city of hybrid-congested highways and a vacant subway system; a city with both an astounding amount of fast-food eateries and a thriving vegetarian and vegan food scene.

So yes, there is plenty of green to be found in Los Angeles and its environs — sometimes you just have to scratch away the glitz, glam and grime to find it.

Hitting the streets

Finding anything in L.A. can be daunting to the uninitiated. When the word "sprawling" is used, it's no exaggeration. Perhaps most tricky is navigating the incorporated cities, neighborhoods and districts that make up Los Angeles County. For example, areas like West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica are separate cities within Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the preferred way to navigate L.A. is by automobile. With a public transportation system that's underutilized compared with similarly sized cities, L.A.'s reliance on cars combined with little rainfall and Mother Nature's basin-forming curves has resulted in notable — but getting better thanks to strict emissions standards — air pollution.

L.A.'s massive urban patchwork design — Dorothy Parker was right on when she dubbed it "72 suburbs in search of a city" — does make it possible not to travel outside of one's own bubble (and many casual, Hollywood-bound visitors don't). The funky Los Feliz nabe is one spot where hoofing it is slightly easier. Yet Los Angeles is a company town and many residents, despite their eco-inclinations, will find themselves behind the wheel and headed toward areas that are home to the entertainment industry, like Burbank and Culver City.

Hitting the beach

While Mother Nature created Los Angeles with several deadly quirks — earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides, drought — she also blessed it with many gifts. Although they seem hours away to those living inland (and sometimes they are hours away when traffic's heavy), the beaches of Los Angeles County help define Southern California's famous natural beauty.

Malibu is one beachfront community that instantly comes to mind. Part low-key beach town, part celebrity enclave, and home to many vocal Earth-minded celebrities, Malibu residents take great strides to protect the coastline in the face of a well-publicized struggle to end raw sewage leakage from the community's septic tanks. The Surfrider Foundation, the Malibu Legacy Park Project, Malibu Green Machine and Heal the Bay are all organizations dedicated to cleaning up the shoreline and improving water quality in Malibu and elsewhere.

Green sleeps

Los Angeles is a city where the hotel scene is predictably dictated by glitz 'n' glam and the tourist trade. Even if you don't spend the night at Chateau Marmont, the Sunset Marquis, Hotel Bel Air or the newly face-lifted Beverly Hilton, there's always the chance you might find yourself wandering glassy-eyed through one of their lobbies or sipping a cocktail/people-watching in one of their bars.

So where does green fit into this sceney lodging scene? Despite the breadth of available beds in L.A., eco-lodging can be elusive. Although the Ambrose in Santa Monica doesn't have the marquee pull that nearby Shutters has, this LEED-minted property with on-site hybrid rentals makes up for it in green accolades.

Also in Santa Monica is the Green Eco-Leaf-rated Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows. The property's in-house restaurant, FIG, is an excellent place to reconnect with the Earth after a spin on the Pacific Wheel, a solar-powered, LED-laden Ferris wheel on the famed Santa Monica Pier. FIG boasts an official "forager" who scours Californian farms for the best in seasonal and organic ingredients. If you don't want to stray too far from said solar-powered Ferris wheel, the oceanfront art-deco grand dame Georgian Hotel is a member of the Green Hotel Association and steps away from the beach.

In the works and not in Santa Monica is the LEED-seeking JW Marriot, set to open in the spring of 2010 in downtown L.A.

Green eats

Back to Santa Monica just for a moment. Thanks in part to black cod ceviche, a Point Reyes blue cheese veggie burger, and grilled artichoke, the happy hour menu at Wilshire Restaurant couldn't be any happier. Chef Andrew Kirschner revolves his eclectic, highly edible menu around seasonal, local and organic ingredients in an inviting space designed by Thomas Schoos.

Moving on, more casual bites and beverages can be found on Melrose Avenue at Urth Caffe, a West Hollywood institution (pictured above) where it's not unusual to spot a starlet sipping on organic chamomile or noshing on a healthy sandwich or salad. Urth's wild success has led to the opening of other locations in downtown Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.

With the exception of all the Goggie-tastic diners and fast-food joints, you may find it difficult to eat non-health and Earth-conscious cuisine in a town with an overwhelming amount of vegetarian, vegan and raw-food restaurants. The city's obsession with healthy-for-the-body-and-the-planet grub extends to many outstanding ethnic restaurants, as well. In the east-of-Hollywood "it" neighborhood of Eagle Rock, Blue Hen serves Vietnamese staples with an organic twist while Casa de Tree is mini-chain of strictly vegan Japanese cafes. Cheap and authentic Mexican food is a SoCal pastime and Hugo's Tacos is cheap, authentic and healthy with plenty of veggie options like a soy chorizo, potato and zucchini taquito served over a bed of white organic beans.

Go west, young shopper

When Los Angelenos are in need of serious retail therapy, West Hollywood is there to lend a helping hand. WeHo institutions like the Beverly Center (the mall in Clueless) and Fred Segal (the celeb mecca with paparazzi on permanent stakeout in the parking lot) and an array of designer clothing boutiques and up-market interior design stores are temping, making it easy to forget green … but not for long.

Those looking for one-stop shopping will appreciate Visionary Boutique and its selection of eco-friendly clothing for men, women and children; unique gifts and home wares; baby gear; and Aunt Vi's Chakra Sprays. Equally esoteric is J Gerard Design Studio & Peace Gallery on trendy Melrose Avenue, where flower power fashionista J Gerard — a bamboo-fashion frontrunner and designer for Prince, Tina Turner and others — peddles her peace-centric threads. Over on Beverly Boulevard in a truly charming building, another designer with rock 'n' roll roots, Stella McCartney, sells pricey eco-fashions for women. Folks (especially green brides) with a passion for paper, not fashion, flock to Soolip, a shop specializing in stationery, journals, cards and more made from recycled and sustainable materials.

Staying connected

Because of its landscape and size, it's easy to feel adrift in Los Angeles. This is why a diverse network of green-minded bloggers, resources, community groups, nonprofits and, of course, vocal celebrities are vital to the city's environmental movement. To name a few: the consumer-oriented city guide, Greenopia; the eco-lifestyle blog, green LA girl (penned by MNN lifestyle blogger, Siel Ju); environmental calendar Go to Green LA; clean air advocacy group, Coalition for Clean Air; People For Parks; Global Green USA;, and like LA itself, the list goes on and on and on.

It's understandable that many visitors and new residents to Los Angeles will have Star Maps on the mind, not sustainability. Like any large city, LA is what you make it — once you get comfortable with the volatile/beautiful lay of the land, eco-minded folks (and those trying to sell screenplays) who venture out can find plenty of good, green company.


Hitting the streets: Todd Jones Photography/Flickr

Hitting the beach: Alison Greenberg/MNN 

Green eats: stevendamron/Flickr

Go west, young shopper: jenschapter3/Flickr