Toward a sustainable San Francisco

Pub date January 2, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL When you decide to buy your vegetables at a local grocery store, not at Safeway, or when you buy your books at the neighborhood bookstore instead of Barnes and Noble, or when you buy hardware from a store down the street, not from Home Depot, you’re actually doing something profoundly radical. You’re challenging the predominant paradigm of economic theory — and you’re helping make the San Francisco economy a whole lot healthier for a whole lot of people.

That’s what a detailed new report by a group of small business leaders and advocates for a sustainable economy argues. The coalition, led by the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, makes a powerful argument — and the San Francisco supervisors ought to make it official city policy to follow the report’s proposals.

As Jeff Goodman reports in "Localize It" on page 11, in some ways the report is a critique of globalization: it argues that an economic system that encourages Bay Area consumers to buy cheap goods made by near-slave labor thousands of miles away and shipped here to be sold in giant chain stores whose workers can’t even afford health insurance and where all the buyers arrive in individual automobiles isn’t good for anyone. The economic displacement, the environmental impact, and the human cost are all unacceptable. And yet globalization (and so-called free trade) is the accepted principal of almost all national and even statewide policy.

But cities like San Francisco don’t have to go along with that. Jane Jacobs, the urban economist and planner, noted more than 30 years ago that cities are the true engines of national economies — and that the healthiest and most successful cities are the ones that have diverse, locally controlled economies and that, as much as possible, replace imports with local products. That’s what the new report calls for — and on a policy level it’s not terribly complicated.

For example, a citywide policy calling for a sustainable local economy would strongly discourage any new chain stores in the city (such as a Home Depot on Bayshore Boulevard) on the grounds that they violate all the basic principles of what the coalition calls localization. Economic development decisions would have to pass a strict test: Does this encourage locally owned businesses? Does it help replace imports? Does it keep money in the economy? Land-use decisions would have to be evaluated in part on their economic merits (but under a new sort of standard); a high-end housing development that displaced local industry wouldn’t make the cut. Purchasing decisions would have to take into account localization issues: Does the food come from the region? Is it possible to buy the goods locally?

It’s impossible in the modern economy to completely avoid globalization — and it’s not necessarily a good idea either. The new report hardly calls for economic isolation. But it does offer a very different policy vision. The supervisors should hold hearings, bring in the authors of the report, and move to create a formal policy that sets sustainable local economics as a standard for all city business. *

The coalition’s report is available at