Anniversary Issue: A city transformed

Pub date October 22, 2008
WriterTim Redmond

When I first started writing about sustainable cities in the Guardian, I was 28, the paper was 20, urban environmentalism was still considered an oxymoron in much of the mainstream political world — and we didn’t have a name for what we were discussing.

In fact, the story I wrote on Oct. 15, 1986 was called "The city reconceived — a radical proposal" It was part of our 20th anniversary issue, but it wasn’t on the cover, and it wasn’t the lead feature. It was just something I had been thinking about a lot at the time, and since I was reporting a lot on everything that was wrong with city planning, it seemed to make sense to step back and talk about the way things ought to be.

It’s kind of strange to look back at that article today. So much has changed; so little has changed.

"It’s easy to argue that the problems are national, even international in scope, and that no progressive economic policy is possible without basic, fundamental changes in the US economic system," I wrote. "I’m sympathetic to that sort of argument, but somehow, it doesn’t satisfy me. A transformation of the nation’s economic orders is a long way off — and it may not be possible at all unless the seeds are sown at the local level."

I can see from the interviews I did back then the beginnings of what is now known internationally as the sustainable city movement. In 1986, there were a few scrawny nonprofits and a handful of academics; today there are think tanks, institutes, reports, studies, commissions. Mayors all over the world talk about sustainability; here in San Francisco, Gavin Newsom has a full-time $130,000-a-year staffer dedicated to developing environmentally sustainable policies.

And yet, when you look at what the word really means, and what a truly sustainable city would look like, you realize that, 22 years later, we’re still talking about a city reconceived. It’s still — in terms of what politicians like Newsom are putting on the table — a pretty radical proposal.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian prime minister, chaired a United Nations commission in 1983 that came up with what is probably the first official definition of sustainable development: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." An urban planning conference in Berlin in 2000 adopted a sustainability statement that talked about "the flow principle, that is based on an equilibrium of material and energy and also financial input/output."

The Vermont-based Institute for Sustainable Communities goes a bit further: "Sustainable communities have a strong sense of place … They are places that build on their assets and dare to be innovative." You can look on the Web and find a thousand more statements and definitions, some highly technical and some so hippy-dippy they’re painful to read.

But in the end, any real definition of a sustainable city starts with the second part of the phrase.

Cities are eternal. The world’s great metropolises have always outlived modest constructs like nations and empires. They are, as the late urbanist Jane Jacobs used to say, the building blocks of society.

But in the United States, and in much of the rest of the world, cities have become part of a globalized economic system that severs the use of products and services from their origin. Where did that burger you just ate come from? How about the lettuce at the supermarket? The clothes you wear to work? The electricity you use when you turn on your computer? Who controls the flow of money into and out of your community? Who controls the place you live, the money that comes out of the nearest ATM? What about your job — where does your paycheck come from, and where does it go?

How do those factors affect how you live — and how well you live — in San Francisco?

The thing is, you probably don’t know. And what you don’t know is hurting you.

Because a truly sustainable city isn’t just an environmental notion, and a sustainable urban policy isn’t just about planting gardens in front of City Hall. It’s about defining — and changing — the way we think about the economy, politics, business, and the local power structure.

That’s been part of the Guardian‘s mission for 42 years.

When you talk to progressive economists these days (and yeah, there are a few) and people who think about building sustainable local economies (and there are a growing number of them), they say three things:

Cities have to think about how to become more self-sufficient, how to provide locally things that we once imported, how to use local resources to create new jobs and economic activity. Those new jobs and sustainable practices are most likely to come from locally owned, independent businesses. And — particularly these days — the public sector has to play a major role.

That’s what the stories in this anniversary issue are about. A sustainable economy means encouraging start-ups and innovation, using public financing resources, and avoiding a reliance on big chains and giant corporations. A sustainable transportation and land-use policy means building neighborhoods with housing for diverse income groups and cutting down on cars and making the city a better, safer place to walk and bike. A sustainable energy policy means locally controlled renewable generation, not a monster private utility that ferries in nuclear and fossil-fuel power from out of town. Sustainable food means using community agriculture, right here in town.

It’s surprising how simple that sounds — and how politically difficult it is to implement.

See, in San Francisco — this great liberal city — policy decisions are still controlled to a stunning extent by a small group of powerful people who were never elected to anything. You can see how it looks this year by following the money chart we ran in the last issue. It showed how five downtown organizations have been raising and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to take control of the Board of Supervisors.

Or look at Proposition H, the Clean Energy Act on the November ballot. Prop. H is a prescription for sustainable energy; the measure would not only set aggressive goals for renewables, it would shift control of the city’s energy agenda away from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and give it to the people of San Francisco.

Big private energy companies may spend a lot of money on "green" advertising, but they never have, and never will, take the steps needed to create a sustainable system. Because that would mean undercutting their profits and limiting their growth.

A sustainable energy system would use much less electricity and import almost none. It would operate with thousands of small, distributed generation facilities, like solar panels on roofs. And power from the sun and wind is free. That doesn’t work for a giant profit-hungry utility; it works great for a community-based system.

So where is Newsom, who likes to call himself a green mayor? He’s against it. Where are the business leaders in town? Standing with PG&E. Where is the power structure? Fighting to prevent a sustainable energy future for San Francisco.

And the big chain-owned daily newspaper is right there with them.

There aren’t many locally-owned independent newspapers left in America. Even the alternative press has become chain-happy. In Boston, New York, Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles … most of the nation’s biggest cities, the once-upstart weeklies are owned by big national chains.
But in San Francisco, the paper Bruce Brugmann and Jean Dibble founded in 1966 is still the paper that Bruce Brugmann and Jean Dibble run in 2008.
The Guardian was always both a newspaper and small business. Unlike a lot of the wild and wonderful publications that flourished in San Francisco in the 1960s, the Guardian was built to last. Bruce and Jean decided from the start that this would be their life’s work — and although it was a bit dicey at times, the paper has survived and grown into one of the most influential weeklies in the country.
The Guardian was always a part of San Francisco. We believe in this city, in this community, in its life and culture and grassroots politics. We’ve always taken an active role in trying to improve the place where we live and work, and we’re proud of it.
Over the years that has meant exposing the corrupt (and secretive) gang that was trying to turn San Francisco into another Manhattan. It’s meant publishing a pioneering cost-benefit study showing that high-rise office development costs the city more in services than it generates in taxes. It’s meant funding and publishing the first major local study showing that small businesses create most of the net new jobs in San Francisco. It’s meant revealing how PG&E violates federal law and steals cheap power from San Francisco. It’s meant competing with — and writing about — the local daily newspaper monopoly. It’s meant fighting privatization, from the Presidio to City Hall, and pushing for a Sunshine Ordinance to keep the politicians honest. It’s meant siding with the neighborhoods and the artists and the tenants against what we’ve called the economic cleansing of San Francisco.
And this year, it means promoting a real vision of what a sustainable city would look like. Which is, really, what the Guardian has been about all these 42 amazing years. *