Indicator city

Pub date April 16, 2013

When biologists talk about the health of a fragile ecosystem, they often speak of an “indicator species.” That’s a critter — a fish, say, or a frog — whose health, or lack thereof, is a signal of the overall health of the system. These days, when environmentalists who think about politics as well as science look at San Francisco, they see an indicator city.

This progressive-minded place of great wealth, knowledge, and technological innovation — surrounded on three sides by steadily rising tides — could signal whether cities in the post-industrial world will meet the challenge of climate change and related problems, from loss of biodiversity to the need for sustainable energy sources.

A decade ago, San Francisco pioneered innovative waste reduction programs and set aggressive goals for reducing its planet-cooking carbon emissions. At that point, the city seemed prepared to make sacrifices and provide leadership in pursuit of sustainability.

Things changed dramatically when the recession hit and Mayor Ed Lee took office with the promise to focus almost exclusively on economic development and job creation. Today, even with the technology and office development sectors booming and employment rates among the lowest in California, the city hasn’t returned its focus to the environment.

In fact, with ambitious new efforts to intensify development along the waterfront and only lackluster support for the city’s plan to build renewable energy projects through the CleanPowerSF program, the Lee administration seems to be exacerbating the environmental challenge rather than addressing it.

According to conservative projections by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the Bay is expected to rise at least 16 inches by 2050 and 55 inches by the end of the century. BCDC maps show San Francisco International Airport and Mission Bay inundated, Treasure Island mostly underwater, and serious flooding the Financial District, the Marina, and Hunters Point.

Lee’s administration has commissioned a report showing a path to carbon reduction that involves promoting city-owned renewable energy facilities and radically reducing car trips — while the mayor seems content do the opposite.

It’s not an encouraging sign for Earth Day 2013.



Last year, the Department of the Environment hired McKinsey and Company to prepare a report titled “San Francisco’s Path to a Low-Carbon Economy.” It’s mostly finished — but you haven’t heard much about it. The department has been sitting on it for months.

Why? Some say it’s because most of the recommendations clash with the Lee administration’s priorities, although city officials say they’re just waiting while they get other reports out first. But the report notes the city is falling far short of its carbon reduction goals and “will therefore need to complement existing carbon abatement measures with a range of new and innovative approaches.”

Data presented in the report, a copy of which we’ve obtained from a confidential source, shows that building renewable energy projects through CleanPowerSF, making buildings more energy-efficient, and discouraging private automobile use through congestion pricing, variable-price parking, and building more bike lanes are the most effective tools for reducing carbon output.

But those are things that the mayor either opposes and has a poor record of supporting or putting into action. The easy, corporate-friendly things that Lee endorses, such as supporting more electric, biofuel, and hybrid vehicles, are among the least effective ways to reach the city’s goals, the report says.

“Private passenger vehicles account for two-fifths of San Francisco’s emissions. In the short term, demand-based pricing initiatives appear to be the biggest opportunity,” the report notes, adding a few lines later, “Providing alternate methods of transport, such as protected cycle lanes, can encourage them to consider alternatives to cars.”

Melanie Nutter, who heads the city’s Department of the Environment, admits that the transportation sector and expanding the city’s renewable energy portfolio through CleanPowerSF or some other program — both of which are crucial to reducing the city’s carbon footprint — are two important areas where the city needs to do a better job if it’s going to meet its environmental goals, including the target of cutting carbon emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2025.

But Nutter said that solid waste reduction programs, green building standards, and the rise of the “shareable economy” — with Internet-based companies facilitating the sharing of cars, housing, and other products and services — help San Francisco show how environmentalism can co-exist with economic development.

“San Francisco is really focused on economic development and growth, but we’ve gone beyond the old edict that you can either be sustainable or have a thriving economy,” Nutter said.

Yet there’s sparse evidence to support that statement. There’s a two-year time lag in reporting the city’s carbon emissions, meaning we don’t have good indicators since Mayor Lee pumped up economic development with tax breaks and other city policies. For example, Nutter touted how there’s more green buildings, but she didn’t have data about whether that comes close to offsetting the sheer number of new energy-consuming buildings — not to mention the increase in automobile trips and other byproducts of a booming economy.

Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and president of the BART board, told us that San Francisco seems to have been derailed by the last economic crisis, with economic insecurity and fear trumping environmental concerns.

“All our other values got tossed aside and it was all jobs, jobs, jobs. And then the crisis passed and the mantra of this [mayoral] administration is still jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said. “They put sustainability on hold until the economic crisis passed, and they still haven’t returned to sustainability.”

Radulovich reviewed the McKinsey report, which he considers well-done and worth heeding. He’s been asking the Department of the Environment for weeks why it hasn’t been released. Nutter told us her office just decided to hold the report until after its annual climate action strategy report is released during Earth Day event on April 24. And mayoral Press Secretary Christine Falvey told us, “There’s no hold up from the Mayor’s Office.”

Radulovich said the study highlights how much more the city should be doing. “It’s a good study, it asks all the right questions,” Radulovich said. “We’re paying lip service to these ideas, but we’re not getting any closer to sustainability.”

In fact, he said the promise that the city showed 10 years ago is gone. “Gavin [Newsom] wanted to be thought of as an environmentalist and a leader in sustainability, but I don’t think that’s important to Ed Lee,” Radulovich said.

Joshua Arce, who chairs the city’s Environmental Commission, agreed that there is a notable difference between Newsom, who regularly rolled out new environmental initiatives and goals, and Lee, who is still developing ways to promote environmentalism within his economic development push.

“Ed Lee doesn’t have traditional environmental background,” Arce said. “What is Mayor Lee’s definition of environmentalism? It’s something that creates jobs and is more embracing of economic development.”

Falvey cites the mayor’s recent move of $2 million into the GoSolar program, new electric vehicle charging stations in city garages, and his support for industries working on environmental solutions: “Mayor Lee’s CleantechSF initiative supports the growth of the already vibrant cleantech industry and cleantech jobs in San Francisco, and he has been proactive in reaching out to the City’s 211 companies that make up one of the largest and most concentrated cleantech clusters in the world.”

Yet many environmentalists say that simply waiting for corporations to save the planet won’t work, particularly given their history, profit motives, and the short term thinking of global capitalism.

“To put it bluntly, the Lee administration is bought and paid for by PG&E,” said Eric Brooks with Our City, which has worked for years to launch CleanPowerSF and ensure that it builds local renewable power capacity.

The opening of the McKinsey report makes it clear why the environmental policies of San Francisco and other big cities matter: “Around the globe, urban areas are becoming more crowded and consuming more resources per capita,” it states. “Cities are already responsible for roughly seventy percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and as economic growth becomes more concentrated in urban centers, their total greenhouse gas emissions may double by 2050. As a result, tackling the problem of climate change will in large part depend on how we reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of cities.”

And San Francisco, it argues, is the perfect place to start: “The city now has the opportunity to crystallize and execute a bold, thoughtful strategy to attain new targets, continue to lead by example, and further national and global debates on climate change.”

The unwritten message: If we can’t do it here, maybe we can’t do it anywhere.



San Francisco’s waterfront is where economic pressures meet environmental challenges. As the city seeks to continue with aggressive growth and developments efforts on one side of the line — embodied recently by the proposed Warriors Arena at Piers 30-32, 8 Washington and other waterfront condo complexes, and other projects that intensify building along the water — that puts more pressure on the city to compensate with stronger sustainability initiatives.

“The natural thing to do with most of our waterfront would be to open it up to the public,” said Jon Golinger, who is leading this year’s referendum campaign to overturn the approval of 8 Washington. “But if the lens you’re looking through is just the balance sheet and quarterly profits, the most valuable land maybe in the world is San Francisco’s waterfront.”

He and others — including SF Waterfront Alliance, a new group formed to oppose the Warriors Arena — say the city is long overdue in updating its development plan for the waterfront, as Prop. H in 1990 called for every five years. They criticize the city and Port for letting developers push projects without a larger vision.

“We are extremely concerned with what’s happening on our shorelines,” said Michelle Myers, director of the Sierra Club’s Bay Chapter, arguing that the city should be embracing waterfront open space that can handle storm surge instead of hardening the waterfront with new developments. “Why aren’t we thinking about those kinds of projects on our shoreline?”

David Lewis, director of Save the Bay, told us cities need to think less about the value of waterfront real estate and do what it can to facilitate the rising bay. “There are waterfront projects that are not appropriate,” Lewis said. Projects he puts in that category range from a scuttled proposal to build around 10,000 homes on the Cargill Salt Flats in Redwood City to the Warriors Arena on Piers 30-32.

“We told the mayor before it was even announced that it is not a legal use of the pier,” Lewis said, arguing it violated state law preserving the waterfront for maritime and public uses. “There’s no reason that an arena has to be out on the water on a crumbling pier.”

But Brad Benson and Diana Oshima, who work on waterfront planning issue for the Port of San Francisco, say that most of San Francisco’s shoreline was hardened almost a century ago, and that most of the planning for how to use it has already been done.

“You have a few seawall lots and a few piers that could be development sites, but not many. Do we need a whole plan for that?” Benson said, while Oshima praises the proactive transportation planning work now underway: “There has never been this level of land use and transportation planning at such an early stage.”

The Bay Conservation and Development Commission was founded almost 50 years ago to regulate development in and around the Bay, when the concern was mostly about the bay shrinking as San Francisco and other cities dumped fill along the shoreline to build San Francisco International Airport, much of the Financial District, and other expansive real estate plans.

Now, the mission of the agency has flipped.

“Instead of the bay getting smaller, the bay is getting larger with this thing called sea level rise,” BCDC Executive Director Larry Goldspan said as we took in the commanding view of the water from his office at 50 California Street.

A few years ago, as the climate change predictions kept worsening, the mission of BCDC began to focus on that new reality. “How do we create a resilient shoreline and protect assets?” was how Goldspan put it, noting that few simply accept the inundation that BCDC’s sea level rise maps predict. “Nobody is talking about retreating from SFO, or Oakland Airport, or BART.”

That means Bay Area cities will have to accept softening parts of the shoreline — allowing for more tidal marshes and open space that can accept flooding in order to harden, or protect, other critical areas. The rising water has to go somewhere.

“Is there a way to use natural infrastructure to soften the effect of sea level rises?” Goldspan asked. “I don’t know that there are, but you have to use every tool in the smartest way to deal with this challenge.”

And San Francisco seems to be holding firm on increased development — in an area that isn’t adequately protected. “The seawall is part of the historic district that the Port established, but now we’re learning the seawall is too short,” Goldspan said.

BCDC requires San Francisco to remove a pier or other old landfill every time it reinforces or rebuilds a pier, on a one-to-one basis. So Oshima said the district is now studying what it can remove to make up for the work that was done to shore up Piers 23-27, which will become a new cruise ship terminal once the America’s Cup finishes using it a staging ground this summer.

Yet essentially giving up valuable waterfront real estate isn’t easy for any city, and cities have both autonomy and a motivation to thrive under existing economic realities. “California has a history of local control. Cities are strong,” Goldspan said, noting that sustainability may require sacrifice. “It will be a policy discussion at the city level. It’s a new discussion, and we’re just in the early stages.”



Global capitalism either grows or dies. Some modern economists argue otherwise — that a sustainable future with a mature, stable economy is possible. But that takes a huge leap of faith — and it may be the only way to avoid catastrophic climate change.

“In the world we grew up in, our most ingrained economic and political habit was growth; it’s the reflex we’re going to have to temper, and it’s going to be tough.” Bill McKibben writes in Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. “Across partisan lines, for the two hundred years since Adam Smith, we’ve assumed that more is better, and that the answer to any problem is another burst of expansion.”

In a telephone interview with the Guardian, McKibben discussed the role that San Francisco could and should be playing as part of that awakening.

“No one knows exactly what economy the world is moving toward, but we can sense some of its dimensions: more localized, less material-based, more innovative; these are things that San Francisco is good at,” he told us, noting the shift in priorities that entails. “We need to do conservation, but it’s true that we also need to build more renewable power capacity.”

Right now, CleanPowerSF is the only mechanism the city has for doing renewable energy projects, and it’s under attack on several fronts before it even launches. Most of the arguments against it are economic — after all, renewable power costs more than coal — and McKibben concedes that cities are often constrained by economic realities.

Some city officials argue that it’s more sustainable for San Francisco to grow and develop than suburban areas — thus negating some criticism that too much economic development is bad for the environment — and Radulovich concedes there’s a certain truth to that argument.

“But is it as green as it ought to be? Is it green enough to be sustainable and avert the disaster? And the answer is no,” Radulovich said.

For example, he questioned, “Why are we building 600,000 square feet of automobile-oriented big box development on Hunters Point?” Similarly, if San Francisco were really taking rising seas seriously, should the city be pouring billions of dollars into housing on disappearing Treasure Island?

“I think it’s a really interesting macro-question,” Jennifer Matz, who runs the Mayors Office of Economic Development, said when we asked whether the aggressive promotion of economic development and growth can ever be sustainable, or whether slowing that rate needs to be part of the solution. “I don’t know that’s feasible. Dynamic cities will want to continue to grow.”

Yet that means accepting the altered climate of new world, including greatly reduced fresh water supplies for Northern California, which is part of the current discussions.

“A lot of the focus on climate change has moved to adaptation, but even that is something we aren’t really addressing,” Radulovich said.

Nutter agreed that adapting to the changing world is conversation that is important: “All of the development and planning we’re doing today needs to incorporate these adaptation strategies, which we’re just initiating.”

But environmentalists and a growing number of political officials say that San Francisco and other big cities are going to need to conceive of growth in new ways if they want to move toward sustainability. “The previous ethos was progress at any cost — develop, develop, develop,” Myers said, with the role of environmentalists being to mitigate damage to the surrounding ecosystem. But now, the economic system itself is causing irreversible damage on a global level. “At this point, it’s about more than conservation and protecting habitat. It’s about self-preservation.”