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San Francisco’s green step forward

Kevin Telfer
7 April 2009

Wade Crowfoot, San Francisco’s director of climate protection initiatives, is at the front line of the Californian city’s not-so-quiet climate revolution. We talked to him at the ParkCity green infrastructure conference in London in March 2009.

Wade Crowfoot
Photo by A&M Photography

Wade Crowfoot is like a runaway train or, to use his own analogy, a wind-up toy. Ask him a question and off he goes, full of energy, firing off statistics and ideas, targets and solutions.

Crowfoot has been the director of climate protection initiatives in San Francisco for 15 months. He’s young – 35 years old – but even his boss, Mayor Gavin Newsom is only 41 years old. They are part of a new generation of politics in America (the mayor has 35,000 Facebook friends), and the new presidency has given them confidence that they’re starting to swim with the tide.

‘Here’s an amazing statistic,’ says Crowfoot. ‘There will be more federal government spending on energy efficiency and renewable energy in the next 12 months than in the last eight years put together.’

The San Francisco administration is attempting to transform the way the city responds to the environment. At the outset they faced the problems of increasing sprawl and low-density housing, an extremely car-centric culture, limited public transport network and a business community that saw environmentalism as an impediment to profit margins.

They also had to mobilise what Crowfoot calls a ‘glacial’ city bureaucracy. Crowfoot believes that making ‘five degree incremental moves’ is no longer enough. ‘We need big ideas that solve multiple problems at once.’ The challenge, not just according to him but for many of the other speakers at the conference, is of the most serious kind. ‘What will save our city?’

His job is to reduce San Francisco’s contribution to climate change and simultaneously to reduce its exposure to problems like higher temperatures and heavier rainfall. ‘If every government and city in the world could snap their fingers and decrease the amount of CO2 emissions by 80 per cent tomorrow, we would still likely see universal impact from climate change’ Crowfoot says. ‘Every year we make generational decisions about our infrastructure; we need to start making the right ones now.’

Green issues have been a priority in San Francisco for longer than many other US cities: its first sustainability plan was published in 1992. But it is in the last 15 months that the city has achieved some astonishing results in different areas, including energy, waste, transport and civic space.

Seventy per cent of waste has been diverted from landfill for reuse, recycling or composting, through what Crowfoot calls ‘community outreach’ backed by some legislative coercion. He envies London its bus network, but San Francisco at least now has its entire municipal bus network running on either electricity or biofuel which has been created by recycling waste kitchen oil – a government scheme which collects waste oil from restaurants for free. A good example of a big idea solving multiple problems – it also saves on the cost of cleaning coagulated waste oil from the sewage system.

It is interesting, however, that even in enlightened San Francisco, the green agenda is pushed in terms of monthly bills rather than polar bears. ‘We engage through the benefits from climate action, such as making streets safer for children through slowing down cars.’ Crowfoot’s department has developed tax rebates and subsidies to help homeowners invest in solar energy. Work is underway on a web-based tool linked to Google Earth, which measures your roof area to calculate the potential savings from switching to solar.

‘We’re now focused on how to utilise the economy for environmental protection and achieve environmental protection while growing the economy’ says Crowfoot. An example is the new Treasure Island development in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Originally built for the 1939 World's Fair, the site is being developed with a combination of high-density sustainable housing with an organic farm, a wind farm, parkland and tidal marshes. It’s designed to be as car-free as possible, with the ferry terminal on the island providing a quick and direct link into the city for commuters.

Our ambition is not just to help save the city but to make it a more beautiful place to live. The administration has planted 25,000 street trees in the last six years, and it wants everyone in San Francisco to live within a ten minute walk of a safe green space.

Their ambition is not just to help save the city but to make it a more beautiful place to live. The administration has planted 25,000 street trees in the last six years, and it wants everyone in San Francisco to live within a ten minute walk from a safe green space. That’s people from all neighbourhoods, not just the affluent ones, and there has been more investment in street trees for underprivileged areas in the city which are traditionally less green. But they have found unforeseen benefits in providing more green space, such as less antisocial behaviour.

This green infrastructure policy is not just about inventing new green spaces but connecting the people to its existing natural assets, such as San Francisco Bay and surrounding national parks. The bay used to be cut off from the city by a freeway, but the plan now is to turn this into a cycle path that will link into the wider cycle network. This network is being developed to make cycling round the city more appealing. At the moment, Crowfoot admits, ‘if you’re a 25 year-old-man with a streak for adventure you might but if you’re a 75-year-old man or woman you might not – because you don’t feel safe.’

The city is also protecting and improving the natural biodiversity of San Francisco with its urban nature programme. This is helping to protect threatened species such as snowy plovers and bank swallows as well as the more famous inhabitants, like the seals of Fisherman’s Wharf.

‘You had people coming west in the gold rush 150 years ago, you had the hippies coming west 40 years ago. Computers and the internet were conceived in the bay area, so it’s a great place for innovation - and making best use of green space and green assets is central to that.’

New thinking on green infrastructure

In March 2009, CABE and Natural England brought together an international audience of professionals - most of whose interests lie outside the established green sector – to discuss the latest thinking and share solutions, at the ParkCity green infrastructure conference.

Read our other interviews with:

Edward T McMahon – the founding father of the concept of green infrastructure is a leading conservationist, environmental lawyer and an inspirational public speaker

Klaus Bondam – Copenhagen’s mayor of environmental administration is leading that city’s drive to become provide the world’s best urban environment by 2015