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Sustainable San Francisco

By Dr. Ana Puszkin-Chevlin


San Francisco’s public image has been battered in the past year. Headlines describing encampments of unhoused people and rising petty crime, along with the planned closing of Nordstrom’s Union Square flagship store, could lead to conclusions that the city is in a spiraling decline. But having spent two weeks walking its neighborhoods, talking to dogwalkers, waiters, university students, and professionals I disagree, and further emphasize that from a sustainability perspective, it is a positive role model. Here’s why.


Density and Transit – Locals repeatedly noted that San Francisco is “only 7 miles long and 7 miles wide”, so almost every neighborhood is accessible via public transportation and a short walk. Density makes cities walkable and concentrates population, allowing for robust public transit, which are both strong assets in terms of sustainability. My daughter and I walked miles each day as we searched for an apartment rental. Each listing advertised a walkability index score, allowing prospective renters to evaluate the ease of access to critical features like shopping, parks and green space, and transit. Moreover, the transit system is extensive, with multiple modalities including BART, MUNI (above and underground train lines) CalTran, and ferry boats.  Cable cars and early electrification of the trolley system have resulted in an impressive variety of emission-free transportation choices.  The fare system, which allows unlimited transfer within a two-hour window, encourages ridership. Many others dash around on electric scooters and bikes, which have buffered lanes on principal avenues or marked “shareroads”.


Garbage, Recycling, and Composting – San Francisco has implemented municipal composting, in addition to recycling. Residents separate organic waste, placed in green bins, from comingled paper, plastic, glass, and aluminum materials that are collected in blue containers and recycled.  The remaining ‘garbage’ is directed to grey containers labeled “LANDFILL” – clear messaging to avoid confusion and accidental contamination of recycled goods.  Fortunately, waste that ends up in the grey bins is minimized due to San Francisco’s strong culture of reuse, repurposing, and thrifting. Reusing and repurposing are the most environmentally responsible consumption solutions; and perhaps because of the city’s lingering 70s hippy-era culture, San Franciscans and tourists flock to its second-hand stores along Haight Street, and now Valencia Street in the Mission District.


Greenery & Open Space – Walking through the city streets I saw dozens of newly planted tree saplings along the sidewalks, regularly ‘watered’ by an ongoing parade of dogs. The city’s urban forestry initiative struggles to meet its objective of increasing the tree canopy by 155,000 trees by 2040 due to COVID and tree removal; this is despite a 2017 voter-approved StreetTreesSF measure to support the program.  Neighborhood green spaces are also in short supply. Although the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, and its ‘panhandle’, provide large recreational spaces for the city dwellers, Mission Dolores Park and Yerba Buena Park are packed with residents (and dogs) seeking outdoor recreation in the urban center.  The city closes streets in some neighborhoods on the weekends to provide additional space to walk and play, but it does not provide the respite of authentic greenspace.  Several people we spoke to acknowledged that outdoor space is at a premium, but note that due to the foggy summers, urban heat island effects are “not bad”.


San Francisco’s characteristics are largely due to comprehensive sustainability planning that began nearly two decades ago.  The city has had a climate action plan since 2013 as well as over a decade of policy and planning around transit, waste, energy efficiency and renewables, and urban forestry. Since 2008, city departments have addressed climate issues in planning processes, making San Francisco a national leader in climate action.  The city has set a goal to be run on 100% renewable energy by 2035 – and based on my ten days of cursory observations, they seem well on their way to achieving it.



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