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Sustainability Plan / Introduction

 Sustainability is a word you have to spell to people over the phone. How can there be a community plan based on a word that is not in common use? While the word itself has not yet come into the vernacular, the idea it represents encompasses an urgent need, recognized by a growing number of people around the globe, to provide for a positive common future. This sustainability plan has come into being because many people in San Francisco are convinced that there is both a self-interested and an ethical obligation to live in a way that considers the rights to livelihood of future generations and of the other living beings on this planet.

Sustainability: A Definition

For simplicity, this planning process has used the UN’s definition of sustainability:

A sustainable society meets the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Certainly, there’s a good deal to be inferred here, particularly when it comes to social equity within human society and the rights of the earth’s non-human beings. Nonetheless, it was felt that there would be a pretty good consensus among San Franciscans about the direction in which it is important to move without getting hung up on the definition’s details. The community process that developed this plan was focused on producing a plan for action, not debating the fine points of the definition.

Sustainability: An Explanation

Ignoring for the moment the ethics of the issue, there are some hard facts underlying the ability of civilization to perpetuate itself indefinitely into the future. For life as we know it to survive here:

  1. The physical resources and systems that support life must be maintained:

    • They can’t be used up so that there is nothing left; and

    • They can’t be made unusable through degradation.

  2. The health of plant and animal populations, whether they are considered as the human food chain or as a highly complex system that interacts with physical life-support systems (such as the atmosphere) in ways that aren’t well understood, must be insured.

  3. A social structure must be created that will be capable of achieving the preceding two requirements. This means equitable distribution of resources; high quality of life in cities (which, by their density, are conducive to reduced environmental impact); education and affluence that lead to population control; social justice to eliminate the disruptive social upheaval that results from its lack; public education that gives people the tools to improve their interaction with the natural world, and a myriad other social considerations. Social systems without these attributes are unstable and cannot maintain a proper balance with the natural world.

Human Activity in the Closed System of Planet Earth

The natural systems of the planet have their own rules. Previous to human development, the biosphere evolved in such a way that all its parts were in balance, with waste products of one creature used as building blocks of another.

All human activity interacts with the natural systems of the planet. These activities may not have a negative effect on nature if the quantities of pollutants generated do not exceed the quantities that can be absorbed by natural systems. Habitat modification can be accommodated by animals and plants if it is slow and slight, allowing them to adjust or move elsewhere.

However, the volume of chemicals introduced into the environment today far exceeds the assimilation capabilities of natural systems. This has caused global warming, acidification of forests, and chronic human-health problems, among many other ills.

The reduction of numbers of non-human creatures and destruction of their habitats has exceeded the levels their populations can accommodate. This has resulted in Canada’s eastern seaboard fisheries closing, massive extinctions of species, and the reduction of genetic diversity in many surviving species.

If human activities even slightly exceed the levels acceptable to natural systems, those systems will degrade, sometimes slowly, sometimes -- once a critical point has been reached -- catastrophically. For almost all systems, the level of disruption that triggers catastrophic decline is unknown.

The obvious, inescapable result of many of our current life practices is the degradation of the systems that support them, even if the effects aren’t immediately apparent.

Integrating Environmental, Economic and Social Concerns

A balanced and sustainable social system is not possible without addressing the economic and community-development needs of the City’s residents. Wealth in the economy will enable the City to make the long-term capital investments necessary to create and maintain an environmentally sensitive and esthetically pleasing place to live. An equitable distribution of the community’s wealth will enable all residents to participate in civic life and will maximize the City’s human resource potential. Sustained economic growth and expansion of markets for the City’s goods and services can be achieved in ways that are environmentally benign and socially just.

Society cannot be stable unless the basic human needs of all its members are met. Increased local self-reliance and equity, educational opportunity, and a guarantee of participation and accountability in civic discourse create a strong population of people who have the leisure to plan for their own and society’s best interests in the long run, rather than being forced to continually focus on the most short-term human needs. Social and cultural diversity, attention to environmental justice, and an understanding of the integral connections between humans and the natural world, will create a vibrant community base on which to build a successful long-term culture. Children and youth, representing the “future generations” that form part of the core of sustainability’s definition, obviously must be better nurtured and prepared to be full participants in a future society where appropriate technology and civic participation play a central role.

Steps Toward a Solution

This is all very theoretical, and it is often easy to be overwhelmed by the size of the problem. However, there is a clear connection between today’s everyday activities and the quality of life that will be possible for future generations. To construct a sustainable society, one that can provide for the physical and other needs of local residents while reversing the trends of increased pollution and environmental degradation now threatening the quality of urban life and the health of the earth’s other life forms, it is necessary to start changing the conventions of society. Sustainability can be divided into manageable sections, specific strategies can be proposed, and action can begin.

It is important to emphasize that the sustainability plan should be a means, not an end. The plan is only a tool for future action. However, to proceed in a sensible way to change long-standing environmental practices, it’s necessary to come up with some goals, actions, and objectives to be achieved. To begin to fulfill our responsibility to our own futures and that of our children is the aim of this sustainability plan.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Lao Tsu


However, you must keep moving in approximately the same direction.

Common Sense

The Plan’s Sponsors

The sustainability plan, now a City document, was drafted by a community collaboration in which City staff contributed on equal footing with members of other sectors of the community.

In 1993, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors established a Commission on San Francisco’s Environment, charged among other things with drafting and implementing a plan for San Francisco’s long-term environmental sustainability. Knowing they could not produce a plan that would actually be implemented without working with a broad cross-section of the community, several commissioners and others in the community formed Sustainable San Francisco: a collaboration of city agencies, including The City Planning Department, the Bureau of Energy Conservation, the Recreation and Park Department, and the Solid Waste Management Program; businesses; environmental organizations; elected officials; and concerned individuals, to develop a plan for the city’s future.

Nearly 400 people, from every walk of life, have volunteered their time to produce this plan. Sustainable San Francisco structured the drafting process so that people with expertise on the issues covered in the plan could produce a draft in a fairly short time-frame.

This has been an enormous undertaking, with thousands of hours of time committed to discussions, drafts, revisions, and meeting management. The hope was to produce a draft that was comprehensive enough to make a very solid foundation upon which a wider public could make suggestions for improvement. With this broad base of support, the finalized plan has the best chance of being effective.

Structure of the Plan

Volunteers spent the early part of 1995 researching sustainability plans from around the world and created a format with the best chance of producing a plan that would really be implemented. This plan uses a “general goals / specific objectives / actions” approach modeled on the European Community’s Agenda 21 Implementation Plan (for the United Kingdom) (Agenda 21 is the United Nations action strategy for sustainable development). A supplemental section of indicators, which give a measurable sense of whether the city is moving in the right direction, is based on work done by Sustainable Seattle.

For each topic, the plan sets out:

  1. Broad, long-term social goals, meant to be very general, that speak to the basic human and ecosystem needs that are to be addressed.

  2. Long-term objectives to achieve a sustainable society, describing the state of the City when it reaches sustainability.

  3. Objectives for the year 2002, describing the proposed state of the City within five years. These objectives are quantified and meant to be feasible within a five-year time-frame. They include objectives for businesses and individual residents as well as for city programs.

  4. Specific actions to be taken to achieve the objectives. They also include actions for all sectors: government, business, the non-profit community and individuals. Some are suggested for specific entities; most are not. These proposed actions are just that -- proposals. The City of San Francisco has endorsed the goals and objectives of the plan, and will consider the specific actions in the future as more fleshed-out proposals on which the public have had further opportunity to comment are brought before the Board or the various City Commissions.

A separate section lists indicators for all topic areas. The indicators were designed to be numerical measurements that:

  • Are obvious in what is being measured,

  • Can be found at low cost given the current information-gathering machinery,

  • Clearly indicate a trend toward or away from sustainability,

  • Are understandable to everyone and easily presented in the media.

Topics Addressed in the Plan

  • Section I - Specific Environmental Topics

    • Air Quality
    • Biodiversity
    • Energy, Climate Change, and Ozone Depletion
    • Food and Agriculture
    • Hazardous Materials
    • Human Health
    • Parks, Open Spaces and Streetscapes
    • Solid Waste
    • Transportation
    • Water and Wastewater

  • Section II - Topics that Span Many Issues

    • Economy and Economic Development
    • Environmental Justice
    • Municipal Expenditures
    • Public Information and Education
    • Risk Management (Activities of High Environmental Risk)

Clearly, several topics are overlapping. While, for instance, nearly every environmental topic section addresses public education, environmental justice, and the other topics from Section II, special groups were formed to focus exclusively on these topics, in order to ensure that they were addressed in depth.

Topics not Addressed in the Plan

Sustainability planning includes equal parts environmental, economic and community planning. The primary focus of this version of San Francisco’s sustainability plan is the environmental component, with a section on sustainable economic development, and one on the social issue of environmental justice. Over the coming months, the mayor’s office will work to broaden the economic and community aspects of the plan.

Even with a focus primarily on the environmental component, some limits had to be set to address an issue as broad as environmental sustainability. This plan addresses primarily the physical systems of the planet that often get short shrift from planners, and the social systems that have a direct impact on them.

Land-use is a vital issue that does not have a separate section; there are land-use implications to almost every section’s proposed actions. It is addressed to the greatest extent in the Transportation, Economy and Economic Development, Food and Agriculture, and Parks sections.

Differing Structures in Different Sections

Anyone reading this plan straight through will notice that different sections have slightly different numbering systems and different ways of addressing their topic. The numbering systems follow the approach that each drafting group took to its proposals, and could not be made uniform without violating the logical structures put forward. The numbering differences reflect the community collaboration nature of the planning process, and is irrelevant to the content of the sections.

What’s the Baseline?

In 1994, the Commission on San Francisco’s Environment published a baseline study of San Francisco’s current environmental situation, the Environmental State of the City Report. (As of this writing, it is out of print.) It provides a baseline for many of the issues covered in the plan. However, some of the topics listed above were not covered in the State of the City report. This sustainability planning effort has been evolving over time, and the topic list has expanded since the report was done. More research will be needed.

Baseline data for the indicators section has yet to be compiled.

The Plan Drafters

In order to produce a draft reasonably quickly, people were recruited for the various topics who already knew a lot about the issues. Volunteers came primarily from the environmental advocacy communities, city agencies, businesses, and the academic community. Members of the general public who contacted Sustainable San Francisco in time to attend all the meetings also participated. Everyone volunteered their time.

Although there was remarkable unanimity among the plan drafters about the basic attributes of a sustainable society, as would be expected in any exercise of this size and scope, participants didn’t always agree on the best strategy for achieving it. Some feel strongly that the plan does not go far enough and contains too many compromises; others feel that it has gone too far and is unrealistic. That it is incomplete is beyond doubt. The plan would be incomplete at twice its length, and aspects of it will loose their timeliness as circumstances change every day after its publication. Nonetheless, while not aspiring to be a perfect treatise, the document can provide the rough game-plan that is necessary for a concerted effort to achieve a sustainable society, an effort that has been orchestrated by as broad a cross-section of the community as has been gathered in many years for a common purpose.

The only goal of producing this plan is to begin implementing it.

As large as the drafting group is, it represents only a tiny fraction of the public in San Francisco who must make the plan part of their personal agendas for it to succeed. This draft represents an invitation to all San Franciscans to think about a common future, and an opportunity to make a choice of the routes to that end.

Public Comment

Public comments were solicited in four day-long public hearings in June, 1996, and were accepted in writing throughout the summer. Comments were distributed to all participants in the drafting groups, who finalized this draft in September of 1996. Further opportunities for public comment occurred during consideration of this plan by the advisory Commission on San Francisco’s Environment (October, 1996), the new charter Commission on the Environment (November, 1996) and by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (July, 1997).

Endorsement of the Plan

The Sustainability Plan became policy of the City and County of San Francisco in July, 1997.

City Planning Department staff are currently working a several-year strategy to update and revise the City’s General Plan. Work will continue to appropriately combine the two documents.

Implementing the Plan

The plan is meant to be a blueprint, but because of its comprehensive nature, implementation of the various actions within it will take a good deal of (choose one or more) formal environmental review, advocacy before the commissions responsible for implementation of that area, legislation, regulation, finding new money, securing public support, and so forth.

A new Department of the Environmental, the first in San Francisco’s history, was formed over the winter of 1996-7. One of the main responsibilities of this new agency will be to begin implementing the sustainability plan. This central focus within the structure of the city itself will go a long way toward ensuring that the plan is more than a community writing exercise.

The fact that a new agency has been created, however, should not minimize the importance of the work of the City’s older environmental agencies, many of which participated in the drafting process. They are already implementing some of the actions proposed here, and plans for more are in the works. Several of the City’s agencies are on the cutting edge of environmental program leadership, and it is hoped that the focus on sustainability issues provided by this plan will help secure them the resources and support they need to move forward even more aggressively on an agenda for San Francisco’s future, and will make them role models for agencies that have been slower to share this common vision.

A number of the plan’s actions are suggested for the private sector and individuals. Implementation of these actions will be essential for a fundamental change in the way San Francisco interacts with the natural world, and the various advocacy groups, city agencies, and activist individuals involved in drafting the plan will work with the environmental department to ensure that these changes move forward.

Many of the actions suggested in this plan will go nowhere without new sources of funding. It is up to the creativity of our City leadership, including business and the non-profit community, to find this funding through new money and more efficient use of current resources.

Changes of law and regulation must be addressed one at a time, and will take more concerted drafting and public discussion than has been possible in this preliminary drafting process. They will take time and persistence.

This plan is a first step in the long process of changing attitudes that separate humans from the rest of the natural world and ignore the long-term results of human behavior. It is a process of developing the wealth of the community, and strengthening the health and capacities of all the City’s residents. Through vision, persistence, and a plan of action, San Franciscans will be able to create a healthy society that respects the needs of all its members, and the needs of the natural systems of which they are a part.

Beryl Magilavy
Department of the Environment


Acknowledgments for an effort as large as this one are by necessity woefully incomplete. We greatly appreciate the support and participation of everyone who donated their time to this effort.

This effort has been made possible by the financial support of the City and County of San Francisco, Bureau of Energy Conservation, Columbia Foundation, The Fred Gellert Foundation, San Francisco Foundation, and True North Foundation.

Sustainable San Francisco’s Web page was created and maintained as donations by Nick McBurney and Z Smith.

A special thank-you to Felicia Marcus, regional administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Region IX, for encouraging so many of her staff to participate in this process.

We cannot begin to thank all the individuals and institutions who have donated time and expertise to this community effort. However, we would like to specifically mention our steering-committee members (who planned out this effort), coordinators (who recruited the drafting-group participants, kept the meetings together, and often did most of the group’s drafting), facilitators (who were responsible for the meetings running smoothly and for work product being produced), and recorders (who took notes at the meetings and some of whom did most of the group’s drafting):

Jim Aldrich
Ann Bartz
Brad Benson
Barbara Bernardini
Carter Brooks
Calvin Broomhead
Graham Charles
Jean Circiello
Theresa Cole
Tom Cooper
Danielle Dowers
Scott Edmondson
Frank Filice
Kevin Fox
Lisa Gallina
Janis Gomes
Jennifer Greenfeld
Douglas Hall
Janet Jacobs
Maggie Johnson
Warren Karlenzig
Paula Kehoe
Kevin Kelley
Carla Kincaid-Yoshikawa
Bill Kissinger
Natalie Kraft
Vivian Leanio
Kivi Leroux
Lori Lewis
Anne Marie Malley
Caroline McNeely
Janet Michaelson
Diane Mintz
Ross Mirkarimi
Page Nelson
Carol Northrup
Paul Okamoto
Matt Orr
Laura Pappas
Barbara Perman
Maria Rea
Arnold Robbins
Jonathan Rubens
Samantha Schoenfeld
Bob Silver
Daniel StandFree
Howard Strassner
Shelley Stump
Becky Tuden
Becky Tudisco
Holly Van Houten
Jim Vreeland
Isabel Wade
Hannah Ware
Tes Welborn
Liane Yee
Katie Zitterbart

Organizational Participants in the City Circles drafting the Sustainability Plan

(The City Circles also Included Many Individual San Francisco Residents)

Access Benefits

Acurex Environmental

Advocates for Parks

Algalita Marine Research Foundation

American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine

American Institute of Architects

American Lung Association

American Red Cross

Applied Development Economics

Architects, Designers & Planners for Social Responsibility

Asian Pacific Environmental Network

Bank of America

Bank of California

Barnes Clarke

Bay Area Air Quality Management District

Bay Area Defense Conservation Action Team

Bay Conservation & Development Commission

Bay Keeper

Blue Cross of California

Blue Pearl Press

Brown Enterprises

Brown, Vence & Associates

Building Owners and Managers Association- San Francisco

CAL-OSHA Consultation

California Native Plant Society

California Academy of Science

California Energy Markets

California Food Policy Advocates

California Public Utilities Commission

California State Automobile Association

Center for Marine Conservation

Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture

Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice

Chamber of Commerce

Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.

Chinatown Public Health Center, Health Center 4

Chinese Progressive Association

City College

City Electric

City of San Francisco Agriculture, Weights and Measurements Department

City of San Francisco Board of Supervisors

City of San Francisco City Attorney’s Office

City of San Francisco City Planning Department

City of San Francisco Commission on San Francisco’s Environment

City of San Francisco Controller’s Office

City of San Francisco Department of Building Inspection

City of San Francisco Department of Parking & Traffic

City of San Francisco Department of Public Health

City of San Francisco Department of Public Health, AIDS Office

City of San Francisco Department of Public Health, EMF (Electro-magnetic field) Program

City of San Francisco Department of Public Health, Bureau of Environmental Health Management

City of San Francisco Department of Public Health, Hazardous Waste Program

City of San Francisco Department of Public Health, Tobacco Free Project

City of San Francisco Department of Public Health, Water Quality Control Program

City of San Francisco Department of Public Works

City of San Francisco Department of Public Works, Bureau of Architecture

City of San Francisco Department of Public Works, Bureau of Construction Management

City of San Francisco Department of Public Works, Bureau of Engineering

City of San Francisco Department of Public Works, Bureau of Environmental Regulation and Management

City of San Francisco Department of Public Works, Bureau of Street Environmental Services

City of San Francisco Department of Public Works, Sewer Odor Hotline

City of San Francisco Department of Public Works, Water Pollution Control

City of San Francisco Department of Social Services

City of San Francisco District Attorney’s Office

(City of) San Francisco General Hospital

City of San Francisco Hetch Hetchy Water & Power

City of San Francisco Hetch Hetchy Water & Power, Bureau of Energy Conservation

City of San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Community Development

City of San Francisco Municipal Railway

City of San Francisco Office of the Chief Administrative Officer

City of San Francisco Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, City Employees Commute Assistance Program

(City of) San Francisco Public Library, Wallace Stegner Environmental Center

City of San Francisco Purchasing Department

City of San Francisco Redevelopment Agency

City of San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department

City of San Francisco Solid Waste Management Program

City of San Francisco Solid Waste Management Program, Recycling Program

City of San Francisco Solid Waste Management Program, Hazardous Waste Management Program

(City of) San Francisco Unified School District

(City of) San Francisco Water Department

Clean City Coalition

Coalition for Better Wastewater Solutions

Coalition for Urban Concerns

Cole Hardware

Communities for a Better Environment

Community and Environment

Community Environmental Relations

Compass Management & Leasing

Consumer Action’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Project

Eco-Development Associates

Embarcadero Farmer’s Market

Energy Investment, Inc.

Engineers Local 39

Environmental Building Inspections

Environmental Health Network

Environmental Law Community Law Clinic

EQE International


Eyebright Interactive

Failure Analysis, Inc.

Franklin Environmental Products

Fresh Start Farms

Friends of Islais Creek

Friends of McLaren Park

Friends of Recreation & Parks

Friends of the New de Young

Friends of the Urban Forest

Garden Project

Global Action Plan

Golden Gate Audubon Society

Golden Gate Law School Legal Clinic

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Golden Gate University


Gottfried Technologies, Inc.


Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council Recycling Center

Hastings Environmental Law Journal

Health Access

Hines Corporation

HKIT Architects

HMR Recycling

Indigo Development

Indoor Air Quality Inspections

Institute for Conservation & Health

Institute for Health and Healing: California Pacific Medical Center

Institute for Sustainable Policy Studies

Integrated Waste Management Consulting

Interaction Associates

Interior Concerns

International Society of Culture and Ecology

Kaiser Foundation Health Plan

Kaiser Permanente


Ladson Associates

Land Bank, Inc.

Landmark Exchange Management

League of Conservation Voters

League of Women Voters

Living Library

Materials for Acquisition and Gifts in Kind (M.A.G.I.K.)

Materials for the Future Foundation


Marathon US Realties, Inc./Building Owner’s and Managers’ Association

Marin Advocates for Transit

Marin Farmers Market

Market Street Development Association

Metro Maintenance

Metropolitan Transportation Commission

Mission Neighborhood Health Center

National Electrical Contractors Association

Natural Resources Defense Council

Norcal Waste Systems

O’Rorke Public Relations and Advertising

Office of Senator Marks

Okamoto Saijo Architecture

Pacific Gas & Electric Company

Parkside Elementary School

Peninou French Laundry & Cleaners

Peninsula Electric Vehicle Association

People Organized to Demand Environmental Rights

Planet Drum Foundation

Port of San Francisco, Environment and Safety Section

Presidio Pacific Center

Redefining Progress

RIDES/Bay Area Commuters

San Francisco Apartment Association

San Francisco Automotive Service Council

San Francisco Bicycle Coalition

San Francisco Community Recyclers

San Francisco Conservation Corps

San Francisco County Transportation Authority

San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners

San Francisco League of Conservation Voters

San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR)

San Francisco Public Market Collaborative

San Francisco State University, Department of Epidemiology

San Francisco Tomorrow

Sanitary Fill Company

Save Energy Company

Scoma’s Restaurant

Sierra Club

Simon, Martin-Vegue, Winkelstein, Moris Architects

Snappy Lube

South Bayshore Development Corporation

South of Market Employment Center

South of Market Neighborhood Emergency Response Team

Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice

Students for Environmental Action

Sunset Scavenger Company

Sustainable City

Technosis Consulting

The Gap, Inc.

Ti Couz Restaurant


Trust for Public Land/Inner Sunset Parks Group

UC Berkeley

University of California at San Francisco, Office of Environmental Health and Safety

University of San Francisco, Department of Environmental Science

Urban Ecology

Urban Resource Systems

US Coast Guard, Marine Safety Office

US Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service

US Environmental Protection Agency - Region IX

Warner Insulation

Waste Resource Technologies

West Bay Filipino Multi-Services

West Bay Resources

Weyerhauser Paper Company