Dear San Francisco: 5 Ways You Can Go Green

golden gate bridge

Mayor, mayor, on the wall: Who is the greenest of them all?

My neighboring hometown across the Bay, San Francisco, makes all the greenest cities lists, with its mayor, Gavin Newsom, regularly billed as “America’s Greenest Mayor.” But behind the glossy Priuses, how green is SF?

Google “country’s greenest mayor” and you get some interesting results. Rocky Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City, comes up first. Greg Nickels, former mayor of Seattle, also gets some hits. Then there’s Chicago’s Richard Daly, New York’s Bloomberg, Shirley Franklin of Atlanta, and Bill White of Houston, along with Gavin and others mentioned in this article. L.A.’s chief executive, Villaraigosa, just loses out to Newsom in this article about the two mayors’ dueling plans to cut greenhouse gases.

San Francisco definitely stacks up among the greenest of the green and deservedly so, but is San Francisco all about the shiny green PR-driven gestures, neglecting the concrete hard daily work that nobody notices? Let’s find out.

What San Francisco Does Right

1. Curbside recycling and composting

San Francisco was one of the first (if not the first) large cities to institute curbside composting and recycling. As of late last year, San Francisco made composting mandatory for houses, apartment buildings, businesses and restaurants.

2. Plastic Bag Ban

San Francisco was the first American city to ban plastic bags.

3. Green Building

San Francisco has some of the strictest green building codes in the nation.

Mayor Newsom clearly enjoys being the first to do anything, but what about the everyday, not-so-flashy actions he could take to green the city and set an example for its citizens?

If I were mayor for a year, here are five things I’d do.

1. Spread the composting bug to the airport.


If they can do it in El Salvador, they can certainly do it in San Francisco. The above picture is one I took  about a year ago in El Salvador, yet on that same trip, in the San Francisco International Airport, I couldn’t find a place to recycle my water bottle (I  know, I know) or compost my apple core. A green airport is a great way to show the world that San Francisco walks its talk.

2. Leave the SUV in the garage and ride that bike once in awhile.

Ok, so the mayor’s ride is a hybrid, but a $58,000 SUV paid for with tax dollars and driven to Montana by a staffer while the mayor took a private jet? Come on. When he was mayor, Rocky Anderson’s personal car was a compressed natural gas Honda. The plan to revitalize Market Street and make it more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly is a good one but is only happening now after years of lobbying by bicycle and pedestrian groups. The Mayor could lead on this.

3. Want to leave the SUV in the garage and rub shoulders with a few strangers on Muni? Get ready for a mess.

Fare hikes, service cuts and allegations of misplaced public funds have riders fuming. The mayor should see what it feels like to be packed onto the N Judah at rush hour. Or have his local bus line cut out completely.

4. Support Clean Public Power.

One of the city’s oldest and most heavily polluting power plants, The Potrero Power Plant needs to be shut down. It is scheduled for closure, but unfortunately, the city wants to replace it with another polluting fossil fuel burning plant. Also, the fight for public power is heating up again in San Francisco. Advocates say public power would open the way for more green technologies. The mayor doesn’t necessarily agree and PG&E is shelling out gigantic, steaming piles of money to put a measure on ballot seeking to require 2/3 majority to pass public power.

5. Speaking of gigantic, steaming piles, stop selling toxic sludge – we know it’s not good for us. That high-quality, nutrient rich “compost” you’re giving away to gardeners? No thanks. It’s just the toxic sludge industry’s way of gaining public acceptance.

How does your city stack up? Is it all bells and whistles, or is it like Portland, with a unified green front at all levels?

Images: Dave Minogue, Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.