This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.
The San Francisco Bay Area is unique in so many ways that its most common characteristic is probably diversity. Differences in natural characteristics range from Pacific tide pools to redwood forests, from flat, bird-filled marshes to the abrupt rise of Mount Diablo from where the Sierra Nevada Mountains can be seen more than a hundred miles across the Central Valley.
A diversity of people matches that of the bioregion. Inhabitants generally pride themselves on being tolerant, but the truth is that if they weren’t, they would probably be miserable. Italian Catholics go to school with Chinese Buddhists, surviving hippies rent apartments in the same buildings as prosperous yuppies, Latinos speak Spanish to Filipinos, and recently arrived Southeast Asians who don’t speak each other’s languages raise children together and build strong communities in formerly destitute downtown areas. Thousands of immigrants from foreign countries and just as many from the rest of the United States stream in constantly to find opportunities for both work and self-expression. Who can blame them? The Bay Area is one of the most naturally-endowed and enlightened life-places on the planet.
There are growing cracks in the surface of this benign picture however, and they can eventually grow to be more devastating than anything that could emanate from the San Andreas fault. Here’s the problem: No large urban area in North America is sustainable at present. How can the Bay Area expect to absorb the additional two-thirds of a million people that are predicted to arrive by the beginning of the twenty-first century without losing its livability?
Cities aren’t sustainable because they have become dependent on distant, rapidly shrinking sources for the basic essentials of food, water, energy and materials. At the same time they have severely damaged the health of local systems upon which any sensible notion of sustainability must ultimately depend. Watercourses have become dumps for everything from petrochemicals to sewage, nearby farmland is continually lost to housing developments, soil and watertables are poisoned by seepage wastes from garbage buried in landfills, fossil fuel emissions increasingly mar the purity of air, and the small refuges for wildlife and native vegetation that still remain are constantly reduced or threatened.
These problems are worsening at a faster rate in the San Francisco Bay Area than in many other urban centers. In addition, the social benefits that make cities livable, such as a sense of community and wide civic participation, are more typically eroded rather than strengthened as the megalopolis that surrounds the Bay continues to grow.
The situation is critical, yet there hasn’t been a comprehensive movement to create a saving alternative. There isn’t a single realistic plan in operation to ecologically redirect and thereby advance the quality of life for any sizable urban area in North America.
What would it take to establish a positive outcome for the seemingly overwhelming problems of cities? What features of city life should be addressed and in what ways? How would an alternative approach for the future look and feel?
First it’s necessary to understand that the nature of cities has already changed tremendously in just the last few decades. In 1950 about two-thirds of North Americans lived in cities or towns of 25,000 or more, but by 1986 the proportion had jumped to 75% of an overall population that had itself increased significantly. To accommodate this tidal wave of new residents, the sheer number and size of cities has grown very rapidly. Mexico City is the most dramatic example, almost doubling its population from eight to 14 million between 1970 and 1980. Since then it has swollen to over 20 million to become the most populous city that has ever existed. The movement of people from the countryside into cities is one of this century’s strongest demographic trends, one that promises to continue into the future. Urban-dwelling, once the rarest way for people to live, is fast becoming the dominant form of human inhabitation on the planet.
The San Francisco Bay Area’s population grew from 4.6 to 5.2 million between 1970 and 1980, and is around 5.8 million at present. About 6.5 million people are expected to live in the region by the year 2000. That means that the rate of population increase in only 30 years will have been more than an astonishing 40%.
But while the size and number of cities is growing so drastically, there hasn’t been an appropriately direct change in the way people live in them. City-dwelling is still imagined as a special and privileged condition that is supported by a surrounding hinterland with rural workers to provide necessities. The fact that city living is now the norm for the vast majority of North Americans hasn’t really penetrated popular awareness. The vast scale of ecological damage that is directly attributable to the ways cities presently function (for instance, roughly 40% of the non-agricultural pollution of San Francisco Bay is simply the result of run-off from city streets) still isn’t fully recognized. The demands for resources that cities make on their own bioregions as well as on faraway locations are becoming hundreds of times greater while means to supply them are drying up, but this urgently important issue still hasn’t had an impact on the core of municipal policy-making.
There needs to be a profound shift in the fundamental premises and activities of city living. Urban people have to adopt conserver values and carry out more responsible practices in wide areas of daily life. Municipal governments need to restructure their priorities so that long-term sustainability can become a feasible goal. With such a large portion of the population removed from the land and from access to resources, ways to secure some share of the basic requirements of food, water, energy and materials will have to be found within the confines of cities.
Cities need to become “green.” They must be transformed into places that are life-enhancing and regenerative.
There are dozens of sustainability-oriented groups in the Bay Area who, taken together, represent a sizable reservoir of good ideas and willing hands. Planet Drum Foundation has brought together representatives of these groups to develop proposals for an over-arching program of changes that could be supported by the general public in order to prevent further deterioration of the region and lead in the direction of greater self-reliance.
A series of “Green City” meetings, held at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center in 1986, brought together groups and individuals from specific fields of interest who were asked to contribute suggestions and visions. Over 150 representatives attended in person and an equal number added recommendations to written reports of the sessions. The range of participants was usually much broader than any one of them would have predicted, and for most it was a first opportunity to meet their fellow “greeners.” At the Recycling and Re-use meeting, for instance, there were not only representatives of some city and county recycling agencies but also a well-rounded showing from private re-use businesses, citizen groups opposed to waste, youth employment agencies, and professional scavenger companies. The Urban Wild Habitat meeting was one of the largest and included nature society members, urban gardeners, defenders of open space, native plant experts, animal-tenders, teachers, environmental writers, the founder of the citizens’ group that helped secure the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and even the director of Golden Gate Park. Other meetings were held on the subjects of transportation, urban planting, renewable energy, neighborhood character and empowerment, small businesses and cooperatives, sustainable planning, and celebrating life-place vitality.
Each session began with a description of the current situation from each participant’s point of view. Not surprisingly, these accounts portrayed more dismal overall conditions than are usually acknowledged in political rhetoric. Renewable energy advocates complained of no significant gains in using alternatives to fossil fuels since oil resumed a low price in the late 1970s. Neighborhood representatives related how high-rises and chain stores are crowding out the last remnants of unique small businesses and block-scaled social and family life. Community gardeners spoke of losing land to developers because city governments lacked the will to protect it or ensure the acquisition of substitute space. Sustainable planning proponents detailed the failure of residents’ influence on growth-dominated municipal planning processes. Transportation analysts unhappily forecast a doubling of the capacity of existing freeways and even the addition of another deck to the Golden Gate Bridge unless people began using alternatives to automobiles.
Next the attendees were asked what alternatives were possible, at which point the outlook brightened considerably. Practical examples of many positive choices already exist in communities scattered throughout the Bay Area. If all of the potential alternatives were happening at optimum levels in every city and town, the decline of the region could be halted and actually turned around.
A Green City Program for San Francisco Bay Area Cities and Towns is a full account of all the areas of sustainability that were covered in the meetings.
The real heart of the Green City Program lies in the question, “What can cities do to promote…?” Here the values and practices of a new kind of urban resident are matched with needed alterations in municipal policies to create a more livable future. Transforming the outlooks of people alone won’t be enough to do the job; there must also be changes in city administrations to reflect self- reliant values. Cities and towns that are serious about sustainability can carry out significant large-scale public projects (refitting all municipal buildings to use some form of renewable energy, for instance) while also encouraging extra-governmental changes.
The popular will that can move governments in this direction can be generated through activist groups who organize Green City programs for their own communities. Invitations to join the program’s planning process shouldn’t be restricted to previously active veterans, but should include a wide range of interested people. These days, most individuals, citizen organizations, businesses and labor groups are aware of urban decline and care strongly about some aspects of sustainability Under a Green City umbrella, they can begin to care about all of them.
Green City groups can develop a platform for change that is most appropriate for their particular city or town. Once a platform is made public, it will become a powerful tool for influencing boards of supervisors, town councils, elected officials and candidates for office. (How can they explain not endorsing a Green City?) Local initiatives and bond issues could be drafted so that voters would have an opportunity to show their support and approve carrying out specific proposals. Eventually, Green City groups could link together to carry out bioregion-wide initiatives that aren’t currently possible because of the separation of county jurisdictions.
The San Francisco Bay Area has been a leader in arousing ecological consciousness. Its residents have rallied to preserve natural features and oppose despoilation of the earth in ways that inspire people in the rest of North America and throughout the world. If we will now begin to establish well-rooted Green City programs, by the twenty-first century we can create a model that will save this great Pacific Basin life-place and show a positive direction that others can follow to rescue their part of the planet.
(From A Green City Program, by Peter Berg, Beryl Magilavy, Seth Zuckerman. San Francisco: Planet Drum Books, 1989.)
Peter Berg (1937-2011) founded the Planet Drum Foundation (planetdrum.org) in San Francisco in 1973. His creative work and activism spanned decades, ranging from script-writing while a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and writing manifestos for The Diggers in the 1960s to presenting at the UN World Environment Day conference on urban sustainability and the Ecocity World Summit in the 2000s. In recognizing the significance of the connection between society and ecology, Berg was a leading early thinker in the development of the bioregional movement. Further biographical information available at https://planet-drum.net.
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