Alternative visions
Five Bay Area conservationists are thinking globally – but outside the mainstream consensus – about sustainability

By Matthew Hirsch

Just by hosting the United Nations World Environment Day, which kicks off June 1, San Francisco and the entire Bay Area will draw international attention to the region as a pioneer in sustainability. And the city has a lot to brag about: huge solar panels, zero-emission vehicles, and a thriving market for organic produce, just to name a few.

But have we really found solutions to the challenges facing modern cities, or is the Bay Area just better at crafting the image of what green cities should be? Below we present five alternative visions – written by grassroots activists – of what our urban landscape could become.

A common theme you'll find in each is the need to go beyond piecemeal attempts at fixing problems like air pollution and urban sprawl. It's not enough simply to substitute a "clean" fuel for a dirty one, for example, without tackling the entire transportation system and how it interrelates with the way we build affordable housing.

We begin with Eve Bach, an economist with a group called ARC Ecology, who says Treasure Island will be a major testing ground for San Francisco once it assumes control of the island within the next year or so. She makes the case that housing density, often a touchy subject with progressives, is the key to developing Treasure Island into an ecological oasis.

Next is Beth Grossman, a self-employed artist living in Brisbane, who came up with a way to turn the former San Francisco dump into a significant asset for her city. Rather than paving over the land and putting a Wal-Mart or a Home Depot there, an idea the Brisbane City Council is currently considering, Grossman proposes a testing ground for the latest breakthroughs in detoxification technologies.

Joshua Abraham, director of a new initiative called Reclaim the Future, draws the vital connection between the prison-industrial complex and the lack of jobs in green industries available to people of color. He says any discussion of waste reduction must begin by dealing with all the human lives that are thrown away when our cities' young women and men are thrown behind bars.

Like each of the other contributors, Tom Steinbach, long-time executive director of the Greenbelt Alliance, believes there are ways to reconfigure the urban landscape that are right under our noses. Chances are you've driven right past them.

And finally, we spoke with Peter Berg, who runs the foundation Planet Drum and believes urban sustainability must be viewed in a "bioregional" context. For the past six years, Berg has helped transform Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador, into a model eco-city following a series of devastating natural disasters.

Eve Bach: Treasure Island

Many of the same San Franciscans who worry about urban sprawl are comforted by city policies promoting sustainable development. However, plans to redevelop the Treasure Island community, expected to come before the city in the coming year, will clarify whether confidence in the city's commitment to environmental sustainability is warranted. Treasure Island is an important test because it's a site that presents both the opportunity and necessity for sustainable development. An entire community will be built in a highly visible Bay Area site that will depend on the Bay Bridge for land access to the rest of the region.

So far plans proposed by Treasure Island Community Developers (a group that has exclusive negotiating rights) are a mixed bag. On the plus side, it is proposing to construct a wetland to treat polluted storm water runoff. Its plan would also accommodate residents with incomes ranging from extremely low to extremely high.

On the other hand, the development TICD is planning needs to be more compact and walkable. Plans call for relatively low-density housing to be dispersed throughout the island rather than clustered around transportation and neighborhood services. The projected number of residents is too low to support a supermarket, much less the ferry service needed to prevent more traffic on the Bay Bridge.

TICD is proposing to build a brand-new development that will re-create many of the problems of car-dependent commuter communities surrounding San Francisco. Unless San Francisco requires Treasure Island to be developed as a compact, socially and environmentally sustainable community where residents walk to the ferry terminal, grocery store, and school, the new development will compound the traffic-related miseries that emanate from the Bay Bridge throughout the city.

Beth Grossman: Brisbane Baylands

The former San Francisco dump, off Highway 101 in Brisbane, is now called "the Baylands" by developers who plan to cap the landfill and create yet another shopping mall hosting "big box" stores. I see a great opportunity to transform these 550 acres of toxic land into an "eco-park center." Environmental research and development labs and an indoor-outdoor environmental museum and conference center would be a destination for international scientists, environmentalists, policy makers, artists, journalists, and students of all ages.

The Baylands would be a dedicated experiment in toxic remediation, with scientists regularly monitoring toxic conditions and ongoing seepage into the bay and groundwater. A walk-through educational park would demonstrate clean-up and restoration technology. Long-term revenue would come from retail businesses that internationally distribute the technology and products for toxic waste management. Eventually, the restored land would provide safe, non-toxic open space with wildlife habitat and recreation facilities.

To enhance the aesthetics, artists could create large-scale environmental art gardens. I can imagine designing the urban planning to form the shape of Brisbane's symbol, a gigantic star, that could be seen from the sky by the thousands of airplanes overhead.

Joshua Abraham: Green Jobs, Not Jails

The path to peaceful streets and true community safety is not more prisons but ecologically sound economic development. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights' latest initiative, Reclaim the Future, will help forge public-private partnerships to promote healthy communities.

In the future, we envision eco-industrial parks on land once blighted by brownfields and prisons. We envision nonprofit "solution centers" training young urban workers in new technologies and ancient wisdom. We imagine kids, who are now fodder for prisons, instead creating zero-pollution products. And healing the land. And harvesting the sun. We dream of a day when struggling cities – like Oakland, Watts, Detroit, and Newark – blossom as Silicon Valleys of green capital. We're building a pathway from the present "gulag" economy to the future "green" economy. At U.N. World Environment Day, we are coordinating the social equity track to help ensure the participation of people of color at the eco-summit. In the future, we want to move urban America from jail cells to solar cells.

Tom Steinbach: Smart Growth

Since 1958 Greenbelt Alliance has been working to achieve a sustainable Bay Area. For us, sustainability means a region with a thriving economy, thriving communities, and a thriving environment. It also means that, as a region, we don't export our problems to other places. Today we're sending air pollution, waste, and sprawling development to other parts of California and the world.

The solution involves thinking differently about how and where we grow. Over the next 15 years, the nine counties in the Bay Area will add one million people. The choice is ours. We can direct this growth into our existing cities and towns and protect the region's farmlands and natural areas or continue pushing new growth to the edges of the region. Staying with the status quo means more traffic, more pollution, and more stress as commutes get longer.

Innovative developments in places like Mission Bay, north San Jose, Oakland's Uptown neighborhood, El Camino Real in San Mateo County, and San Pablo Avenue in the East Bay are seeking to create livable, walkable communities with good jobs and affordable housing. By investing in these already developed areas, we can reduce pressure to pave rolling hills and productive farms. Done right, these projects also make it possible for families to find housing they can afford near work. Guiding growth in this way is the key to community, economic, and environmental health and, ultimately, to a sustainable region.

Peter Berg: Expanding Open Space

A project that should be undertaken immediately before densification proceeds any further would be to connect the parks that exist in San Francisco with each other in a wild corridor system. This may sound too ambitious, but consider that in 1973 there was a bond issue to buy 26 pieces of open space, of which Glen Canyon Park was only one, on the provision that they not be developed in any way.

Wildlife corridors could be started by community groups that plant native plants in the sidewalks and backyards in between these areas, knowing that it is their intention to connect up, and by purchasing extant buildings and demolishing them to provide actual space to rebuild the ecosystem so it would exist between those parks.

Amazing things would happen. You would see recurrences of animals and plants, profusions of wildlife that people have not seen here in a century.

I could see at least a north-south and an east-west corridor connecting up, for example, McClaren Park with San Bruno Mountain. That would be a model for doing this. Mostly, we need to replace the I-280 freeway there. The freeway could be elevated, put underground, or even moved around to allow a wildlife corridor to exist in a barely wild McClaren Park (which has gray fox at least) and pretty wild San Bruno Mountain. Then a profusion of wildlife would really start occurring that's phenomenal.

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