By Christopher D. Cook, Karl Beitel, and Calvin Welch.
OPINION It's hard to trust hope these days — to imagine that our world, or even our city — could be different. But for the next 10 or 15 minutes, as you read this, we invite you to suspend the cynicism and disbelief that hang over contemporary life, and allow your mind to imagine that, yes, a different San Francisco is possible. Just for 15 minutes, although we hope this helps kick-start a much longer-term revival of hope and urban reimagining.
It's time to create something new in San Francisco — a visionary movement for constructive change that's bold and unapologetic. Imagine, for instance, if San Francisco became a national model for how cities can reinvest local profits (public and private) and assets to expand economic opportunity and social equity. Imagine if, instead of promoting a dispiriting and volatile blend of corporate development and Darwinian "free-market" anarchy, San Francisco transformed how American cities define success by creating concrete alternatives to the chaos of capitalism.
Now imagine that San Francisco had its own public bank — a fiscally solvent, interest-generating financial force (potentially a half-billion dollars strong) dedicated to public financing and economic stimulus, that functioned as a vigorous incubator for homegrown industries and sustainable, true-green job creation.
We are proposing no less than a reinvention of San Francisco — a dramatic shift in priorities, resources, politics, and culture that marries the very best in both creative innovation and urgently needed reforms to make our city socially equitable and sustainable, both ecologically and economically.
Toward this end, the Community Congress, Aug. 14-15 on the University of San Francisco campus, will stimulate ideas, discussion, and planning to reinvigorate civic engagement and inspiration and create a concrete, locally actionable agenda for reshaping the city. You're invited. (Visit www.sfcommunitycongress.wordpress.com  for more information.) The congress is a conversation starter and idea incubator — an opportunity to begin reimagining San Francisco as a socially equitable, racially inclusive, ecologically sustainable city that grows its own food, supplies its own energy, and is an affordable haven for working-class people, immigrants, artists, and creative folk of all stripes.
We humbly propose a city that embraces cosmopolitanism and international exchange while empowering its residents to achieve a decent and livable quality of urban life. We are not trying to turn back the clock; we are trying to create new forms of social and economic value that give people meaning and sustenance, and hope.
Couldn't we save such sweeping aspirations for a rainy day? The sky isn't falling yet, is it? Not quite, but the present constellation of crises San Francisco is ensnarled in — massive and rising structural deficits, a boom/bust economy that's profoundly unstable and inequitable, deepening economic and social divides that destabilize communities, to name a few — is simply unsustainable.
San Francisco's economic and fiscal crisis is not a passing moment. Rather, it signals long-term structural flaws in the city's economic policies and planning. San Francisco has lost roughly 45,000 jobs since 2000, and each "recovery" is marked by steadily higher unemployment rates (currently resting at 9.2 percent). More critically, as jobs and wages have grown more precarious and housing prices have steadily risen (over the long term), thousands of San Franciscans have been displaced.
Any serious vision for change must incorporate race and class dynamics. Consider the economic evisceration of much of the city's African American population, which has plummeted from 13.4 percent of the population in 1970 to just 6.5 percent today (more than 22,000 African Americans left the city between 1990 and 2008). The gutting of communities of color is intrinsically intertwined with issues of job and wage loss and soaring housing costs. This is particularly acute in the geographic and political dislocation of African Americans in San Francisco. Add to this picture intense overcrowding and poverty in Chinatown and in Latino and immigrant communities, and you get a set of inequities that are morally unacceptable and socially untenable.
Like other major American cities, San Francisco faces a crucial historical moment. Global warming and fast-dwindling oil supplies require a transformative shift in how we conceive (and implement) economic development far beyond the city's current piecemeal approach to "green procurement." The Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force, appointed by the Board of Supervisors in 2007, concluded that a full 86 percent of San Francisco's energy use comes from fossil fuels, primarily petroleum and natural gas, and a small amount of coal. Given the world's fading oil supplies and mounting climate chaos, this is simply unsustainable.
The specter of a looming energy and environmental crisis, combined with economic instability marked by persistently high unemployment, rising income inequality, systemically entrenched homelessness, consumer debt, and the deepening crisis of cutbacks to critically needed human services and affordable housing call for a radical shift in how society — and San Francisco's economy — are run.
Transforming San Francisco into a truly sustainable city will mean dramatic shifts in what (and how) we produce and consume, and aggressive city policies that promote local renewable energy. Our economy — how our food, housing, transportation and other essential goods are made — will have to be rebuilt for a world without oil.
These and other limits mean we must redefine growth and profit—fast. Work and sustainability must become fully intertwined, and we must think creatively about how jobs can produce social and community value, instead of profits concentrated at the top.
Creating truly sustainable and equitable cities for the 21st century will also mean dramatic shifts in how we produce and consume. There is no better place to begin than here in San Francisco, long an incubator in progressive thinking and genuine grassroots action and innovation. In an earlier Community Congress in 1975, residents and groups from across San Francisco united in a movement of ideas and organizing that led to district supervisorial elections and successful campaigns to stem the tide of downtown corporate development, helping to democratize politics and economics in San Francisco.
The 2010 Community Congress is aimed at reinvigorating local movements for lasting change, both on the policy level and in the relationship between people and their government. We hope to inspire a spirited and creative shift in the city's culture and politics — with concrete, politically actionable policies to democratize planning and development and a more sweeping transformation of our expectations — toward a far richer and deeper engagement of people and communities in their own governance.
What would this City of Hope look like, and how would it work? Consider what we could accomplish with a municipal bank. The City and County of San Francisco currently has almost $2.6 billion in highly liquid reserves, about $500 million of which could be used to fund a Municipal Bank of San Francisco. Once established (and federally insured), the Municipal Bank could take additional deposits and use this to issue more loans. The bank could promote economically viable worker-run cooperatives that produce goods and services addressing community needs — be it day care, urban gardening, or ecologically sustainable light industry that creates meaningful employment for local residents. The bank could provide competitive small-interest loans to help stimulate small-business development — the key economic engine of the city. Currently, access to credit is one of the primary impediments to small business growth in San Francisco.
The city could also start a Municipal Development Corporation to produce goods and services that meet essential needs, boost local employment, and generate surpluses that would be available for local reinvestment. San Francisco could launch itself on the path to local energy self-reliance with funds from the Municipal Bank, together with revenue bonds—raising large pools of capital to finance large-scale alternative energy investments such as solar panels to generate energy for sale to local businesses and households.
The proceeds could help subsidize community-based development such as urban farming projects that could grow food for our public schools. The Municipal Development Corporation could explore other initiatives like large-scale medical marijuana cultivation and development of a commercial fiberoptic network. Other ideas can be developed; we need to engage our collective imagination to envision what can exist if there's enough people power and political will.
By expanding access to credit, municipalizing a chunk of the city's assets, establishing an economically viable municipal development enterprise, and democratizing city planning and development, San Francisco can enable long-disenfranchised communities to create sustainable and diversified development — instead of fighting over "jobs versus the environment" and other false choices and getting nowhere for decades.
It's time for proactive, community-led economic development that addresses urgent needs, from local hiring and training, to creating a diverse base of neighborhood-serving businesses, to ecologically sustainable and healthful development and planning that is driven by communities and residents.
San Francisco's job creation policies can be transformed to prioritize community needs over corporate profits by linking major development contracts to strict local hiring and training, community benefits agreements that invest in social goods like childcare and in-home health services, and ensuring dramatic increases in the city's stock of affordable housing.
We need to build new forms of public participation in local government in ways that address people's everyday needs. For instance, the congress will propose a new partnership between residents and Muni to make Muni work better, involving current riders and drivers in a new, more powerful role in how Muni lines function.
We need to find better ways to sustain a diverse population of working-class, people of color, artists, writers, musicians, and others. We need to make sure development isn't just code for finding new ways to gentrify neighborhoods and displace existing residents.
Specific proposals will address how the city and community-based nonprofits deliver critical health and human services to our neediest residents. We propose making this an integrated part of the budget process, not a last-minute afterthought. Toward this end, the Community Congress will present actionable proposals to create innovative "resident/government" partnerships to improve local government responsiveness and efficiency.
One of the keys to unlocking the city's stagnating economy is progressive revenue generation and more democratic participation in budgeting. We must enlarge the public pie while reapportioning it in a way that stimulates job creation and shifts the tax burden onto the large businesses that reap vast private benefits from public goods and services. The city's budget process must be dramatically reshaped and democratized. Communities need a seat at the fiscal table when the budget is being crafted — instead of lobbying tooth and nail at the end of the process just to retain funding that barely keeps programs afloat.
How can we build a participatory budgeting movement that brings residents and communities into the process? For instance, community budget councils composed of elected and appointed residents from every supervisorial district could assess neighborhood needs and incorporate them into drafting the budget. Whatever form this takes, the goal is to put the needs of residents at the forefront of how the city spends its resources.
The Community Congress can also help redefine fiscal responsibility. Taxing and spending must be accountable and transparent and respect the fact that this is the public's money. Let's be honest: much of what passes for government excess is due to management and executive bloat at the top, not salaries of frontline workers like bus drivers, social service providers, and hospital workers. True fiscal responsibility also means investing in prevention: education, healthcare, and services that help people build their lives.
It's time to reclaim the public sector as the sphere of our shared interest. Rather than thinking in terms of the old paradigm that counterpoises "government" and "the market," let us envision a new citizen movement to create a more participatory, democratic, and accountable system of self-government.
The San Francisco Community Congress is about bringing people together — community activists, those working in the trenches of our increasingly strained social services, our environmental visionaries, our artists, the urban gardeners and permaculturists, poets, bicycle enthusiasts, inventors ... in short, assembling our pool of collective knowledge and wisdom, and yes, our differences — in a forum to discuss, debate, share concerns and viewpoints, and ultimately produce a working template that is both visionary and can be implemented.
The Community Congress will create a space for all of us to participate in defining our own vision of San Francisco. It is a first step toward reasserting popular control over economic development. It is an invitation to be visionary, rethinking in fundamental ways what it means to live in the 21st century city, and a forum for creating real, practical platforms and proposals that can be implemented using the powers of local government.
We want to propose a new vision of urban governance. Not more bureaucracy, more commissions, more departments, but the creation of new institutions that are democratically accountable and place new kinds of economic and political resources in the hands of ordinary citizens.
We don't have any illusions. There are limits to what local government can do. Ultimately, deep change will require actions by higher levels of government. More profoundly, it will require a deeper change in citizen awareness, a rejection of life dominated by the pursuit of narrow self-interest, in favor of a more ecologically sustainable, socially just, and more democratic way of life.
But we can begin at the local level, here and now, to envision and implement the kind of changes that will need to take place if we want to insure that our city, our country, and our planet will be the kind of place we want our children to live. Please come. Bring your hopes, passions, and ideas. This is our collective project, our shared wisdom, our joint vision of the kind of city and society in which we want to live.
Christopher D. Cook is an author, journalist, and former Bay Guardian city editor (www.christopherdcook.com ). Karl Beitel is a writer, scholar, and activist. Calvin Welch is the director of the San Francisco Information Clearinghouse and a long-time affordable housing advocate. This story was funded in part by www.spot.us