Greening Our Cities: It Takes a Village

We built our cities 100 years ago, and now our urban infrastructure is falling apart. Like many cities across the country, San Francisco's water, sewer and energy systems are in a major state of disrepair. You should see the mess under our streets. And sometimes you see it above ground with sinkholes and flooding. This is an unfolding drama across the country.

But you've heard it before and you'll hear it again -- San Francisco is the city that knows how. Rather than sitting on the sidelines bemoaning our fate, the City by the Bay is doing something about it.

In 2012, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission's (SFPUC) authorized staff to move forward with the $2.7 billion first phase of the Sewer System Improvement Program (SSIP) to upgrade the City's aging infrastructure. Not just that, but a commitment was made to utilize "green infrastructure" to help get the job done and to engage our residents every step of the way. They are the ones that know how, after all.

What is green infrastructure? Bioswales. Rain gardens. Permeable pavement. Bulb outs. It's a whole new vocabulary and its how we need to rebuild our cities. Green infrastructure is not just about storm water management, it can boost everything from a city's carbon sequestration to economic vitality. Cities across the country are investing billions of dollars in green infrastructure technologies because of its multitude of benefits beyond simply storm water management.

Little did the SFPUC realize how overwhelmingly popular its green infrastructure program would be. With eight Early Implementation Projects (EIP) already in the pipeline, residents are showing up across town to help design the new system, improve their neighborhoods, connect with their community and plan for a greener future.

As active participants in the process, residents are not only learning about San Francisco's eight watersheds, but why holistic and integrated approaches are required for future water and sewer systems. San Francisco is the only city in California served predominately by a Combined Sewer System. And residents are learning how years of paving our City has increased storm runoff, and how green technologies can help reduce storm water impacts, create jobs and beautify our City. They are contributing their engineering and architectural expertise, their smarts, and their good humor (have you seen the latest SFPUC ad campaign)?

Each EIP was selected in a specific neighborhood in one of San Francisco's eight watersheds. Dozens of workshops have been hosted for input and feedback. Interactive online surveys were created for people to provide feedback for those that couldn't attend the meetings. The projects have been met with resounding success. Thousands of neighbors have participated and provided input. This open and inclusive process is giving neighbors a sense of ownership over the improvements, a window into their sewer system, and an opportunity to make long lasting contributions to the new system and their beloved city.

Rebuilding crumbling and aging infrastructure to withstand more frequent and intense storms resulting from climate change or the next major earthquake is a priority. And only through creativity and support will our nation's cities get ready. San Francisco's fledgling and pioneering green infrastructure program and public process shows a path forward though, with our very own resident experts leading the way.