Cutting Through the Red Tape

SPUR-of-the-Moment City Escapes

January 20, 2015

By Isaiah G. Reed

While walking through the urban landscape of the city, it is a breath of fresh air to stumble upon a green space and escape from the persistent automotive fumes, sewer smells and the musty congestion of human bodies moving in packs. Thinking about these escapes, I drift back to thoughts of picnicking in Regent’s and Hyde Park in London, playing soccer on the National Mall in D.C. and sunbathing in Delores with some delicious Bi-Rite in hand; in fact, some of my favorite days spent in nature were not out in the wilderness, but rather right in the heart of major metropolitan areas.

Green spaces in urban environments provide an immense value for the populations they service. These spaces are positive for health considerations (both body and mind), they provide communal areas for arts, recreation and general social activity, and ultimately they offer beautiful landscapes to allow an escape from the traditional concrete structures that tend to dominate the urban environment. Among these green spaces in San Francisco, exist the POPOS (privately owned public open spaces).

San Francisco has implemented guidelines for growth in the downtown area to include “the creation of more publicly accessible open space.” These open spaces include “plazas, terraces, atriums, small parks,” and are all unique in scope, which provides little oases for workers and tourist to relax away from the streets.

These areas are “provided and maintained by private developers” and are all well identified by logo brand displays at “every pedestrian entrance,” which will direct those looking to utilize the resource to the designated “interior or rooftop space.”

SPUR, a nonprofit city planning organization, has released a guide documenting fifty six of these locations in San Francisco’s downtown area — available here: The guide provides the location of the POPOS, the year it was established, their own rating, a brief description of what the space offers and the occasional picture to showcase the beauty of the atmosphere. Ultimately, their brochure acts as a sort of “Hollywood Guide to the Stars” for some of the more exclusive city escapes in the downtown area.

While San Francisco has its own amazing parks — Golden Gate, Presidio, Alamo Square, Lake Merced, Washington Square, etc. — small spaces like the POPOS represent a unique way to engage the urban landscape for the benefit of the city’s population. When given the time, exploring these spaces can be very rewarding; and even if it is just for a moment, soaking in the serenity of an urban oasis can be just the right impetus to spur you on for the rest of the day.

See Secrets of San Francisco: Where to find our city’s POPOS—privately owned public open spaces, SPUR, (1/1/2009),
See the 1985 Downtown Plan.
Secrets of San Francisco: A guide to San Francisco’s privately-owned public open spaces, SPUR,
Planning Department, Privately-Owned Public Open Space and Public Art (City & County of San Francisco, (10/6/2013),
Note: An enhanced version of the guide is also available as an application on the iPhone and Droid platforms – Downtown San Francisco’s Secret Spaces and Oases.

Everybody Poops…

January 08, 2015

By Manon Fisher. Seattle to San Diego – the distance our 1,000 miles of subterranean sewer labyrinth would cover if stretched end to end. San Francisco’s first sewers were built in 1860 as a response to the California Gold Rush and the resulting population boom. By 1935 the City had designed, planned and installed over 700 miles of combined sewer system to collect both sewage and stormwater in the same network of pipes. San Francisco is the only coastal city in California with a combined sewer system. In most areas of the country, stormwater flows untreated directly into creeks, lakes or oceans. Our wastewater, made up of sewage and stormwater, is collected, pumped, and treated before it is discharged into the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean.

Unfortunately this enormous feat of infrastructure planning, development, operation, and maintenance isn’t sexy. It isn’t a big golden bridge to drive our cars over and take photos next to, or a historic icon tourists pay [a lot] to ride up and over hills. Don’t get me wrong I love San Francisco and all of its beautiful icons, but our sewers are often forgotten about. The San Francisco sewer system is an unpretentious service for all visitors and residents, rich or poor, old or young, to make use of and take care of. Our sewers may very well be the most equalizing, unprejudiced, hardworking, underappreciated assets we have, and it is important that they be respected and cared for.

Why? Well, everybody poops and it has to go somewhere. It’s not really something we even consider as inhabitants of such a developed country, but nearly 1 million people rely on our sewers every day. Flush the toilet, and it goes away. But where is away? What does it take to get there? Does it pollute our Bay or Ocean when it leaves? What happens if it doesn’t even go away? As the daughter of a plumber I probably know a bit too much about how to fix a toilet; but despite growing up in San Francisco I never really thought about what lies beneath the City, how it handles our unwanted byproducts, or about the environmental impact of all that water, and other stuff, that goes down our drains.

In my time at the SFPUC working for the Wastewater Enterprise within the Collection System Division I have witnessed the difficult but necessary work it takes to keep such a fundamental service functioning. When many City employees – like me – work a comfortable eight hour day, the men and women supporting the operations and maintenance of sewers and treatment plants work around the clock. The City never sleeps, and neither do our sewers. So next time you flush a toilet, pour something down a drain, or see a rush of stormwater on your street, remember there is an entire labyrinth beneath you helping you out, and dealing with more crap than anyone else.


(Em)powering San Francisco

December 22, 2014

By Deepa Kollipara

As a self-proclaimed political junkie, there is no piece of legislation I am not obsessively following from AB 298 in the California legislature banning plastic bags to here at home as the Board of Supervisors deliberates whether San Francisco should become the first city to oppose a ban on sex selection abortions. Election Day to me is what I think the Super Bowl must be to others, where I excitedly jump up and down wondering which party will keep the Senate as CNN announces results as they trickle in.

Throughout my undergraduate career at Berkeley, I relentlessly committed myself to understanding how our legislative system worked. I researched civil rights legislation during the New Deal Era with my professors and went on to write my own honors thesis using quantitative regressions to determine how Super PAC spending influences election results. I truly believed that genuine social change came from passing sound public policy so that Americans could be paid a living wage or gain access to affordable health care, etc.

But all that completely changed as soon as I started working for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in Power Enterprise. I never realized how equally important a role government agencies had in actually implementing policies in our daily lives. Until now, I only was looking at half of our political system.

Power Enterprise provides power to about 17% of the city including streetlights, municipal buildings, schools, SFO, and redevelopment areas like Treasure Island and Bay View-Hunters Point. The PUC generates 1.6 million MWh of power from the Hetch Hetchy hydroelectric system, supplemented by some solar and biogas power. SFPUC proudly generates power with 100% greenhouse gas free emissions – one of the cleanest energy portfolios in the nation.  People usually only think about power in two instances: when we flick on the light switch and when we get our electricity bill. But without safe, reliable, efficient power at all times San Francisco will cease to function.

The year I worked for Supervisor Jane Kim in 2011, the Board of Supervisors endorsed the Electricity Resource Plan  (ERP) that set a goal of making the city have a 100% GHG free electric system by 2030. At the time I thought that was the end of the story to make San Francisco “go green.” But three years later, I had the rare opportunity to stand at the critical intersection of legislation and its implementation by working in the Regulatory and Legislative Affairs division at Power.

In my first few weeks at Power, I had the incredible experience of diving into a wide range of new programs such as Net Metering that would allow solar customers to gain credits for excess energy produced as an incentive to switch to solar. Another program is the SFPUC’s aggressive alternative fuel initiative aiming to purchase all fuel-efficient cars and installing over 77 EV charging stations powered by clean hydro from Hetch Hetchy. This is to address the fact that the SFPUC still produces over 7,729 metric tons of CO23 mostly due to liquid fuels consumed by our cars (fleet) used in day-to-day operations. Third, the SFPUC publishes a yearly Energy Benchmarking Report that showcases how Power helps ratepayers retrofit their system to be more energy efficient, helping buildings like SF Public Library’s Library Support Services and Longfellow Elementary earn a high ENERGY STAR Label.

Many people think government is about making new laws but I’ve realized that is only half the story. I, along with other fellows, am gaining the eye-opening experience of seeing just how much effort goes into ensuring you receive clean drinking water, reliable MUNI service, and energy efficient power that keeps San Francisco moving.

Government Innovation: Doing More with Less

December 05, 2014

By Erin Franks,

Earlier this Fall, I had the opportunity to go to Governing magazine’s California Leadership Conference in Sacramento. The theme of the event was innovation in government, from innovative strategies around specific issues such as water conservation, resilience to disasters, or fiscal troubles, to ways to structure government agencies to promote innovation amongst employees. Now government isn’t exactly known for being particularly innovative – in fact, its lack of innovation is often pointed to as one of its main failings. However, innovation in government is even more important now than ever, as cities struggle to do more with less in the wake of the recession. Without some innovative thinking, local government may find itself struggling with cutbacks of vital services.

One panel I attended discussed creative ways governments have collaborated improve their work. Key services such as fire and emergency response are often very expensive, but Yolo County, CA, realized that the county government and all of the separate cities within the county were all working independently on this issue, and as a result were overlapping many of their efforts. Yolo County led the initiative to standardize the operating procedures for the various emergency response teams in their jurisdiction and to design plans that allowed all of the disparate groups to work together seamlessly in the event of a major crisis. In this way, all of the cities and the county were able to maintain the same level of emergency services, but significantly cut their budgets.

Innovation is particularly important at the local level because local governments are often best placed to respond to issues impacting their constituents directly. Many speakers at the conference touched on the issue of inequality, which is especially acute in California. One approach to addressing inequality is helping people learn the skills they need to participate in the modern economy, beginning with basic technology literacy. The Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Riverside spoke about a fascinating program where they provide 8 hours of free computer training to any residents making less than $45,000 per year. In addition, participants receive a free computer at the end of their training. Where does the city get these computers? Local citizens donate their old and broken computers to be recycled, then the city trains at-risk youth to refurbish them. This program not only provides multiple groups of people training directly relevant to the burgeoning tech industry, but it reduces waste and protects the environment!

The California Leadership Conference was a great experience; I met a number of people from all over the state doing really incredible and interesting things that will help their governments work better and more efficiently. I’m looking forward to taking these ideas and lessons back to my job at the Public Utilities Commission, and to think outside the box in my work. I’m particularly excited to look at ways to use data to help decision-making, and to collaborate with different departments to find ways we can work together on projects such as the response to the drought. Hearing what other places have been able to do gives me hope that I’ll be able make a meaningful contribution during my time.

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