Cutting Through the Red Tape

Welcome to Wastewater…

February 23, 2015

By Jennifer Lee, 2015 City Hall Fellow.

Everything that I have ever done in my life has led me to this point. I often find myself thinking about my previous experiences, what I have learned from them, and how they have shaped who I am today. I came into the City Hall Fellows fellowship with two years of working experience, which includes being an Outdoor Education Instructor, Clean Transportation Intern for the San Francisco Department of the Environment, and an intern for Assemblymember Kevin Mullin. I was drawn to this fellowship because of the opportunity to create change in San Francisco. Not many people around my age are able to do that so early in their career, which is why this fellowship means a lot to me.

As an environmentally conscious individual, my goal in life is to create sustainable behavior change among the public. One of the ways I hope to achieve this is by working for local government and in a department that has programs to incentivize people to change their behaviors. I am placed in the SF Public Utilities Commission under the Wastewater Enterprise. In my division, I work on Resource Recovery and Pollution Prevention. At first, it seemed to me that the Wastewater Enterprise was already doing a great job at treating stormwater and wastewater. So I wasn’t quite sure how I could contribute to these already in-tact programs. However, I quickly learned from my first week at my placement that there was more to be done. It turns out that most of San Francisco has a combined sewer system, which means that the city treats both its stormwater and wastewater. However, there are parts of the city where stormwater is not treated and leads to the San Francisco Bay or Pacific Ocean. This is where my position comes in. As a new City Hall Fellow for this division, I will have the opportunity to work on welcome kits, community workshops, and art murals to educate the public about San Francisco’s Municipal Separate Stormwater Sewer Systems (MS4s). These three projects are ways where the city will be trying to engage with the public to educate them about MS4s. Although there may be fewer people today than in the past who throw litter in our drains, this is an example of a behavior we want to help change.

It is difficult to change someone’s habit. But I think that it can be possible if we make the process interactive and fun. The welcome kits are great tangible items for new residents in the Mission Bay neighborhood to learn about their sewer systems. It is not every day where people receive welcome kits for moving into a new community, but if it does happen, it’s memorable. Additionally, the community workshops will be another opportunity to engage the public in a forum for discussion and questions. Lastly, the art murals will be a wonderful visual for anyone passing by a storm drain to see a beautiful graphic that conveys the message of the MS4s. All of these programs and more are things that the PUC is doing to foster behavior change.

Creating change starts somewhere. For me, I would not have expected it to come from sewer systems. But now that I have gained a better understanding of the wastewater enterprise, I think that there are plenty of more habits that could be changed.

A Comprehensive Approach to Local Government in San Francisco

February 09, 2015

By Jared Leung -

The first five months in my placement in the Office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector provided me with great insight and knowledge into the intricacies of local government. It’s been an incredibly enriching experience thus far, as I’ve able to learn more about how a major business tax reform is being implemented and administered in the City. It’s not very often that one gets to be a part of such a major shift in policy in a large city like San Francisco. As such, I’m very excited to be a part of this process and am looking forward to what lies ahead.

One aspect that I’ve enjoyed observing is the collaborative efforts of different departments and agencies. With the implementation of the Gross Receipts tax, it’s not just one department working on the policy change; it’s a wide variety of departments working together to discuss the policy from their own areas of expertise. This has been very enriching and has encouraged me to think analytically about the tax from different perspectives, whether it’s through an economic, political, legal, business, or implementation lens. This process inevitably lends itself to a more thorough outcome, as the policy is being considered from multiple perspectives.

From my time in local government thus far, one of the biggest takeaways for me has been learning that implementation and operations are perhaps some of the most important aspects of a major policy shift in government. Coming into the fellowship, I perceived government work in general to be very focused on “policy.” In other words, I thought that people in government are constantly working to create and evaluate potential policies that could be adopted in any given city, state, or country. While in academia, we may tend to focus on the creation of the policies and attempt to assess the overall impact of any given policy; I’ve learned that the implementation and administration are just as important as the creation of the policy. Focusing on operations is an incredibly detailed process that ensures that once the policy is fully implemented, everything runs smoothly. It’s easy to overlook this process, but my time as a Fellow has emphasized just how essential this component is to the function of local government.

One aspect that I’ve taken an interest in is San Francisco’s approach to using data as a key driver in making decisions. Whether it’s agency or departmental data being readily available to the public to make the City’s work more transparent or using data analytics to help improve the functions of any given office in City Hall, it’s fascinating to see this development take place across different departments and agencies. While one might perceive the use of data to be more common in the private sector, I think San Francisco is being incredibly innovative in its approach to making data more accessible to the public and also many offices have increased their efforts to utilize data to make more informed decisions that can improve the lives of San Franciscans. While data isn’t the end-all to making better decisions, it can certainly be a catalyst in improving government functions.

Overall, my placement in the Office of the Treasurer-Tax Collector has been very exciting. In addition to being part of a major policy shift in the City, it’s also been great way to understand how government works: whether it’s the creation of a policy and understanding its impact on the City, collaborating with different departments and agencies, or working on administering the policy change successfully, it’s been a very comprehensive experience thus far.


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.


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