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Outdoor living rooms and renewable power: How San Francisco is fighting climate change 

A number of environmental initiatives are making San Francisco a better place for everyone
A number of environmental initiatives are making San Francisco a better place for everyone   -   Copyright  Left; London Breed, Right: Canva   -  
By Charlotte Elton  & Maeve Campbell

Air pollution and traffic congestion plague cities throughout the world. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

In San Francisco, a number of environmental initiatives are encouraging eco-friendly habits, increasing urban greenery, and making the city a better space for everyone.

“San Francisco believes in climate action as a whole, people care” says mayor London Breed.

“So it's not like you have to fight about (climate friendly policy). You just have to look at whether or not you can implement it, whether it is realistic.”

From ‘outdoor living rooms’ and bike lanes to major investment in renewables, this American city is relentlessly pursuing climate action.

What are outdoor living rooms?

Many cities are dominated by cars, with pedestrians pushed to the fringes of the road by wide parking bays.

But San Francisco restaurants are reclaiming some of this dead space. Under the guidance of Mayor Breed, the city has embraced ‘parklets’. These tiny outdoor spaces - built on former parking spots - have been transformed into al fresco dining and drinking spaces.

The idea took off during the pandemic, when fear of disease transmission pushed diners outside.

Under the city’s ‘shared spaces’ program, they’ve now been made permanent. More than 1,000 of them dot the city streets, transforming dead space into thriving al fresco hubs.

“A long time ago, before the pandemic, it was very difficult to get a parklet because everyone fought against taking away parking,” Mayor Breed explains.

“[But] they’ve become a big hit… restaurants customise them, it’s become part of the culture, it feels very European.

“When I'm sitting out people always come and say, ‘Hey, Mayor!’... It’s a community builder, too.”

San Francisco Mayor
Mayor London Breed speaking at a community event.San Francisco Mayor

Why is San Francisco investing in bike lanes?

The parklets do reduce the amount of parking space in the city centre. But with 764 km of bikeways, San Francisco is one of the most cycle-friendly cities in the US.

“There are various reasons people need vehicles… I don't think we'll ever be in a completely car free city,” Mayor Breed says.

“But we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by making different modes of transportation easier to use.

“We have electric bikes, we have scooters, we have protected bike lanes, and walkable, liveable areas, we are making our public transport system easier to use.”

In 2019, Mayor Breed committed to doubling the rate of bike lane construction in the city from an average of five miles (eight km) per year to 20 miles (32 km) over the following two years.

This is great news for the planet. The transport sector accounts for a quarter of global fuel-related greenhouse gas emissions, with half coming from private vehicles, including passenger cars and trucks.

If everyone in the world cycled an average of 2.6 kilometres each per day, annual global carbon emissions would drop by 686 million tonnes.

But it’s not just good for the planet - biking also helps to stave off the chronic diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle.

People who cycle to work have a 45 per cent lower risk of developing cancer, and a 46 per cent lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

How is San Francisco increasing uptake of renewable energy?

San Francisco aims to become carbon neutral by 2045, and is investing heavily in clean power.

In 2019, the city passed legislation requiring its largest private commercial buildings to run on 100 per cent renewable electricity. By 2024, commercial buildings over 250,000 square feet must operate from renewable sources. By 2030, this requirement will extend to all commercial buildings over 50,000 square feet.

Increasing numbers of residents are also switching to renewable energy, too, thanks to the CleanPowerSF program.

A not-for-profit program run by the city’s public utilities commission, CleanPowerSF pools customer energy demand, and purchases clean energy at competitive rates on behalf of those customers.

The Bayview Hunters-point community - one of the first to be invited to partake - jumped at the chance.

“You could opt out or stay in the program, and a huge percentage - more than 90 per cent - stayed in,” Mayor Breed recalls.

“This is a community that believes in environmental justice, and they deserve to be first in line for the program. So it was a huge success.”

Ultimately, the city wants all its residential customers to be serviced by 100 per cent renewable energy.

What can other cities learn from San Francisco?

As climate change bites around the world, it can be tempting to sink into despondency.

But change is possible - and urban dwellers deserve public officials who fight for the liveability of their cities.

From decreasing reliance on fossil fuels to tackling plastic pollution, there are plenty of solutions that we can, and should, implement, Mayor Breed says.

“We’re really proud of what we've done in San Francisco,” she declares.

“These are solutions that have been, and can, be put into place in other places, too.”