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PHOTO: KATHI O’LEARY

Nowhere are the twin threats of affordability and climate change more pronounced than in San Francisco. One-bedroom apartments now rent for $3,500 a month or more, and residents are leaving the city in droves to find more affordable housing in the suburbs. Thousands of shoreline homes, businesses, and pieces of infrastructure are threatened by the rising tides of the Bay. When you add on the fact that California has more than a 99% chance of having a 6.7 or larger earthquake in the next 30 years, the drive to design for resilience becomes an imperative.

San Francisco’s last major earthquake was in 1989. The “Loma Prieta” quake was a 6.9 in magnitude, and the shock was responsible for 63 deaths and 3,757 injuries. While the collapse of a section of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland was responsible for the single largest number of casualties, the collapse of other man-made structures contributed to the economic and life loss as well. Another major earthquake in the Bay Area could cut off water supplies, disrupt energy, and cause untold damage to the 101 cities in the region.

Then there is climate change. We know from climate disasters like Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina that climate change acts as a threat multiplier for the poorest and most vulnerable communities. The nation wept as people in low-income neighborhoods in New Orleans and New York were flooded from their homes, cut off from fresh water supplies, left without power and abandoned by government. Many of these same communities even had raw sewage flowing in their streets—thanks to the legacy of waste treatment plants built in poor communities.

Lucky for us, San Francisco is the “city that knows how.” We are winning the race against time in preparing our frontline communities for the impacts of climate change and earthquakes by building resilient energy, water, and wastewater systems. San Francisco’s $4.8 billion Water System Improvement Program is nearing completion, and our $6.9 billion Sewer System Improvement Program is getting ready to launch. Pioneering programs like community choice power, green infrastructure, and wastewater reuse are coming online at rapid pace. The combination of these large scale infrastructure projects and innovative, performance-based technologies will create thousands of jobs, help protect our most vulnerable communities, and build resiliency system-wide.

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PHOTOS: COURTESY OF SFPUC

Vietor’s Resiliency Top 3: 

1. Community Choice Power: Community Choice energy is a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address the impact of climate change by cutting energy consumption, increasing renewable energy, and building local clean electricity generation. By developing local clean energy resources, Community Choice programs can spur local economic development in the community, provide good local clean energy jobs, offer competitive electric utility bills and price stability, reduce pollution, and provide other community benefits. It can serve as a significant step towards a more resilient and sustainable economy. San Francisco’s CleanPowerSF launched on May 1, 2016, and offers residents the opportunity to support a greener more resilient city.

2. Green Infrastructure (pictured above): Green infrastructure enhances resilience in the built environment. Natural and constructed infrastructure, ranging from conserved riparian buffers to rain gardens and permeable pavers can help enhance stormwater management capabilities in ways that reduce vulnerabilities to flooding. In an urban environment, green spaces mitigate the urban heat island effect by providing shade. Natural features provide habitats for animals in urban and rural areas. Green infrastructure helps build climate resilience by managing stormwater that may otherwise flood communities. San Francisco has eight green infrastructure projects currently under construction with many more in the planning phases.

3. Wastewater Reuse: The Living Machine at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission headquarters not only treats the building’s wastewater onsite but also seamlessly integrates into the building’s lobby, front walkway, and city sidewalk. After collection and primary treatment, all wastewater flows into the Living Machine’s tidal and vertical flow cells, where its fill-and-drain technology treats the water through periodic tidal cycling. The effluent is then double filtered and disinfected with both light and chlorine. The high-quality, clear water from the system will then be reused both inside the building for toilet flushing as well as exterior irrigation. The innovative model builds resilience by removing wastewater from the overall system and producing water for reuse. The SFPUC will save approximately 750,000 gallons of water per year and provide an additional 900,000 for non-potable uses off site.


Francesca Vietor, program director for Environment, Public Policy, and Civic Engagement at The San Francisco Foundation and president of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, is working to build climate resilience in the Bay Area’s most vulnerable communities and to tackle the region’s economic inequality and wealth disparity. Before this, she was executive director of the Chez Panisse Foundation, president of the Urban Forest Council, president of the Commission on the Environment, and the chair of Mayor Newsom’s Environmental Transition Team. She has worked for several nonprofits, including Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace, and she serves on the boards of SPUR and Environmental Working Group.

Download a PDF of this story here.

Connect with Francesca Vietor: LinkedIn