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Can San Francisco add 150,000 more people?

Land’s carrying capacity under stress as Bay Area expected to add 2 million

This article originally appeared in San Francisco Public Press

In 1968, biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote the best-seller “The Population Bomb,” warning of mass starvation in the face of uncontrolled human population growth. Taken as alarmist at the time, the book nevertheless started a debate about the world’s limited natural resources and the human race’s voracious appetite.

photo of a crew sorting recyclables on a series of beltsPhoto by Tearsa Joy Hammock / SF Public Press.The Bayshore Recology center in Bayshore, San Francisco, is the initial drop off point for recycling.

Of course, we didn’t all starve, thanks in part to advancements in agriculture. But more than 40 years later, with the doubling of the world’s population, we’re faced with a different doom-and-gloom scenario: climate change. Ehrlich, now a population studies expert at Stanford University, hasn’t backed down. He says the government should actively discourage childbearing. “If you’re a patriotic American, you stop at two, and if you’re super-patriotic you stop at one,” he said.

That’s certainly not how most city planners, let alone Americans, are thinking. In places like San Francisco City Hall, officials enthusiastically embrace a pro-growth strategy to expand the city’s tax base, and create vibrant communities in blighted or underdeveloped areas. Most of that growth will come from new people moving into the city, since San Francisco has the smallest percentage of children of any major metropolitan center in the country — 13 percent.

But a larger population stretches resources, even in a dense, efficient metropolis. People create waste, and consume water, food and energy. They pollute the air with cars. And they encroach on the last vestiges of natural habitat.

Environmental resources begin to deteriorate when San Francisco’s natural ecosystems — and those of the larger Bay Area — reach their limit, or “carrying capacity.” The accepted regional projections over the next 25 years show the region increasing air pollution, exceeding water supplies, battling sea-level rise, and consuming more power — all due, in large part, to population increase.

“There’s not only a carrying capacity in terms of water and space,” said Tina Swanson of the Natural Resources Defense Council and former executive director of theBay Institute, an environmental group focused on protecting the bay. “There’s also a quality-of-life carrying capacity. We don’t want to grow to a point where it isn’t a beautiful area, because then people won’t want to live here.”

Net growth in the city continues to rise, despite the shrinking average family size and the ups and downs of the economy.The Association of Bay Area Governments predicts San Francisco will reach 969,000 people by 2035 — a nearly 20 percent jump above today’s 815,400.

The Bay Area, now nearly 7.2 million, would reach 9.3 million people by 2040 under that growth scenario. That amounts to 2.1 million more people at a growth rate of nearly 30 percent.

A California Department of Finance report in early May found that the Bay Area is the state’s fastest-growing region, thanks to the booming tech economy in Silicon Valley.

As the Bay Area struggles to meet sustainability goals, double-digit population growth presents a clear challenge to reducing the region’s ecological footprint. Residents must use resources more efficiently to counteract the addition of more than a million new residents. In many ways, it mirrors a challenge the planet is facing. Can population growth in San Francisco and the Bay Area be sustainable?

Planners argue that sustainable growth can be achieved if new development is funneled to the right places. Indeed, they say that the urban core — notably San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and any other cities along BART or other rapid-transit lines — are the ideal places to put new people. They need fewer cars and the basic infrastructure is already in place.

Plan Bay Area, the growth blueprint approved in May by regional agencies, calls for San Francisco to create 92,410 new housing units by 2040 — 14 percent of all the new housing in the region. That’s a 29 percent increase over the city’s current housing numbers. If they are coming, the hope is, they might as well be coming to San Francisco.

But some environmentalists say population growth will inevitably deepen the effect on a local ecosystem. The region’s vulnerability to earthquakes and sea-level rise only heighten the economic and safety risk to those living along the coastlines and seismically weak ground.

“We may not want to face up to this, but the truth is we’re going to grow, because the human population is growing and the economy is growing,” said Richard Walker, a geographer at the University of California, Berkeley. “Then there’s the much larger question of why do we have to grow so much? The system we live in demands endless growth, and in that sense we’re trapped.”

Photo by Tearsa Joy Hammock / SF Public Press.The digesters, the heart of the Oceanside Wastewater Treatment Plant, use microscopic insects
through a careful process to sanitize water for safe disposal into the ocean. The unique aspect of
San Francisco wastewater treatment (as opposed to other U.S. cities) is that storm drainage collected
from city streets is sanitized here in addition to sewage.

GROWING PAINS

San Francisco has dealt with a sudden population explosion before. In 1848, the Gold Rush turned a small Pacific outpost with fewer than 1,000 residents into a boomtown of 40,000 in just over a year, putting San Francisco on the map as a major commercial hub.

After World War II, returning servicemen in search of shipyard jobs brought their families to the city, leading to a housing boom that developed the sand dunes west of Twin Peaks. During the 1940s, the city grew more than 20 percent.

The new people and their industry left a deep footprint on the San Francisco Bay: Imported sand and moored ships created new land and a waterfront on top of mudflats. Sediment from gold mining destroyed wetlands, while toxic contaminants from mining and other industries polluted the waters. Invasive species were unleashed and changed the bay ecosystem.

These days San Francisco’s population growth is attributed to some of the same underlying causes. People migrate here internationally and from other parts of the country in search of jobs because the Bay Area is a desirable place to live. The city isn’t just passively letting them come — it has adopted a pro-growth strategy to strengthen its economic competitiveness with other cities. That strategy includes accommodating more people by increasing housing. That said, San Francisco has precious little open land, so new development opportunities are limited.

Ted Egan, San Francisco’s chief economist, said adding housing, particularly affordable housing, is wrapped up in the city’s strategy and its attempt to stabilize an unstable tax base. A tight housing market drives up wage inflation, he explained, without putting the cash in the pockets of the workers who are paying high rents.

“The money goes to those who they bought the house from, or to landlords,” he said. “To the extent that the city expands the housing supply, it will reduce housing prices in San Francisco. That’s the goal of the strategy.”

BUILDING BOOM

Guided by the city’s encouragement and direction, massive new housing redevelopment projects will be popping up on Treasure Island, Hunters Point Shipyard and Parkmerced over the next decade. Nearly 750 other projects, mostly residential or with a residential component, are in the planning and construction phases. They are expected to add almost 43,000 new housing units, according to the city’s 2012 Pipeline Report.

At the same time, San Francisco is trying to realize another goal: to become the “greenest city in America.” To that end, it adopted a “zero waste” policy to send virtually nothing to the landfill. Its climate action plan would reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. City agencies are increasing water and energy efficiency and are encouraging bicycling and walking.

To city officials, high growth and sustainability are not mutually exclusive. In a 2010 interview, Jack Sylvan, then director of the Treasure Island redevelopment project under Mayor Gavin Newsom, reacted strongly to questions about the sustainability of adding more than 7,000 people to the man-made Treasure Island, constructed on bay shallows landfill. The Treasure Island plans call for remaking the former military base into a high-density “eco-city” with high-rises clustered near a high-speed ferry terminal.“The notion that this is going to happen somewhere else that’s better, I think, is fundamentally flawed,” Sylvan said. “You’re talking about fringe people who think that a back-to-the-land movement is our solution to an environmentally sustainable built environment.”

BIG FOOTPRINT

Yet some environmentalists see the city’s pro-growth agenda as anything but sustainable. The debate centers on “smart growth,” an urban planning concept that advocates building high-density neighborhoods, preferably in the urban core, and getting people out of cars to use public transit and start walking and bicycling.

Smart growth is seldom challenged, especially in the Bay Area, since it represents a progressive change in planning from the massive suburban sprawl of previous decades. But in certain environmental circles, smart growth is quietly criticized for ignoring population growth’s destructive effect on nature. Critics say smart growth will reduce the damage, but cannot erase it entirely.“The notion of smart growth is an oxymoron,” said Dick Schneider, an activist in the San Francisco chapter of the Sierra Club since the 1970s. “San Francisco is already unsustainable, so further growth is only going to imbalance the situation even further.”

A 2005 white paper, “Unsustainable City,” produced by local planning and design firm MKThink, reasoned that San Francisco had an ecological footprint of 18 acres per person. That means 18 acres of land are needed to sustain the basic consumptive needs of an average city resident. Compared with the Bay Area’s 20.9 acres and the U.S. average of 23.6 acres, San Francisco doesn’t look so bad. The footprint analysis was based on a 2004 study by the Oakland-based think tank Redefining Progress.

MKThink takes San Francisco to task for not being “smart growth” enough in its housing density and independence from cars.Schneider has a different reaction. Multiply 18 acres by the city’s population and that’s far greater than the size of San Francisco.“That’s over 15 million acres of land and water to support the current population of San Francisco,” he said. “San Francisco’s acreage is about 150,000. So clearly, the San Francisco population is living beyond its means and is therefore unsustainable by any reasonable interpretation of the word.”

IS GROWTH INEVITABLE?

Photo by Tearsa Joy Hammock / SF Public Press.A field of solar panels make up the San Francisco Sunset Reservoir Solar Project by the San
Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Smart-growth advocates counter that halting population expansion isn’t a path to sustainability.

“If you look at Northern California, and if we care about issues like climate change and the environment, in fact, the best place to live is the San Francisco Bay Area,” said Egon Terplan, the regional planning director for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.

Terplan said San Francisco’s temperate climate requires less power for air conditioning and heating, while the city’s residents have a smaller environmental effect than those in outlying areas.

“What’s your feeling about the environmental impact that’s going to happen in the Central Valley and in Northern Sonoma County?” Terplan asked. “If the growth doesn’t come here, it’s going to be happening in other places. You can’t look at it in isolation.”

But is it San Francisco’s responsibility to solve the Bay Area’s sustainability problems? When considering sustainability, should improving local conditions take precedence?

“Every time I hear it’s going to grow this much, I want to challenge the premise,” said  Swanson of the Bay Institute. “The idea that we have to grow, when in fact natural resources may be limited and we have additional impacts … I think should be reevaluated.”

Regional smart-growth planning does sometimes work, said Sam Adams, the mayor of Portland, Ore., one of the best-planned cities in the country.

“Portland’s last city plan, developed over 30 years ago, focused on limiting sprawl, urban renewal, light rail (instead of highways), and helping to inspire new business sectors, including cleantech,” he wrote in an essay on Grist.org, an environmental news website. “As a result, we have lowered total carbon emissions 6 percent while the rest of the U.S. has increased by more than 10 percent. And we’ve done it while growing our population and jobs.”

OPTIMISTIC VISION

In the face of constant environmental pressures in the Bay Area, the smart-growth movement is sounding optimistic, the criticism about its blind spots notwithstanding. A shrinking region is a worse outcome, said Jeremy Madsen, executive director of the Greenbelt Alliance, a San Francisco-based anti-sprawl advocacy group.

“If you look at the alternatives, we could end up like Cleveland or Detroit,” Madsen said. “We’d rather be what we are.” Madsen said growth can spur innovative planning and infrastructure investment. That is happening in Oakland and San Jose, where strip malls and auto body shops — not high on any sustainability index — are being torn down and replaced with high-density housing and businesses.

“If it’s done right, you use development as a tool to develop,” Madsen said.

Greenbelt Alliance mapped out the underdeveloped land within the Bay Area’s urban footprint and found that as many as 800,000 new homes, virtually all the new growth in the next 25 years, could be accommodated without treading onto open space.Perhaps the most hopeful note for environmentalists is the Bay Area’s historical success in digging out of environmental crisis while growing: the campaign to save San Francisco Bay.

“The bay was a cesspool when I was a kid,” said Walker, the Berkeley geography professor. “There was no fishing to speak of in the bay, so some things are better. The sea otters and seals have made a comeback after being nearly extinct. There’s so much parkland that wasn’t there.”

Walker said “utopian goals” are sometimes achievable, with diligence, as the population booms: “You wouldn’t believe the changes that have been made even in my lifetime. The bay is so much more livable in so many ways, despite tripling in size.”

Read full coverage of Bay Area smart growth in the San Francisco Public Press Summer 2012 print edition, on sale at retail outlets around San Francisco and online .

Alison Hawkes
Alison Hawkes is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco. She primarily covers environmental stories and has contributed pieces to public radio programs at KQED and KALW in San Francisco, The World, and NPR’s Morning Edition. In a former life, she was a newspaper bureau chief covering the Pennsylvania state capital, then moved into radio at Deutsche Welle in Bonn, Germany. She has a master’s in science journalism from Columbia University. Alison spends her off-time hiking the Bay Area and snooping around farmers markets for something tasty to eat.

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