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San Francisco’s Eco-Evolution

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Photo: Amanda Marsalis

I’ve prepared for my appointment with Mayor Gavin Newsom by stopping at Citizen Cake, a Hayes Valley restaurant where my iced coffee is made with organic milk and my chocolate cream-filled cookies, a sophisticated take on the Oreo, are spiked with fleur de sel. But even the infusion of sugar, caffeine, and sea salt can’t help me keep up with the mayor who, despite being trapped behind his enormous traditional wooden desk, is a bundle of nervous energy as he rattles off the ways in which San Francisco is becoming America’s premier green city.

Newsom uses the word exponentially a lot, as in “exponentially more trees” or “exponentially more solar.” In general, there will be exponentially more of things green and exponentially less of things that are not, such as plastic shopping bags (a ban went into effect last winter) and plastic water bottles. Mayor Newsom has in fact just announced that city employees will have to drink filtered tap water. The mayor, on the day I meet him, is clutching what could be his last bottle of Arrowhead Springs.

But after about 20 minutes of environmental rat-a-tat-tat, the mayor slows down. He grows reflective. “Why do we do all this?” he asks. “Because it’s the right thing to do. Why is it the right thing to do?Well, that’s self-explanatory. Do we also think it creates an environment, literally and figuratively, that attracts people?You better believe it. And that’s important as well. We’re consistently among the top travel destinations in the world. We think people are attracted to the values of this city.”

That last point grabs my attention. So people visit San Francisco not because they want to ride the cable cars or tour Alcatraz, but because of the city’s values?The mayor’s assertion strikes me because I’ve been thinking for a while about the future of cities, looking for signs of 21st-century urbanism. I’m not particularly interested in the Dubai model, or the China model, both of which seem to be riffs on old-fashioned ideas about the future being a place where everything is bigger and shinier. No, I’m looking for a city that might correct the excesses of the previous century and come up with new formulas—architectural and otherwise—for the future.

The question I ask myself as I drive into town, feeling smug in my rented Honda Civic Hybrid (San Francisco is second only to Los Angeles in the number of hybrids purchased—practically every other car here is a Prius), is this: How do values inscribe themselves on the urban landscape?Just what might clue you in that this is a highly evolved new-millennium city and not a regressive leftover from the previous era?Also: What exactly does a values-oriented tourist do?What sorts of landmarks should I visit?What new attractions join Coit Tower and the revolving bar at the Hyatt?

My first move is to check in to the Orchard Garden Hotel, which boasts that it’s America’s first LEED-certified property. LEED, as you probably know by now, stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and it is a checklist of strategies for making buildings more sustainable that’s been developed and promoted by an organization called the Green Buildings Council. It’s become widely accepted—developers like having a checklist—and LEED certification is the au courant version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. The Orchard Garden, which opened in late 2006, is built from concrete made of recycled fly ash and sustainably harvested wood. The building is well insulated, energy-efficient, and designed with “soothing, spa-inspired tones.” The place pretty much radiates goodness. I find the Scandinavian décor of my room a little bland—it’s all pale wood and leaf patterns—but it is very comfortable, and the location, at Bush and Grant, where Chinatown hits Union Square, is just about perfect.

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