San Francisco is green, clean, and organic—the architecture is high-tech and eco-friendly, and the food is excruciatingly fresh and local. Is this the world’s first true 21st-century city?

By Karrie Jacobs
February 01, 2011
Credit: 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.

My second move is to dash down to the Ferry Building, originally completed in 1898 as the main gateway to the city. In 2003, after years of painstaking renovation, it reopened as a foodie haven with more than 30 vendors, selling everything from locally produced olive oil to chocolates. There’s a farmers’ market on Tuesdays and Saturdays where the produce includes California specialties like navel oranges, avocados, and artichokes. The Saturday farmers’ market is over for the day by the time I arrive, so I take a seat at the Hog Island Oyster Bar inside the Ferry Building. I order a half-dozen Sweetwater oysters, harvested in Marin County’s Tomales Bay, and a Scrimshaw Pilsner, brewed up the coast in Fort Bragg. It’s local food, untainted by corporate culture, unsullied by jet travel. Al Green’s greatest hits are playing on the sound system. I’m eating organic, drinking organic, looking out at the bay, listening to Green sing “Love and Happiness,” and thinking about how supremely intertwined virtue and pleasure are in this town.

Actually, I think that’s the real draw. People don’t come to San Francisco just for its values, they come because those values are always presented as part of an enviable lifestyle. Later in my visit, I mention to Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, the inventor of California cuisine and lately a proponent of the Slow Food movement, that while green activism is often identified with things you can’t have—rules and prohibitions—this revolution in dining seems very much to be about pleasure. “It is,” she says. “It’s all about bringing people to biodiversity and sustainability through pleasure. By eating heirloom tomatoes, you can be doing exactly the right thing and having the flavor and experience. It’s the best.”

But even San Francisco, as alluringly progressive as it often is, does not wholeheartedly embrace change. It can be a confounding place: slow-moving, provincial, and weirdly dysfunctional. I’ve been visiting at regular intervals since I was in college. On my first trip, in the 1970’s, bleary-eyed from nights spent in a series of hellish post-hippie crash pads, I wandered into the lobby of the Embarcadero’s Hyatt, one of the first of those John Portman–designed atrium hotels, and thought that I’d somehow crawled out of the miasma left over from the Summer of Love and into an amazing vision of the future. Later, in 1999, I moved to San Francisco and lived there for three years, from the height of the dot-com boom to the bottom of the bust. Again, I found the city was sometimes excruciatingly stodgy and at other times dizzyingly future-forward.

There’s a spot where you can see this duality, the sleepy old city that refuses to change and the radical, cutting-edge city that is always miles ahead of everyone else. Happily for the values tourist, this spot is a tower with an observation deck, in Golden Gate Park. The De Young Museum, an aggressively 21st-century building by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, completed in 2005, is clad in recycled copper—perforated to shade the building while letting daylight in—which will turn green as the metal patinates. Its café serves food from growers and providers within a 150-mile radius. The art collection is expansive and absorbing. And from the observation deck of the distinctive wedge-shaped tower, a mere 144 feet tall, there’s a panoramic view of San Francisco. Gaze north and the view is of the Richmond district, an endless, timeless, monotonous swath of small-scale pinkish stucco houses. But swivel east and you look directly across the shady Music Concourse at the new Academy of Sciences. Designed by Renzo Piano and scheduled to open in September 2008, it’s got an undulating green roof—an artificial terrain dotted with seven hills, planted with beach strawberries, miniature lupine, and California poppies.

Also in Golden Gate Park, the new Academy of Sciences is expected to be the largest public LEED-certified building in the world. It will have highly efficient heating and cooling systems and natural ventilation; produce a relatively small amount of solar power (5 to 10 percent of the building’s needs); and use recycled materials, including insulation made from blue jeans. Visitors will likely not notice most of the green features, but instead be swept away by the exhibitions, which are to include a multilevel rain forest, the world’s deepest coral-reef tank, and some very imposing snakes. “I think an anaconda goes on this side,” says my tour guide, Kip Trexel, the project director for Webcor Builders. The Academy’s living roof, though, will be a crowd-pleaser—a deck will allow visitor access—and also a draw for wildlife, including the threatened San Bruno elfin butterfly.

Another possible harbinger of things to come is the dramatic new San Francisco Federal Building, situated on a stubbornly bleak stretch of Mission Street. Designed by Thom Mayne, of the L.A. firm Morphosis, this is probably the most visible symbol of the new San Francisco. The Federal Building is only 18 stories tall, but is located in an otherwise low-rise part of town, so you can see its asymmetrical silhouette, and the sunshade that looks like an insect’s exoskeleton, from all over town (it’s less omnipresent, however, than One Rincon Hill, a 60-story condo tower that everyone I meet gripes about). At night the Federal Building is illuminated by a James Turrell sculpture, a line of LED’s that starts on the plaza level and traces the contours of its “sky garden.” Like many LEED-certified buildings, this one features natural ventilation and has windows that open automatically according to climate conditions. The hallways and most surfaces are cool gray concrete made with 50 percent recycled slag. A series of Ed Ruscha murals was commissioned for the elevator lobbies. The building gives the impression that our federal government is an immensely chic organization, or as my tour guide, Gene Gibson of the General Services Administration, observes, the building is “overly optimistic.”

But “overly optimistic” is San Francisco in a nutshell, San Francisco at its best. A friend of mine, architect Mark Jensen, recently won a competition to design a roof garden for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His design, in theory, features lichen-covered walls that “will change color and texture with the passing seasons.” Very poetic. Very optimistic. I visit Jensen at his firm’s offices overlooking Market Street. As we look at the SFMoMA renderings, he confesses that no one has ever grown lichen in captivity and he’s not even sure it can be done. And I think, as we discuss his lichen strategy, that we are having an archetypal San Francisco conversation.

During my stay, I go on a series of field trips trying to hammer out an itinerary for the values tourist, seeking more examples of the local brand of optimism. One of the most impressive is Flora Grubb Gardens, a plant store newly relocated from a vacant lot in the Mission to Bayview, a light-industrial area south of downtown. Proprietor Flora Grubb is well-known for her selection of palm trees, and she also stocks a fascinating collection of plants called Echeveria, desert succulents that look like undersea creatures. She’s using them in a civic project, replanting the median strip of Guerrero Street. “I’m excited to design gardens that don’t need irrigation,” Grubb explains.

The building is an airy, light-filled, industrial-style shed designed by architects Bonnie Bridges and Seth Boor, with 72 photovoltaic panels on the roof. Solar energy supplies the needs of the plant nursery and the in-house coffee bar, a branch of Ritual Coffee Roasters that’s a magnet for the neighborhood’s workforce. “Everyone says when the Big One hits, they’re coming here,” Grubb says. Not only is the building set on a slab that’s engineered to float if the ground beneath it liquefies in a quake, but the solar-powered espresso machine will keep running no matter what. How 21st-century is that?

Also at the south end of town, I visit SF Recycling & Disposal Inc. Not just because it recycles everything from beer cans to house paint (which its workers pick up in alternatively fueled trucks, remix, and give away to developing nations). And not just because the hilltop behind the big waste-sorting facility is home to a meandering sculpture garden full of rusted springs and discarded soda bottles transformed into aesthetic objects. No, I’m here because the place has an artist-in-residence. I’m given a tour by Paul Fresina, who until recently ran both the hazardous-waste facility and the artist-in-residence program. “We didn’t use to use the word dump, because it was derogatory,” he explains. “But now we embrace it.” He introduces me to Nemo Gould, the artist of the moment, a lanky, sweet-faced young man in gray coveralls who has been building robots and mad-scientist apparatuses from scavenged materials, including the transformer from a broken neon sign and a shower mat (the source of suction cups for an “octopus” Gould made from curly wooden chairbacks). “Things that are beyond hope, but still have nice parts,” Nemo says, adding: “I love it here.” Once a month, the public is invited to tour the dump, and quarterly there’s an art exhibition, complete with an opening-night party. Fresina tells me that the dump supplies compost to local vineyards, and they, in turn, supply the wine for the art openings. The dump, I decide, is beyond optimistic. The dump is utopian.

Of course, the most satisfying thing a values tourist—or anyone, for that matter—can do in San Francisco is eat. Zuni Café is a perennial favorite, and at Range, a recent arrival in the Mission District, I dine with friends at the bar. And then there are places that have a defined purpose, such as Farmer Brown, a soul food restaurant in the Tenderloin dedicated to supporting African-American organic farmers, or Yield, a small wine bar—in a rapidly evolving neighborhood called Dogpatch, on the back side of Potrero Hill—which was established to promote organic and biodynamic wines. Here, I get an impromptu lecture on biodynamics. (It has to do with cosmic rhythms.) Later, I have an unaccountably delicious meal at Café Gratitude, a small chain of restaurants specializing in raw vegan cuisine.

What’s fascinating, though, is how this way of eating—virtue commingled with pleasure—has been incorporated into the Bay Area’s version of the mainstream. For example, I keep hearing about a Palo Alto–based management company called Bon Appetit. Its motto: Food services for a sustainable future. The firm runs restaurants and employee cafeterias for tech firms like Intel, Oracle, and Yahoo. All the Bon Appetit chefs, at 450 kitchens nationwide, are obliged to buy 30 percent of their produce from local farms.

I get a tour of the Yahoo cafeteria from Robert Hart, the Bon Appetit executive chef at the Sunnyvale complex. Chef Bob, as he’s known, walks me through what must be the most highly evolved assemblage of steam tables and salad bars on the planet. Sure, there are some suspicious-looking health-food products like Gardein, a form of soy protein made to look like shredded chicken or pork. But the dominant theme at Yahoo is spectacular produce, much of it picked when Chef Bob calls in his daily order. There are portobello-and–red-pepper pizzas topped with microgreens. And there are state-of-the-art hamburgers. “My hamburgers are grass-fed beef from the Painted Hills ranches in Oregon,” he says. “My chicken breasts are antibiotic-free. I buy all my herbs organic.” The take-out containers, made from corn, are biodegradable, and the disposable cutlery is “spudware,” made from potato starch. The oil in the deep-fat fryers is extracted from rice bran, and, Chef Bob notes, “a gentleman picks it up and turns it into biodiesel.” Before I leave, he hands me a juicy heirloom apricot, a Blenheim, that is on a list of “endangered foods.” It comes from a farm that is “trying to bring back lost items…and one of them is this apricot.”

As I wander out of the Yahoo complex, my hands sticky with apricot juice, I can see that Silicon Valley is changing the world in ways I hadn’t quite realized. Of course, this is the capital of the technological revolution, but all the bright young things who work in the tech sector are also transforming the way the rest of us eat every time they have lunch. They are helping to establish a whole new food- distribution economy based on ideas that can be traced directly to the front door of Chez Panisse.

Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971, after trying to figure out how to re-create the dining experiences she had had in France: “I was looking for flavor,” Waters explains, sitting in her office in a little building next to the restaurant. “I wasn’t setting out to find organic produce. I wanted flavor. So I was looking for things in season. Something about the way they were selling food in Chinatown reminded me of France, so I was drawn to that. Seeing fish swimming around in the tanks made me believe that this could be more tasty.”

What started with one woman’s passion for flavor has spread. Exponentially. All around Chez Panisse is the Berkeley neighborhood known as the Gourmet Ghetto. A couple of doors down is something called the Epicurious Garden, a kind of rarefied food court. Across the street is the Cheeseboard Pizza Collective, where each day employees make one kind of pizza and sell it until it runs out. The grassy but narrow median strip in the middle of Shattuck Avenue is dotted with pizza eaters.

Waters has come to see food as an engine of social and political change. A few blocks from the restaurant is the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, where, since 1996, Waters has been funding the Edible Schoolyard, teaching children to grow and prepare their own produce. Waters is also a director of Slow Food, a movement that makes connections between food quality, the environment, and social justice.

But ultimately it all comes back to the skillful interweaving of high quality and doing the right thing. Waters and I are sitting at a little marble table. On it is a delicate glass carafe etched with a wreath design and the words chez panisse and still. It’s one of the bottles that the restaurant ordered from Bell’occhio (a local shop) when Waters decided to stop serving bottled water and instead serve filtered tap water, still or sparkling. “It was something I’d always thought about, that I’d wanted to do. Why are we bringing all this water over from Italy?” She didn’t act on that thought until a friend who was publicizing a book about the politics of water suggested that Waters take the leap. “And I said, ‘We’ll do it. We’ll do it now.’”

Later, when I’m dining at Chez Panisse with a friend—deeply immersed in a meal that starts with North African–style vegetable salads and moves at a measured pace through Alaskan halibut, quail couscous, and a fig tart—I find myself thinking about the water bottle. It’s right there on our table. It’s simply a gorgeous object. It’s certainly prettier than a Pellegrino or Perrier bottle. I realize that Waters has performed alchemy. She’s managed to turn her bottled-water ban from a prohibition to a celebration.

In the future, San Francisco will likely have a plethora of green landmarks. A new Transbay Tower downtown, the height of the Empire State Building, might be topped by a wind turbine. Scheduled completion date: 2014. Treasure Island, in the middle of the Bay, will be developed with a couple of iconic towers, solar and wind-generated power, and a 20-acre organic farm. “The most sustainable, greenest development of its kind in the United States,” Mayor Newsom predicts. Scheduled completion date: 2022. Until then, the best symbol of green San Francisco—of the enlightened 21st-century city where virtue and pleasure are one and the same—can be found right here on my dinner table in Berkeley.

Where to Stay

Hotel Triton

GREAT VALUE 342 Grant Ave.; 800/800-1299 or 415/394-0500;; doubles from $199.

Orchard Garden Hotel

GREAT VALUE 466 Bush St.; 888/717-2881 or 415/399-9807;; doubles from $199.

Where to Eat

Café Gratitude

2400 Harrison St.; lunch for two $52.

Chez Panisse Restaurant & Café

1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; 510/548-5525; dinner for two $130.

Citizen Cake

399 Grove St.; 415/861-2228; lunch for two $50.

Farmer Brown

25 Mason St.; 415/409-3276; dinner for two $66.


Building A, Fort Mason Center; 415/771-6222; lunch for two $51.

Hog Island Oyster Bar

1 Ferry Building, corner of Market St. and the Embarcadero; 415/391-7117; lunch for two $56.


161 Sutter St., No. 61; 415/677-4405; lunch for two $31.

Millennium Restaurant

580 Geary St.; 415/345-3900; dinner for two $80.


842 Valencia St.; 415/282-8283; dinner for two $81.

Yield Wine Bar

2490 Third St.; 415/401-8984; drinks for two $20.

What to do

Berkeley Farmers’ Market

2530 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley; 510/548-3333;

Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market

1 Ferry Building; 415/291-3276;

Flora Grubb Gardens 1

634 Jerrold Ave.; 415/648-2670;

What to See

California Academy of Sciences

Golden Gate Park; 415/321-8000;

De Young Museum

50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., Golden Gate Park; 415/863-3330;

SF Recycling & Disposal

501 Tunnel Ave.; 415/330-1415;