"Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is an essential local response to a pressing global issue."
Bio: Laura Tam
Laura Tam coordinates SPUR's work in five major policy areas: green buildings, water supply, wastewater, energy and climate change.
Prior to joining SPUR, Laura worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General, where she conducted research and analysis that produced recommendations for the EPA to better manage environmental problems. In this position, she worked on a variety of policy issues, such as enforcing the Clean Water Act and managing electronic waste. She previously worked for the Northern Forest Center on rural development and conservation in the Northeast. She is the author of the book, At Home in the Northern Forest.
Laura earned a Master’s degree in environmental management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and received her BA in Geography from Dartmouth College.
Originally from Honolulu, Laura has lived in San Francisco since 2003, and in her free time, enjoys running, yoga, and spending time in San Francisco’s natural areas with her family.
Our water and wastewater systems are aging and in need of repair and reinvestment. Reliability of these lifelines is essential to the future of the City’s environment and economy. We can rebuild them in a way that more sustainably manages resources than we have in the past.
Reducing global warming emissions
San Francisco has many options to achieve greenhouse gas reductions from major emissions sources: energy, waste, land use and transportation. The City has set an aggressive target for reductions, and a cost-effective approach will help us reach it most efficiently.
Beneficially reusing “waste”
The concept of waste is not a sustainable one. To the extent possible, we should maximize the use of resources and prevent them from becoming wastes. This means diverting waste from landfills, composting organics, and putting rainwater to use instead of letting it flow into the sewer system.
Greening the built environment
San Francisco now has some of the greenest codes for new construction in the country. To reduce our carbon footprint and meet our climate change goals, we need to retrofit existing buildings to conserve resources. Conveniently, energy efficiency--and renewable energy over the long term--iis usually a cost-saving investment for building owners. People just need to know what to do and how to do it.
We are working to promote and facilitate the widespread use of green building and energy efficiency practices in new construction and existing structures. SPUR supported the sweeping green building ordinance covering most new buildings and large alterations that went into effect in November 2008. SPUR is currently working with the City to develop a cohesive green building strategy for existing buildings.
In 2004, San Francisco adopted a Climate Action Plan which set an emissions benchmark of 20% below 1990 levels by 2012. In 2008, the San Francisco Foundation funded SPUR to add rigor to the urban global warming agenda by developing a plan for responding to climate change in San Francisco. We estimated the costs and benefits of over 40 potential interventions into the city’s carbon metabolism, and provided recommendations for the City to cost-effectively reduce emissions here and throughout the region. We are also members of ClimatePlan, a coalition focused on promoting land use policies and public investment in California to achieve state greenhouse gas emission reductions targets.
Rebuilding Wastewater and Water System Infrastructure
SPUR has long championed integrated stormwater management and sewer system improvements. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has embarked on a major capital project to upgrade San Francisco’s sewer system, a project we are monitoring and advocating for. The SFPUC has also begun the Water System Improvement Program to seismically retrofit and provide supply upgrades to the regional water system, which carries water from the Sierras to the Bay area. SPUR has a strong history of support for the Tuolumne River, the system upgrade, and the $1.6 billion water bond passed by San Francisco voters in 2002.
An Energy Policy for San Francisco
SPUR is participating in creating a roadmap to San Francisco’s energy future. We participated in two taskforces seeking to increase renewable energy production in the city. The Solar Task Force concluded its work in 2008 with the successful launch of a solar rebate program, GoSolarSF. The rebate program will stimulate additional solar installations in the city beyond what state and federal incentives would have created, and it also supports local businesses and a green jobs program. Our participation in the Urban Wind Power Taskforce is ongoing. Last year we opposed the SFPUC’s proposal to install and operate “peaker” combustion turbine power plants in southeast San Francisco. Our analysis revealed the City can likely meet reliability needs with projects such as the transbay cable, renewable energy, conservation and demand management — and also can propose a new, greener energy plan to the state.
Sustainable Development Updates
Contact Laura Tam, SPUR Sustainable Development Policy Director: ltama t spur dot org
"The publication of a report is just the beginning of the campaign to fix something."
Please enjoy our interview with Laura Tam, Sustainable Development Policy Director, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) by Willi Paul
How do you define localization?
I don't really use this word, but I certainly believe that local decisions have global implications. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example, is an essential local response to a pressing global issue.
What are the top five sustainability principles driving SPUR?
High density cities are a way to manage humanity's ecological footprint. Environmental quality and economic vitality go hand in hand. The decisions we make about resources, infrastructure, and development today should not lock us into a future that cannot be sustained. Reducing our ecological footprint now is more important than doing so later. Conservation and efficiency are better investments than expanding supply, for natural resources.
Environmental impacts and the cost of protecting the environment must be equitably distributed. I could go on! At SPUR, I organize my work into six policy areas in which I apply these principles: water, wastewater, climate change, energy, green buildings, and environmental health.
How do you practice the green life at home?
Well, it's an ongoing project. We live in a pretty small, urban home - about 800 square feet for the three of us. We take public transit to and from work every day, including dropping our son off at daycare. We bike to and from the grocery store - we mostly support a neighborhood grocer who has a lot of great organic and locally grown produce. We are vegetarians.
My baby is in cloth diapers. We compost all our food waste, recycle almost everything else, turn off lights, use minimal water, have dimmer switches and timers everywhere to make our house compliant with California's Title 24, which as you may know, has kept our state's residential energy use basically flat for 25 years, in spite of population growth. Of course, there is more we can do. Some of our household appliances are not that efficient, but we'll replace them with low-water, low-energy models as they wear out. We are hoping to replace our cemented-over yard with vegetables and native, drought-tolerant plants, and to get a rain barrel to harvest the rain from our roof. We'd love to replace our car with a plug-in hybrid and rooftop solar, but these are not cost-effective options for us right now.
How long has SPUR had a Sustainable Development Policy Director ? What are the key lessons that you have learned so far?
I am lucky to be the first person to have this position, and I've been at SPUR for about two years. But SPUR is really a sustainable development organization, and we have been working for decades to make our city and region more sustainable through our work on housing, community planning, transportation, economic development, and good government. Sustainability shouldn't be viewed as a separate project from building a vibrant city.
There are two important lessons I have learned so far. One is, that the publication of a report is just the beginning of the campaign to fix something. SPUR's research is first-rate, but it is the education and advocacy parts of our work that really get the job done. Second, for any campaign to be successful, we need smart and actionable policy recommendations, and to get those, we need to engage a broad group of people to assess and solve the problem. SPUR is unique in this aspect. We don't just do our own research and writing: we engage insiders and outsiders in volunteer task forces, who come together to solve policy problems. It's not always a linear process, but it's always thoughtful. I guess that's a third lesson: this work requires patience!
What green authors and books do you hold up as beacons of truth and leadership in your business?
Do you see a major shift in the power of the USA as the banking, housing, climate and unemployment debacle hits home. What is your near term view of the future?
Didn't those debacles hit home first? I take a fairly optimistic view of the future, but the short term is going to be rough for sure.
Is sustainability like a new religion? How so? Interesting question. In my view, sustainability is not optional.
Are you seeing new symbols and stories in the green movement that might be contributing to a new mythology of sustainability?
We're starting to see that the urgency of stopping climate change is affecting business as usual. It's not a fringe issue anymore: it's a core priority for many organizations, businesses, and governments. And it's not just that we've got to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions (though that is #1 on the agenda), but that our history of producing them is already changing the climate today, and we'll have to adapt. In our lifetimes.
We are changing the very relationship of life and earth as we understand it, and we better figure out how to help the webs of life that support us adapt quickly - or we're all in deep trouble. I think more people are starting to realize this - that our current path is not a sustainable one for anybody - and the more that know, the more that can join the brain trust to figure out what to do.
Who are recent partners at SPUR? What necessitates a partnership?
SPUR is a member-supported nonprofit organization, so our very existence necessitates a partnership with our 4000 business and individual members. We also have a pretty dynamic network of partnerships or task forces that coalesce around specific policy issues we work on, such as transportation, or climate change adaptation. These usually involve smaller groups of members, expert volunteers, and city leaders, and last from a few months to a few years.
How do you define green washing? How does SPUR address this?
SPUR doesn't specifically work on green washing, but it's certainly a problem, so I hope the FTC does.
What environmental justice issues is SPUR working on?
One of the most important environmental justice issues that SPUR has been involved in is the effort to close the city's last remaining large gas-burning power plant. The plant is located in the city's environmental justice communities and for a long time, the City was trying to replace it with newer fossil fuel-burning power plants that would be located in the same neighborhood. SPUR got involved in a coalition that said the City could revise its energy reliability plan and invest instead in renewables and demand management. I think we are on the brink of victory, and the plant will be closing within a year.
How does SPUR see the design changes for Market Street at this point?
We are very excited about the city's willingness to experiment a little bit with Market Street, to try new things to make it a better street. Right now it doesn't work that well for private cars, let alone for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit vehicles. SPUR has believed for a long time that our city deserves and can support a grand boulevard, and Market Street has a lot of potential.
What impact has your report on cooling made to date? Please explain to PlanetShifter.com why a 17 year old hanging out on Haight Street should care about cap and trade? Carbon tax?
Our paper on how San Francisco should prioritize its climate actions has been very well received. Of course, it's been very helpful at shaping our own advocacy priorities on climate action. But what's been surprising is how many calls I've gotten about our impact analysis of many of the specific policies we considered, such as our emissions estimates for increasing ferry service, building HOT lanes, or building out the city's bike network.
Cap and trade and a carbon tax are just two different approaches to regulating emissions nationally. A 17 year old hanging out on Haight Street might not care about the arcane details of these policy tools, but ought to know that any policy, from the city to the federal level, comes with costs and benefits. The cost of not choosing one of these approaches is that we won't be reducing emissions anytime soon (let alone by 2020), and we'll be faced with even greater threats to our future well-being from sea level rise, fires, drought, disease, famine, and more. A 17 year old should be able to look down the road 20 or 30 years to realize that today's choices affect his or her own future. Having an informed opinion is the first step to making a better future. And frankly, it's essential to our democracy. That 17 year old is about to become a voter.
When you call for the City to ”leverage its participation in regional land use and transportation planning entities,” the skeptics retort that the multi-level bureaucracies fighting for State tax dollars and land use control will never be in collaboration. Your insights?
This isn't about fighting for tax dollars. It's really about taking advantage of an opportunity to reduce emissions throughout the Bay Area, and beyond just San Francisco. City officials, by way of their participation in the regional planning entities that shape our region's infrastructure investments and development patterns, should ensure that climate impacts are a part of the decision making. For example, the City has representatives on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, on Caltrain, on the Bay Conservation & Development Commission.
These agencies make important decisions about where we put roads, extend transit, and build housing for the 3 million people that will be moving here over the next 20 years. Smart land use planning - putting new housing and jobs in places where people don't have to drive as much - is one of the cheapest possible ways to reduce our region's future emissions.