Event Circle
    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?

    For years I've appreciated the work of Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins, and Andrew C. Revkin's investigative journalism on environmental issues for the New York Times. I like Grist.org for a roundup of environmental news, and the blog I think is most important today is Joe Romm's Climateprogress.org.

    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.