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Hot Planet, Cool City


San Francisco has long been fertile ground for progressive ideas in a rainbow of colors to take root, but in the 21st century, The City by the Bay has blossomed as the model metropolis in one noteworthy hue: green. A top-10 darling of countless “Greenest Cities” lists, our cutting-edge city deserves the reputation it’s worked hard to cultivate. Where else, after all, can you choose between hopping a clean-fuel bus at a solar-powered transit stop, and hailing a hybrid taxi on your way to a zero-waste conference at a convention center outfitted with municipally-owned solar installations?

Recent planet-friendly programs have pushed the environmental envelope in innovative directions, ranging from the mundane (swapping energy-wasting light bulbs for efficient versions in all municipal buildings) to the magnificent (the city now owns the largest fleet of vehicles running on biodiesel). Each groundbreaking initiative elicits not only the esteem of environmental leaders around the globe, but the copycat effect, too.
“Yes, San Francisco is a model green city,” says Astrid Haryati, San Francisco’s official Greening Director, citing the City’s comprehensive environmental policies and implementation strategies as the defining features. But don’t just take her word for it; consider these ahead-of-the-curve programs and initiatives that have put San Francisco on the environmental map in the last few years alone:

“Our recently adopted mandatory recycling and composting ordinance has been very successful,” says SF Environment’s Westlund. “The city recycles 72 percent of its waste stream—more than any other major urban city.” Since the ordinance went into effect, the amount of food waste diverted from landfill has leaped from 300 tons to more than 500 tons every day. Taking recycling to the next level, the SFGreasecycle program, which redirects restaurants’ cooking grease from the municipal sewer system, closes a loop by generating fuel for the city’s fleet of low-emission vehicles.

Plastic, Shmastic
San Francisco made major headlines in 2007 when it became the first city in the nation to ban plastic bags at grocery stores and drug store chains. “That one’s gotten quite a bit of attention,” says Mark Westlund of SF Environment. The city department was established in 1995 to offer information, incentives, and policies to help protect the environment. “Other cities are looking to implement similar legislation,” says Westlund. Los Angeles—for one—plans to usher in its bag ban on July 1.

Solar City
There’s a bit of irony in the fact that oft-foggy San Francisco is a solar-power trendsetter, but it’s good irony. In 2008, The City launched an innovative subsidy program for home and business owners willing to invest in solar energy, and, when it’s completed later this year, the Sunset Reservoir Project will be California’s largest municipal solar installation. By 2013, the city will be dotted with more than 1,000 solar-powered bus shelters offering the most enviable of commuter perks: free WiFi.

Outdoor Oasis
Pavement to Parks, which reclaims underutilized urban zones and transforms them into verdant mini parks, recently announced a dozen new installations throughout San Francisco in 2010, while the lifting of the three-year-long bicycle injunction means the City can finally move forward with improvements to the local bicycling infrastructure. “Improving and increasing bicycling is such a critical issue in San Francisco because we do pride ourselves on being a green city that really leads the way on sustainable living,” says the SF Bike Coalition’s Leah Shahum.

While the world marvels at the city’s great green blueprint, the local community continues to converge and create ideas for a sustainable future by promoting urban agriculture, exploring wind-and-wave energy technology, and leading the pack in green construction and retrofitting. “There’s always room for improvement,” says Green Festival co-producer Kevin Danaher. “But compared to other cities, we’re way out in front.”