SF explores an ecodistrict idea for South of Market 

click to enlarge Eco-District
  • Courtesy rendering
  • The Central SoMa Eco-District task force’s sweeping vision for South of Market includes buildings with features such as grey-water systems and green local energy production.
The city of tomorrow — the future — has a long history. From dirigibles floating above elegant avenues to flying cars cruising neon skyscraper canyons, the imagined urban landscape has never been in short supply.

But the future of one San Francisco district — a 24-block area south of Market Street and east of the future Transbay Transit Center — is undergoing a different sort of imagining. Instead of sweeping avenues and archways to reflect a place’s grandeur, an ongoing planning effort’s purpose is to lighten the neighborhood’s environmental load.

By encouraging developers, neighbors, city departments and the business community to collaborate on everything from grey-water systems to local energy production to urban agriculture, planners hope to plant the seeds for a new kind of place in San Francisco: an “ecodistrict.”

Imagine an urban landscape in which, say, a park’s wetland-like lake filters wastewater from the surrounding buildings, which is then used to irrigate rooftop gardens. Or an apple grove along Townsend Street, irrigated with rainwater, that is tended by a local farmer to supply a food pantry on Third Street.

Such ideas are no more than planners’ vision, a pile of thick documents created from numerous meetings.

But it is less pie-in-the-sky than it seems, said Kate McGee, one of The City’s lead planners and part of the Central SoMa Eco-District task force, which recently released its recommendations for the first phase of the future district.

“It could actually happen, but it’s really early days,” McGee said.

Real-world examples already exist, she said.

Rainwater harvesting, grey-water recycling, on-site wind and solar energy generation, and real-time building system data are all realities in an office that stands a block away from City Hall.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s headquarters on Golden Gate Avenue is a living, breathing example of what planners hope to accomplish in their ecodistrict, McGee said.

The building has four wind turbines, solar panels, a rainwater catchment system, intuitive lighting, heating and cooling systems, and even an elevator that creates energy using its braking mechanism. It also treats its own wastewater in what they call the “living machine,” said Tyrone Jue, an SFPUC spokesman.

The building’s wastewater runs down in tanks that undulate under the sidewalk, washing across the roots of plants that look simply decorative along the building’s front. The process cleans the water like a marsh would, Jue said.

Much of this activity is displayed in data on the wall of the building’s cafe, so the public, and SFPUC employees, can see what the building and the people in it use and create every minute.

A building like the SFPUC’s would anchor an ecodistrict, said Jue, by perhaps allowing nearby buildings to use its excess cleaned water in exchange for the excess power another building might produce.

This integrated approach to infrastructure, using bio mimicry like the living machine, McKee said, is a part of what they hope could happen in central South of Market.

Beyond specific mechanics, such efforts could transform how a community and businesses interact with government and vice versa.

Rob Bennett, CEO of EcoDistricts, a nonprofit out of Portland, Ore., that evangelizes about sustainable cities, said such districts could “allow local government to empower neighborhoods to do more than they currently do.”

Most simply, Bennett said, an ecodistrict changes the nature of planning. If everyone in a given district can see what its inputs and outputs are from open data, like in the SFPUC building, then ideas about how to reduce waste or recycle it, or build better buildings, might come from the neighborhood instead of from planners.

Bennett said he thinks ecodistricts could actually spawn new organizations that might change the way people govern themselves, and transform cities from black holes where resources disappear into pulsing, living sustainable ecosystems.

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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