I am an independent consultant focusing on business development, marketing, communications and strategy for mission driven companies. Previously, I served as Director of Business Development for Viv (a Bay Area environmental start-up), Program Manager for Social Venture Technology Group (a boutique consulting firm focused on measuring social and environmental impact), and Associate Consultant at ...
San Francisco Director of the Environment intends to apply San Francisco's environmental learnings to cities around the world
Jared Blumenfeld has one of the most important environmental leadership roles in San Francisco, a city which he says is “in the top 10 on the planet that have thought about how to become more sustainable and started actually doing it.” Blumenfeld is Director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, which provides environmental policy guidance to the Mayor and Board of Supervisors as well as creates innovative programs to educate and serve San Francisco’s citizens. He was appointed to his role 6 years ago by Mayor Willie Brown and reappointed twice by Mayor Gavin Newsom, to whom he reports directly. I was lucky enough to speak with him last week and get the inside scoop on Blumenfeld’s vision for San Francisco, some exciting projects that are underway in the city, what it’s like to work for Gavin Newsom, and his own career path and environmental practices.
Blumenfeld, a true to the core environmentalist, rides his bike to work every day, is a huge fan of Energy Star appliances, CFLs, and replacing broken things in his Twin Peaks home with energy efficient alternatives. “It’s relatively easy to be green and it saves you a lot of money, so even if you don’t care about the environment it makes sense.” According to Blumenfeld, his biggest success in office has been “getting the urban environmental agenda to be more mainstream… People are starting to think of San Francisco as the environment they need to protect” whereas saving the environment used to conjure up images of endangered lands like Yosemite and Muir Woods. He views success in terms of human engagement and hard figures. In just six years in office, he has expanded his department from 14 to 70 people. And the recycling rate has taken off – growing from 46% when he got the job to 70% today. He is committed to leveraging the $600M that the city has to buy goods and services, using that money to both reward and incentivize environmentally progressive products.
“Climate change is here for a long time, it’s not a two month campaign,” Blumenfeld noted. The Department of the Environment runs many long-term projects that rely on civic engagement to succeed. One of Blumenfeld’s largest challenges in this position has been getting and keeping the public’s attention. “Keeping it relevant and impactful is difficult.”
Blumenfeld’s vision is for San Francisco to be a place people want to visit for its progressive environmental position. Cities produce 75% of our CO2 and luckily they are rather similar; since San Francisco got a head start over other cities working on sustainability, learnings from San Francisco can be applied all over the world. “We have an incredibly affluent city, an incredibly environmentally aware city with a progressive set of politicians and innovation all around us. There are more Nobel laureates in the Bay Area than anywhere else… We’ve got some pretty amazing urban growth boundaries on three sides– the Bay and the ocean – and clearly defined on the south, so we’re not dealing with sprawl. We were founded before the automobile.” Needless to say, San Francisco is well-positioned to lead in this field.
Some of San Francisco’s environmental goals are to reach zero waste by 2020, to reduce CO2 emissions significantly below 1990 levels, to remove all toxic chemicals in our parks, to impost stringent green building standards for new buildings and renovations, and much more. Had I gotten details on all the projects Blumenfeld has in the works, I would have been in his office all day. But I’ll mention a few:
San Francisco is currently working on a project with Cisco to understand how computer technology can be used to save the planet. Cisco chose three cities, Seoul, Amsterdam and San Francisco, as target cities for this eco-mapping project. The maps will allow neighborhoods to see where they stand environmentally and also understand results of individual action. The idea is that while we tend to focus on individual action, we never aggregate it to understand the higher level impacts. “So we want to show in real time how individual actions impact numbers.”
The first layer of the eco-map is a solar map, which lets people know they have a resource above them (their roof}. “We digitized every rooftop and looked at sloping, shading and the solar capacity and [the solar map] comes out with a number of how many kilowatts you get out of your roof and how much CO2 you can save as well as how much money you would save on your PG&E bill” by going solar. My small home could apparently support a 1-3 KW system, saving me $300-$900/year in electricity bills! The project is also about understanding which messages are most effective in motivating action.
Another current project of the department is the Urban Wind Task Force, which is working on understanding the potential for urban and residential wind power in San Francisco. In some cases people can procure up to 1KW of energy from a single wind turbine.
“We certainly don’t think that governments can solve all problems. The role of business is very important.” As such, San Francisco’s Green Business Program, acknowledges businesses that have passed strict guidelines for greening their operations. San Francisco tries to promote its green businesses and reward them with increased traffic. The program has thus far been a free city program, but “we have become a victim of our own success” and the city needs to start charging larger businesses to go through the process due to time demands. In the meantime, auditing and support to become a green business will remain free for small businesses.
Before leaving Blumenfeld’s office, I could not help but inquire about working for Mayor Newsom. “He has a passion and a great interest in environmental issues…every trip he goes on he comes back with thousands of ideas and we sit down and sort through them and try and prioritize and see what makes sense. [Newsom] is incredibly supportive. Without him, programs would not happen. You can have a great Department of the Environment with 70 people, but without a liberal champion nothing would happen. He knows what he doesn’t know when it comes to the environment and he actually knows a lot.”
Blumenfeld’s background is in international environmental law. He previously worked for the organizations including the NRDC and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, where he helped protect 4 million acres of land while bringing lawsuits against corporations like Airbus and Mitsubishi. Looking forward, Blumenfeld acknowledges that while he loves non-profit work, the environmental movement is progressing rapidly and has almost eclipsed non-profits, with governments and businesses taking up the issue. Blumenfeld wants to be in a place “where there’s impact. If I’m doing this job in 15 years, the planet will be in trouble because that will mean the rest of the movement hasn’t progressed.”
Amie Vaccaro is interested in green companies, entrepreneurs, and movements reducing environmental impact through sustainable innovation. You can read her blog, ecofrenzy, which is focused on green business happenings and other related ommentary.