A Two-fold Success: San Francisco’s Central SoMa and Citywide Eco-District Program

Over the past few weeks, we’ve highlighted past EcoDistricts Incubator teams from Detroit and Pittsburgh and how the program has catalyzed successful neighborhood-scale regeneration projects in their cities. For part three of our Incubator Success Stories Series, we are taking a look at the 2012 Central SoMa Ecodistrict team from the City of San Francisco. And what sets San Francisco apart is it’s committed adoption of the EcoDistricts concept citywide.

The City by the Bay has long been a leader in municipal-wide sustainability and environmental policies. It was one of the first US cities to require climate action plans from all city departments. San Francisco is also on its way to achieving both zero waste to landfills and 100 percent renewable energy by 2020. Thanks to municipal-level policies like these and many others, it’s not surprising that San Francisco continually lands at the top of sustainable city lists.

But the city has recently been taking a look at the importance of sustainable urban regeneration at the district and neighborhood level – a place where regeneration and sustainability can work hand in hand to strengthen the economy and reduce environmental impacts while creating a stronger sense of place and community. And this breath of fresh air into the city’s urban planning policies and programs is in large part thanks to their participation in the 2012 EcoDistricts Incubator.

A rendering of the Central Corridor Ecodistrict
A rendering of the Central Corridor Ecodistrict

As part of the first Incubator class (like we said before – sustainable city leader), the city’s Planning Department brought a holistic team of agency managers to focus on the South of Market (SoMa) Central Corridor, a former industrial area that is now positioned to become a growing center of the city’s and region’s high-tech industry. A new transit line is scheduled to begin operation in 2018, and undeveloped or underdeveloped parcels in the corridor offer significant development opportunities, such as high-density office and living spaces, retail and hotels. The area’s proposed public realm and transportation improvements will also create opportunities to sustainably align energy, water, and waste infrastructure systems.

Aside from being a neighborhood ripe for regeneration, Central SoMa also has another distinction: As the City’s first ecodistrict project, it is also a catalyst and scalable example for the Planning Department’s overarching Eco-District Framework. So, the outcome of the 2012 Incubator was two-fold. The team left with both a customized EcoDistricts Roadmap for SoMa and a comprehensive approach to district-scale sustainability that they institutionalized citywide.

“The Incubator program really got our team fired up,” said Cal Broomhead, Energy Programs Manager at the Department of Environment. “It was inspiring to meet teams around country who are also doing sustainable district- and neighborhood-scale work and to begin thinking about how to do it at home.” And Jon Swae, Eco-District Manager for the Planning Department shared that “the Incubator was a catalyst for developing San Francisco’s sustainability program for districts and neighborhoods.”

Since the 2012 Incubator, the city has made some impressive progress on both the Central SoMa project and it’s citywide Eco-District Framework.

A concept for stormwater management in SoMa's Central Corridor Ecodistrict. Rendering by Jihee Chung, SWA Group.
A concept for stormwater management in SoMa’s Central Corridor Ecodistrict. Rendering by Jihee Chung, SWA Group.

Following the EcoDistricts four-step implementation model that teams are trained in at the Incubator, the Planning Department has begun working in phases one and two – Formation and Assessment. They developed an Inter-Departmental Task Force that completed a comprehensive Central Corridor EcoDistrict Program Framework and a Task Force Report that highlights the opportunities and avenues for success in the neighborhood. The Planning Department also conducted a Sustainable Communities Health Assessment of the Central SoMa area, which included recommendations specifying improvements such as increased number of trees and open space, pedestrian and bicycle-safe streets and sidewalks, public placemaking to reduce crime, and additional affordable housing.

As for next steps for Central SoMa, the Planning Department is looking to create an implementation framework to put their ideas and planning into action. They’ve also started community energy planning for an integrated renewable and district energy strategy, are researching funding models, and forming partnerships with organizations like the US Environmental Protection Agency and International Living Future Institute.

All this success, and that’s just in one neighborhood. “The next step is scaling the concept,” said Jon Swae.

And the city isn’t taking any breaks before they start scaling up. The Planning Department has already developed an Eco-District Typology, which categorize four diverse types of neighborhoods found throughout the city: the Blank Slate, the Patchwork Quilt, the Strengthened Neighborhood, and the Industrial Network. Each project type has its own unique characteristics, challenges and opportunities that help leaders identify strategies for the planning and implementation of their Eco-District projects.

The district-scale, or ‘Eco-District’ concept has been met with great support and understanding over the last year. The city’s Eco-District Typology has helped communicate how the Eco-District concept could be applied given the city’s different contexts.

The Planning Department also created a Sustainable Systems Framework, a guide for implementing measurable, sustainable development projects in San Francisco. The Framework outlines a set of 61 indicators that bridge the domains of sustainability, health and equity, and quality of life. Embracing the age of data and technology, these indicators will be publicly disseminated through a Sustainable Neighborhoods Dashboard Project.

San Francisco's Chinatown – the City's next Ecodistrict project.
San Francisco’s Chinatown – the City’s next Ecodistrict project.

The Framework and Dashboard will help guide the successful development of projects like SoMa and the City’s next sustainable regeneration project – San Francisco’s famous Chinatown. A community-based initiative led by the Chinatown Community Development Center, the Sustainable Chinatown Initiative will build on the strong and vibrant historical and cultural identity of the neighborhood, high housing density, rich transit access and a walkability to improve the quality of housing and neighborhood sustainability. Community is key in this neighborhood – with nearly 15,000 people, many of which are low-income immigrants, project leaders are focusing on building equity in Chinatown through community engagement in projects, affordability and development without displacement.

From a customized Framework for the SoMa Central Corridor Ecodistrict, to a citywide adoption of district-scale sustainability, to the scaling up of the EcoDistricts process to new projects, San Francisco truly used the Incubator as a means to catapult neighborhood-based urban regeneration. “The Incubator provided the framework for developing San Francisco’s district sustainability program,” said Jon Swae “It helped us build key partnerships needed to carry work forward within the city and strengthened alliances amongst agencies.”