Working toward a Sustainable Future for San Francisco







Indicators Applications: Moving Indicators into Action
San Francisco’s Experience
1988 - 1998

by Beryl Magilavy, President, Sustainable City

Presented at the
Redefining Progress California Community Indicators Conference
San Francisco, California
December 4, 1998

Abstract: Implementing a sustainability plan is ultimately a function of politics. Indicators and other numerical measures can be helpful in creating a political climate that is conducive to social change. San Francisco's sustainability planning experience over the last ten years has shown that objective measures are of assistance in implementing sustainability only if other, more crucial pieces of the civic puzzle are in place.


San Francisco is a Pacific Rim city of three-quarters of a million people, which as been called the "Left Coast" city for its history of progressive politics and political activism. However, with regard to environmental policy and practice, it has historically not been as forward-looking as its record in civil and labor rights, or its large population of people identifying themselves as environmentalists would lead one to expect. San Francisco has some excellent environmental programs: its recycling efforts have won national awards; it has an aggressive water-conservation audit program; it now boasts the most extensive program for reduction of municipal use of pesticides in the country. However, it also has one of the highest levels of per capita generation of waste in the world, limited commitment to shifting its transportation mix away from the single-occupancy vehicle, and a low level of commitment toward renewable energy and energy conservation. Its public parks have long been in disrepair. The long-term, integrated planning that is necessary to make a fundamental shift toward sustainability has traditionally been absent from San Francisco’s planning process, and recent administrations have shown only very limited interest in embracing a sustainability agenda.

In 1992, at the prodding of members of the local environmental advocacy community, the city established a citizen's advisory committee to the Board of Supervisors to address systematic environmental concerns. This body, in conjunction with a number of non-governmental organizations, particularly Sustainable City, began the process of assessing the environmental policies and practices of San Francisco city government. This effort eventually led to the creation of a community-based strategic planning process in 1996, which developed a sustainability plan for the city. Participants included over 350 residents, representatives of city agencies, business-people, and academics. The goals and objectives of the plan were adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 1997.

Purpose of the Planning Effort

The sole objective of establishing a sustainability planning effort in San Francisco was to effect fundamental change in the way the city operated: to incorporate the goals of sustainability into city programs and the activities of the private sector in such a way that the negative impact of urban life on the environment would be reduced, that resources would be conserved, that economic vitality would be achieved on a more sustainable model, and that civic goods would be spread more equitably among all sectors of the community. While there are subsidiary effects of a sustainability planning process: more open lines of communication between sectors, collection of information for research purposes, and so forth, these were not central to the effort’s intended outcome.

Major Components in Effecting Fundamental Change

Three things are required to effect social change:

  • A factual basis establishing the need for change;
  • Political support for fundamental change; and
  • An administrative structure in which change can occur.

Of these three, only political will can stand alone to create change. If a city's power base decides to proceed in a particular direction, it can do so without a factual basis for the decision, and it can do so without a pre-existing administrative structure to carry out the change.

When work first began on San Francisco's sustainability effort in the late 1980's, there was not (and is not yet) broad-based support among key elected officials and business leaders for fundamental movement toward sustainability. Therefore, advocates of sustainable planning are going "the long way," by establishing a factual analysis of the problem in order to convince local policy makers of the need for change, and creating a local administrative structure in which implementation could occur. The factual basis is represented by benchmarking, objectives, and indicators; the administrative structure was the creation, in the election of 1995 in which the city charter was revamped, of a new department of the environment, charged with overseeing coordination of the sustainability planning process.

While political support is indispensable, objective measures can be crucial to achieving that support. Many local policy decisions are based on interest-group pressure in an atmosphere of very little factual information. Without hard data on which to build an argument based on the long-term general good, it is extremely difficult to overcome the inclination of elected officials to vote as demanded by their noisiest constituency.

Equally important is creation of an appropriate government structure. Long-term planning and its implementation are essentially administrative. Without an efficient, effective administrative infrastructure, good intentions will not be turned into good programs. For instance, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the lack of a regional government structure has made it nearly impossible to develop a sensible regional public transit system or to control sprawl development

Measurement as an Advocacy Tool: Benchmarking, Objectives, and Indicators

In this context, measurement systems such as indicators are only as good as their usefulness in creating political support for changing social priorities. Over time, San Francisco's sustainability planning process has created three different structures for the development of objective measures on the city’s progress.

Benchmarking: In 1994, the citizen's advisory committee mentioned above sponsored the city’s first environmental state of the city report, prepared through the unbudgeted participation of many city agency staffpeople and a large amount of pro bono professional assistance. When the city's first department of the environment was created by charter amendment in 1995, the agency was charged with preparing a similar state of the city report on a regular basis. However, this activity has never been funded, and the department has allocated no staff time toward an update. Since the pro bono group that prepared the first report has now moved on to more attention to implementation of the sustainability plan, this benchmarking effort is in limbo. It was somewhat useful in pointing out the need for increased action in specific areas, but made no recommendations for particular change. No major change resulted as an outcome of this early effort.

Objectives: In the mid-1990's it came to the attention of those engaged in local sustainable development work in San Francisco that there was a growing world-wide effort to incorporate the ideas of sustainability into practice at the local level, and we were able to learn from efforts elsewhere. San Francisco's sustainability plan is an action plan, based on a model of the Implementation Plan for Agenda 21 used in the United Kingdom. Within its 15-topic structure, it is divided into general goals, objectives to reach sustainability, five-year objectives, and a number of actions proposed to lead to achievement of the five-year objectives.

Indicators: Within the sustainability plan structure, a series of 45 indicators is meant to supply a more holistic measurement of sustainability trends in a way that will be accessible to the general public.

The strategic planning nature of the sustainability plan gives it a strength beyond that of the 1994 benchmarking effort: it created a policy action plan that could be adopted by the local legislature, and it created a "to-do list" of specific proposals that are meant to lead to achievement of objectives in a five-year time-frame, and, indirectly, to improved indicators measures in the longer term.

Effectiveness of Objectives and Indicators in Creating Change
in San Francisco

Real change as a result of adoption of the goals and objectives of the sustainability plan in 1997 has so far been disappointing, but not nonexistent. Among the outcomes for which the sustainability plan can take some credit, shared with activist community groups, is a decision on the city's part to buy a polluting power plant and close it down, the creation of an extensive integrated pest management plan for municipal land and buildings, and the imminent introduction of legislation to create a resource-efficient building program for municipal buildings.

Data on the status of the sustainability plan's objectives is only now beginning to be collected, by a project of Sustainable City, with the cooperation of relevant city agencies.

Barriers to change have included:

  • Really bad press. The San Francisco Chronicle, the city's major newspaper, is very conservative on environmental issues. Their dismissive, ridiculing coverage of the sustainability plan upon its introduction at the Board of Supervisors caused many elected officials to shy away from associating themselves with it.

  • Lack of support from the current administration. Neither the current president of the Board of Supervisors nor the mayor have bought in to the need for strategic sustainability planning and implementation of the sustainability plan. This has resulted not only in the non-funding of the sustainability mandates of the new Department of the Environment, but several threats to the effectiveness and existence of existing city environmental programs.

  • A municipal culture that discourages policy-related data collection. Government agencies in San Francisco largely have not been "reinvented." Therefore the sorts of performance feed-back loops, and the internal measurement systems that go with them, that exist in organizations run in the fashion of total quality management or ISO 9000 do not generally exist here. Getting data is very difficult, because it entails a disproportionately large effort on the part of the subject agency, for which it has no staff available.

  • Lack of an organized, vocal public-interest lobbying effort. Perhaps more than many cities, San Francisco's policies are influenced by politically active organized groups with particular interests. While a large number of "stake-holders," many of whom held positions of significant influence in the public and private sectors, drafted the sustainability plan, they were not organized to continue to push for its implementation.

  • Too broad a field of effort. San Francisco's sustainability plan covers too much territory. Its scope makes it difficult to focus on individual areas in which action should take place first.

New Initiatives

Frustrated with the pace of change, local environmental advocates recently have established a political action committee to change the makeup of the city's elected leadership through direct participation in the electoral process. There is an encouraging change on the horizon with the incoming president of the Board of Supervisors, one who really understands and advocates for sustainable development.

Sustainability advocates have regrouped to focus on community organizing to collect relevant indicator data, market the need for sustainability programs to the general public and local elected officials, work more closely with the business community, and to continue advocacy for implementation of specific components of the sustainability plan. A larger community base is being created through the worldwide web and other media.

The effort will continue to make sustainable practices the core of the way the city does business, but an honest assessment of progress to date would rate the situation as "challenging."


To move indicators into action, a strategic plan is necessary, but not sufficient. Without an action plan, a community risks collecting data that will provide it with an attractive graph of environmental, economic and social decline, without a strategy for changing the slope of the curve. With an action plan, it may get that downward slope anyway, if there is insufficient political support for implementation of the plan. Key to implementation of any sustainability action plan is the support of the local power base. Indicators are useful only insofar as they serve to create and maintain that support. In some situations, a necessary component in implementing sustainability will be to organize the sustainability constituency to lobby more effectively, and to work to elect people more in tune with sustainability goals.


Beryl Magilavy has worked to advance local sustainability in San Francisco for over ten years. She served as founding chair (1992-4) of the citizens' advisory committee to the Board of Supervisors that began the sustainability planning process, edited the city’s first environmental state of the city report, organized the community strategic planning process that resulted in the Sustainability Plan for the City of San Francisco, and edited the plan. She served as the first president of the new Commission on the Environment formed in 1996, and was founding director of the Department of the Environment. Discouraged by the lack of support for the agency’s mission from the current administration, she resigned that position in August, 1998 to return to the private sector, and now serves as president of Sustainable City, a local advocacy group. She is a senior fellow with Redefining Progress.