Greening Away the Urban Blues
An interview with Marcia McNally of the Oakland organization Urban Ecology
by Sarah Bardeen of the Green City Project

Green City: What prompted the development of Blueprint and what would you like to achieve with it?

Marcia McNally: It was intended to be the organizationís vision for a sustainable Bay Area... but also more importantly to be a foot in the door, to really start a dialogue about what can be done...

GC: How did issues of economic inequality figure into the Blueprint?

MM: An interesting case study we did -- and this is one of the ones I like the best because itís an unconventional partnership -- is in Redwood City at Cañada College. The college started a downtown branch specifically to do entrepreneurship training for low-income people that live close by. Itís available to people within walking distance who donít have a car to get to the Highway 280 campus. It turns out Redwood City, much to most peopleís surprise, has about 50% of the kids on Aid for Families and Dependent Children (AFDC). Everyone thinks that the only low-income communities are in Marin City, Richmond, Oakland, and Bayview/Hunterís Point. Theyíre actually everywhere in the Bay Area.

GC: How would you rate the Bay Area now in terms of sustainability?

MM: When I first started working on the project I was really surprised to find that other cities were doing so much more than the Bay Area. Itís partly because life is still really good here; itís a great place to live, but the damning and damaging adjustments people have made to their lives to deal with traffic increasing commuting time and things like that have come slowly, so that people havenít quite hit the boiling point yet. Air quality to a personís eye is good relative to Los Angeles. We can always feel like weíre better than Los Angeles. But in fact, other places have done a lot more.

GC: Do you put forth a vision for individual action as well as community-based action?

MM: There are simple things like living in an existing city, living in an existing neighborhood. If youíre going to buy your first home, buy an older home instead of a new home or tract home way out in the Greenfield Project. Buy locally, walk to go shopping. Those are very small things but they [help] people figure out how to enter the movement....

GC: Are there examples of sustainability in the Bay Area right now that particularly inspire you?

MM: The Crossing Project in Mountain View where they recycled the shopping center and turned it into a multi-unit, mixed-use transit-oriented project and they relocated the train station -- I love that project! I actually lived in that town in my senior year in high school and would ride my bike to that shopping center which was really far away from anybody.

I also think whatís happening along the Caltrain line in terms of redevelopment in the downtown so that living, working, and shopping can all be done on foot is tremendous.

Both the city of San Rafael and Concord have neighborhood programs. The Urban Ecology staff has decided to work with neighborhoods to do planning... I think the neighborhood is a really important unit in which to make change. There hasnít been neighborhood-based planning for a long, long time and to have it institutionalized at the city level is, I think, terrific.

As a place thatís most progressive: San Jose, hands down. they have been aggressively pursuing downtown revitalization, the whole sustainable agenda, for more than 20 years. Having urban growth boundaries, doing infill housing, reinvesting in old low-income housing stock to make neighborhoods stronger....

GC: Is there anything else you want to get across about Blueprint right now?

MM: In doing the Blueprint it became clear that the Bay Area -- if it continues at its same path of development -- is going to be in bad shape soon. But there are a lot of things that can be done about it and the Blueprintís about putting forth that positive vision. It talks about projects that are already happening that have a track record to show how sustainability is do-able.

For a long time discussions about environmental issues seemed to end up often about recycling -- which is a really important thing. Recycling has been a great vehicle to raise consciousness about environmental issues... We found that more people recycle in the U.S. than vote. Which is depressing -- good for recycling, bad for democracy. But even if everyone in the States recycled, it would only have a 1-2% impact on the waste stream. We think that in order to make more long-term changes we need to extend ďrecyclingĒ to recycling the entire city. We hope that people will take a new look at the city as a real resource to recycle and reuse, to shape something that creates fantastic living for Bay Area residents.

We donít have to just wring our hands -- we can actually do something about it. I personally think that within the next 5 or 10 years youíre not only going to see more of these positive projects starting up around the Bay Area. There are going to be some major opportunities that hopefully will have along-term positive effect. So take part!

-- From the Green City Calendar