On Location: Sustainability in San Francisco

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I’m delighted to finally present my video blog about examples of sustainability in San Francisco. Filmed just before the coronavirus lockdowns, I revisited my some of my old haunts from when I lived and worked in the Bay Area and looked into exceptional examples of sustainability.

This blog post also gives up COVID-19 updates on how the places featured in the video are faring, what they are doing (which you’ll see adds further creedance to their sustainability efforts).

The Exploratorium: living, breathing and teaching sustainability

During my sabbatical year (2017-18) I had the priviledge of working at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco. I blogged extensively about my time there, some of those entries I’ll link back to, as they give further examples of their sustainability efforts. I loved it so much there I even wrote and performed a piece of poetry for the place!

The Exploratorium is located at Pier 15/17 on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, California. Aerial imagery clearly shows their massive roof-top solar array.

The Exploratorium describes itself as a public “learning laboratory” exploring the world through science, art, and human perception. Their vision is a world where people think for themselves and can confidently ask questions, question answers, and understand the world around them. One of their key values is not just the teaching, but also practice of sustainability.

Moving from their old site at the Palace of Fine Arts in 2013 to Pier 15 on the Embarcadero was the Exploratorium’s first act of sustainability at their new home, taking a run-down pier shed and taking up the challenge to develop it as a brownfield site.

Credit: Bruce Damonte, Source: AECCafe Blogs (itself a fanatastic read of the development process)

Powered by the sun

Sitting on Pier 15’s rooftops are 5874 solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, equating to around 1.3MW of power. To put into perspective for us in the UK, a hour of those totally soaking up the sun would power 2,600 average British homes for that hour (based on calculations from Ofgem). In effect, the Exploratorium’s roof may as well be a mini power-plant! And this is necessary. All the equipment, lighting, operations, exhibitions etc that the Exploratorium operates makes it quite power-hungry, and despite its size over the course of a year the array doesn’t quite account for all of its energy needs, but pretty close at around 90%. Still, there are plans to close that final gap, and over the 30-year lifespan of the system, the array will offset around 33,150 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Heating: Using the Bay itself as a radiator and cooler

When I first heard about the Exploratorium’s heating system during my time there, I had to see it myself to believe it. I managed to smuggle myself onto a tour of the system, and oh-my-word, it’s a thing of beauty. Rather than using expensive and energy-hungry air conditioners and heaters, the Exploratorium uses water from the Bay to regulate its temperature by pumping it around within the floor. Instead of me fudging the technical details here, allow me to let Chuck Mignacco explain how the bay-water heating and cooling system works, in the context of the building’s ‘net zero’ aims as a whole:

Education & community

Education and exploration is what drives the Exploratorium. In that respect, they treat the building itself as a muesum exhibit on sustainability. Since I was there two years ago, they’ve installed this interactive terminal for visitors to explore the building’s solar energy production.

Also on the roof of the Exploratorium and dipping into the Bay itself are many instruments that constantly measure the environment. All kinds of weather readouts, carbon dioxide measurements, pollutants in the Bay are just a few examples of the data collected and shared for visitors to both the museum itself and their website to explore.

The Exploratorium’s “loose cannon” Ron Hipschman points out some of the equipment on the building’s roof used to measure a number of environmental attitributes.

In my first blog post after starting work at the Exploratorium in January 2018, I commented on how the museum employs ‘high-school’ and ‘field-trip’ explainers. The high-school explainers are a group of youngsters who are keen to continue their own learning though teaching, demonstrating and guiding to the general public. They had to go through an application process and while it is paid they are still giving up their time. They are trained by the staff or experts in a field of study during an internship, and then put their skills and knowledge to practice out of in the exhibit galleries. The explainers come from a highly diverse array of socioeconomic backgrounds, enabling those with less-priveledged backgrounds accessing not just the education that a museum provides, but also the community and vocations they generate too.

A field-trip explainer delighting visitors with a demonstration about light, using three bulbs of each primary colour.

Another way the Exploratorium serves the community is by hosting public talks, discussions and seminars. The list below are examples of such events that I sat in and supported while working there, and you can read up more about each if you want to find out more:

Sustainability summary

The Exploratorium overwhelmingly ticks the environmental, social and political boxes when it comes to sustainability. Their efforts in those categories help economically too, especially with regards to supporting communities who are not priveledged to access museum settings by giving them training, education and employment. Running a museum with all the outreach that comes with it is an expensive business, and so the Exploratoriums efforts in sustainability help them to be more resilient in that respect.

The sustainability traits of the Exploratorium has earnt it a top independent award: the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design’s (LEED) Platium stamp.

You can read more about the Exploratorium’s sustainbility credientials, and watch some cool videos on their web page dedicated to their efforts.

The Bay’s Integrated Transport Network

The Bay Area’s public transport system is an integrated network, linking bus routes, street-car and tram lines, subway stations and bicycle lanes.

Here are a few examples of attempts at sustainability:

A clear map of the whole integrated transport network for the Bay Area is actually hard to come by. This map, produced by Alex Li, is the best representation I’ve come across so far.

A Simple attempt at reducing food waste

In 2009, San Francisco made composting food waste mandatory. It was the first U.S. city to tackle the issue on such a large scale. Each household and business must have a little green caddy or dedicated compost bin for food waste, which is then collected just like your regular rubbish or recycling truck pick-up.

Composting food waste is great, but reducing it in the first place is even better. When I lived in the Bay Area, my ‘local’ supermarket was Berekley Bowl West. It’s pretty much your regular supermarket, but in the corner there was a dedicate room for not just special offers on products about to reach their sell-by date, but also fresh perishables. Needless to stay, I was on a very tight budget during my year-off, and so this was a life saver, enabling me to make one-pot meals of fresh produce on the cheap.

One Man’s Trash Is another man’s treasure – really!

A stone’s throw away from Berkeley Bowl is an a paridise for the environmentally and community-conscience person: Urban Ore.

It may look somewhat ordinary from the outside, but on the inside and around…

Urban Ore are a mission driven for-profit business, founded in 1980. Every year, they divert 8,000 tons from the landfill, re-circulating resources into the local economy and community. As their Operations Manager Max Wechsler puts it, Urban Ore’s mission is “to end the age of waste”. They consider donations, have a crew making pick ups and deliveries, and even have a crew that visits the Berkeley Transfer Station ‘rescuing’ 3 tons on average from the landfill every day. I really love the use of the word ‘rescuing’ in this context, since a lot of useable and useful stuff simply gets chucked away by our ‘throw-away’ culture.

Urban Ore from the air, showing their big 30,000 sq ft ‘warehouse’ full of rescued goods, and the incredible amount of stuff outside of it too! Credit: Urban Ore Facebook Page.

Socially, Urban Ore pays around 40 members of staff a living wage and a healthcare package too, something considered priceless given the way the American healthcare system is set up. They are very community-orientated and have supported grassroots projects led by artists, craftsman, teachers and the like. Shoppers of different talents and ilks often get talking while browsing Urban Ore, leading to collaborative work and partnerships. The day I visited, Max told me about how an ex-colleague of his got in touch about an art project they are running to support San Francisco’s ‘unhoused people’ through the Luggage Store Gallery. Urban Ore gave that ex-colleague a store-wide discount to purchase materials. The store is also frequented by some locally based well-known names such Chaz Bear, and Boots Riley of The Coup, to name a couple.

Community gardens

The final noteworthy observation I made while living in the Bay, were the number of community gardens and allotments dotted around the place. Community gardens have a number of benefits, including increasing mental health and community cohesion. They are also part of the fight to reverse the decline in bee numbers. The Ashby Community Garden for example, just a walk away from Urban Ore, proclaim ‘We Bee Gardeners’, where one of their missions is to “provide pesticide-free habitat for birds, pollinators, plants and humans.”

This website gives a good commentary adn directory of some of the community gardens found back across the Bay in the city of San Francisco, and describe some of benefits that they bring.

Is San Francisco one of the most sustainable cities in the world? Not quite…

A few examples don’t make a place wholly sustainable, although some may argue that the San Francisco and the Bay Area is ahead of the curve, and located in one of the more progessive and green-minded states in the USA. According the Arcadis 2018 Sustainable Cities Index, San Francisco is 39th overall out of the top 100 cities (a lofty 12th on the ecomomic measure, but sliding to 53rd and 54th on the environmental and social measures respectively). So they have a long way to go. The National Geographic did an excellent interactive article (image below) where you can explore the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index in more detail.

Selected cities from a National Geographic interactive from an article looking at the results of Arcadis’ 2018 Sustainable Cities Index.


Just days after my visit to see loved-ones and loved-places, the Bay Area like all others went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Every single person I know, and place I patroned, suddenly had their own unique struggles and challenges to overcome. It’s now the end of May and that is still the case.

The Exploratorium – still educating, still keeping people curious

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that on the 8th April, the Exploratorium was to furlough, lay-off and make staff changes to 85% of their employees. When I heard this, my heart sank . I worked very closely with a range of people during my time there, especially the Explainers (who I described earlier). Museums almost totally rely on footfall to make ends meet, so this was no surprise albeit upsetting. My hope is that such changes are temporary and that they can get back on their feet as soon as circumstances allow. They are such an important part of many communities. Despite this, those still going are determined to carry on its mission….

Exploratorium already had a firm online presence. Their website is a goldmine of an educational resource already, and they’ve simply ramped that up – with online learning opportunities and the production of a ‘learning toolbox’ for COVID-19 school closures. They also are continuing to stream live videos via their Facebook page. Please do support them by ‘liking’ their page and interacting with their wonderful offerings.

Urban Ore – an essential business

The City of Berkeley deemed that Urban Ore is an essential business, and so has been allowed to remain open, albeit in a restricted capacity. While this is great news and fully justified, some staff who rely on the living-wage pay and medical coverage are at risk of falling short. Urban Ore have set up a fundraiser to keep the medical coverage payments going. As I type, the generousity of others have meant that they have kept coverage up to TODAY (the end of May). If you have a few spare dimes or dollars, please do consider throwing some their way via their GoFundMe page. Thank you.

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