Green-city future

Mayor Heather Fargo chats with SN&R about what it would take to build a sustainable Sacramento

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

If Sacramento is going to become a truly green city, it will depend a lot on the leadership of Mayor Heather Fargo.

Over the last few years, Fargo has become more and more immersed in the cause of sustainability and trying to figure out how cities can lead the way.

In the process, she’s toured troubled cedar forests of Alaska, which are dying back because of global warming, and hung out with Robert Redford in Sundance, Utah, where she and 30 other U.S. mayors hashed out strategies to deal with climate change.

She’s also a member of a growing club of city leaders who call themselves “Cool Mayors for Climate Protection.” Fargo was cool enough to talk to SN&R about what she thinks Sacramento can do to save the world.

Why does the city need a sustainability plan? Global warming, peak oil—these aren’t the responsibility of local government.

I disagree. I think it is our job. We are the government that is closest to the people. We hear what the people are asking for and we see the impacts of not taking action. Local government sometimes can take the lead on issues that then force action at the state and federal level.

And this city, in particular, because we’re the state Capitol, the county seat and the biggest city in the region, I think we have a responsibility to set a pace for others. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of other effort in the Central Valley in this regard. Certainly San Francisco is known for being environmentally conscious. But if you look around the state, there aren’t too many cities in California that are ahead of Sacramento.

We’re looking at best practices in other cities, too. I go to U.S. Conference of Mayors meetings. Here’s our 10-point plan for this year and our No. 1 item is climate change. Mayors all over the United States are doing this. We’re not alone in doing this.

What can you do to get the community involved?

I think that there’s the education part—giving people incentives or helping them to understand this is important. We can do that in part through inserts in utility bills. That’s one way to reach a lot of people. SMUD is going to be one of our partners and they have that monthly newsletter that’s a relatively easy way to reach a lot of people.

Then I think we’re going to have to splash it up a little bit. For example, when we showed An Inconvenient Truth [at City Council], we got some attention for that. We gave everyone who came a free [compact fluorescent] light bulb. Giving away light bulbs seems like a little thing, but it matters a lot. It’s a step.

And I actually think that in many ways the community is ahead of the city in this regard. I think there are a lot of people in this community who are not only aware of what needs to be done, but are doing things and are excited about being ambassadors for this kind of effort.

And it really has to go into the classroom. When people’s kids started saying “Mommy your seatbelts not on,” people started buckling up. When people’s six, seven year olds said “no daddy, don’t throw away that bottle,” people started to recycle. That’s how the culture changes.

What’s going to make the biggest difference in this plan? Where are we going to get the biggest bang for our buck?

One is changing our fleet and doing things that relate to cars and other vehicles. So reducing how many miles we drive, having a fleet system that doesn’t use as many resources and encouraging carpooling and the use of transit—anything that reduces the miles driven in gas-guzzling vehicles, that’s probably the No. 1 thing we can do. It’s one of the harder things we can do, because people in California just really like their cars.

We need to be getting kids to ride their bikes to school, to walk to school, maybe getting parents to walk to school or ride their bikes to school with them. Of course, that depends on where the schools are, where the kids are. Anything we can do to allow people to live closer to where they work or where they go to school, or where they do something on a regular basis.

There’s the tree canopy: I think trees are kind of taken for granted. But I think people underestimate the value of the tree canopy and our investment in trees. And I think that’s a relatively easy thing to do. Planting trees is not the most difficult thing to do, but it’s really important, and I think there’s a huge impact in terms of carbon-dioxide reductions and heat reductions. If we can reduce the heat island in our city—if we can have more shade, more shaded sidewalks and more shaded buildings—that’s another really big thing.

The other big thing: We’re the ones who control the building. Something like 30 percent of greenhouse gasses comes from buildings. What can we do to make sure that better buildings are built—that buildings are retrofit, existing buildings, to save energy. We in Sacramento actually have the largest square footage of [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certified buildings in the nation.

Bonnie Pannell mentioned wanting to see Delta Shores, an 800-acre new development project in south Sacramento, include solar roofs. Can you do that?

Actually, we can. Delta Shores is not a done deal. It’s big and it really needs to be done in a way that it’s the best practices of smart growth. There’s so much potential there. It’s really kind of exciting what it could be. I want it to make the cover of a magazine. There’s no reason why, if we’re going to do a large new development that is the southern gateway to the city, I want to see it on national magazines. I want it to be the best thing that’s ever been built in Sacramento. Why not? I challenged the developers to that.

The same thing is true of the rail yards. It’s an infill project; it’s not an edge of the city project. But it needs to be a model of efficiency and pedestrian friendliness, and it needs to feel like a real neighborhood. We can’t miss an opportunity like that.

Another one of my interests is: It would be wonderful if the affordable housing that we produced was either very low cost in terms of energy or nothing. You can get to that point. There’s no reason we shouldn’t have solar hot-water heaters on our housing. We have some money to do housing through our redevelopment agency, that’s part of what we do. So there are some things you can do as a public entity to push these things along.

Is there anything sustainable about developing the so-called Joint Vision Area, that region north of the city limits in the Natomas Basin being considered for build-out?

I think it depends on how we develop it. The value of Joint Vision is less about Sacramento and more about the region. For example, what if we were to accommodate housing demand there, instead of tripling the size of Sutter Creek? That’s really the balancing act we have to do.

Joint Vision is a way for the city to be involved in whatever happens in the unincorporated part of the county outside of the existing city limits. If we don’t work with them on it, they’ll do what they want to do, and we’ll have to live with the consequences.

But I don’t think anybody is ready to go—well some of the property owners are ready—but I don’t think people in the city are ready to see more development north of Elkhorn [Boulevard]. I think there’s a lot of Natomas fatigue on the council—that’s what I call it, Natomas fatigue. We’d have to do another North Natomas plan, another financing plan. Our current Habitat Conservation Plan, and the judge’s ruling, does not allow us to do this. It does not allow us to do more development north of the city limits. I don’t think anyone, other than the people who own property up there, really wants to see it happen quickly. And we have to be cautious right now because of the flood issue. We don’t want to do something irresponsible. We have to get the flood protection done right now.

On public transportation: There’s a recommendation in the master plan that there be affordable public transportation within a quarter mile of everybody? How do we do that?

I don’t know how feasible that is. I think there are some other things we need to think about. I think it’s relatively easy to provide transit in the urban core. But as you get further out and the densities go down and the model gets more suburban, I’m not sure how you do that. I’m not even sure it would be smart because you’d be driving a lot of miles to get to people who may or may not want to get on the bus.

You know, there’s a lot of interest in fixing up downtown and the central city and the urban core. It’s older, it’s funkier, it’s fun. But, frankly, it’s not that hard.

No one is really addressing how you fix the suburban model. It’s much more fun to figure out how to fix R Street, rather than trying to figure out how to fix Northgate [Boulevard].

You go to Valley Hi, or south Natomas, and try to get people to use transit. Are they really going to ride a bus to the grocery store? Maybe in places like that we just need to switch to little electric vehicles. You know, the little golf carts? Maybe we stripe the street differently, or not, and let people drive what normally wouldn’t be considered a street-safe vehicle on certain streets. But allow someone to take their little electric car to the grocery store, instead of their big gas-guzzling vehicles. Maybe that’s a way to reduce emissions and reduce congestion and make the community more livable. Otherwise, how do you ever make a community that’s six units to the acre dense enough to support transit?

You’re talking about retrofitting the suburbs.

Someone’s got to figure it out. We have this suburban pattern all over California. Our best brain-stormers typically have been central-city focused. It will be interesting to get people like the American Institute of Architects and others to think about, “OK, how do we fix it out there? What do we do?” I think we need to figure that out before we go any further north than North Natomas.