Exit Interview: Melanie Nutter, City of San Francisco

Exit Interview is an occasional series profiling sustainability professionals who recently have left their job.

Melanie Nutter has been at the leading edge of sustainable cities — from the inside. For a little over three years, until this January, she served as director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, the lead sustainability agency for one of the world’s most progressive cities. Along the way, she helped pull together her counterparts at cities in North America to form a peer-to-peer network aimed at sharing best practices and accelerating the application of good ideas.

In the wake of her departure — to do consulting, for the time being — she shared lessons learned about how to push sustainability initiatives inside cities, as well as cities’ growing interest in resiliency. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: Describe your mandate as head of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment.

Melanie Nutter: I managed about 120 staff at the department. Our charge was to oversee and run many of the city’s sustainability programs — everything from the zero-waste program to the energy-efficiency work to the renewable-energy work. Because San Francisco is a city that over the past 10 years has set a number of ambitious sustainability goals — for instance, zero waste by 2020 and reaching 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 — a lot of those goals are ultimately tracked and overseen by our department.

Makower: Does being a progressive city make it easy to accomplish these goals, or did you find that there were institutional barriers or political pushback or other things that made it not-so-easy?

Nutter: It really depended on the issue. For instance, our zero-waste program is well established. It has a number of decades behind it where originally there were community recycling centers in San Francisco back in the 1970s. There was the California bottle bill in the 1980s and a lot of different policies and programs that set San Francisco up for success. So the Board of Supervisors and the mayor were able to pass a number of policy mandates that helped us accelerate our progress towards the 80 percent diversion rate that we have today.

There are other programs that are newer or that require a lot of different stakeholders to be engaged and aligned on a common goal. There are a few programs that have been more challenging in that regard.

Makower: Can you give an example?

Nutter: One goal that has been relatively challenging is something that [former] Mayor Gavin Newsom announced about four years ago — that the city would have a goal to become 100 percent renewably powered. San Francisco has set ambitious carbon emission reductions goals. In particular, the goals are to reduce carbon emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2017, and by 80 percent by 2050. The city has made good progress to date and as of 2010 had reduced its carbon emissions by 14.5 percent below 1990 levels, which is double the Kyoto protocol.

But in order to continue this momentum, the city will need to implement more bold programs and policies in the building, transportation and energy sectors. There is a program called CleanPowerSF, which has been in development for nearly a decade, to see if there would be an opportunity for San Francisco residents to procure 100 percent clean power. That program has yet to launch and has been somewhat challenging to get off the ground. It hasn’t advanced as quickly as other sustainability programs.

Makower: How supportive are the citizens of San Francisco? We see in New York City, for example, a certain pushback of programs initiated by former Mayor Bloomberg, even charges of a nanny-state mentality. Have San Franciscans been easy to engage?

Nutter: I would say that the citizenry is generally supportive of sustainability and, in most cases, expects it. They expect that as the greenest city in North America, as we were deemed in 2011 by Siemens and the Economist Intelligence Unit, that our elected leaders are taking care of our environment and that’s part of our culture and the fabric of our city.

Many of the city's sustainability programs have been successful because of citizen support and participation. Whether it's the city's zero-waste program that's now at 80 percent diversion, or the city's solar program that boosts 4,000-plus individual solar panels, or the commuter benefits program that supports alternative transportation benefits for thousands of commuters — it is due in large part to individual choice by the city's residents.

However, one thing I’ve observed is that because we have done so well, there can be complacency on some issues. There’s an assumption that things are going really well. When there are issues that are more challenging, you sometimes don’t see as much engagement.

Makower: You’re part of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network — and one of the conveners of that group. How much are your counterparts in other cities sharing their experiences? How valuable is that to moving cities forward?

Nutter: I would say it’s crucial. The field of municipal sustainability is still relatively new. Five years ago, you had a handful of cities that either had one sustainability officer or maybe a department of the environment, but it wasn’t as common as it is today.

Now, USDN has 120 of my counterparts at cities throughout the U.S. and Canada. We’re all learning together and sharing best practices. We’re able to accelerate progress in all of our cities by having open and transparent communication about policies and programs that work, political barriers, community engagement, behavior change — all of those critical elements to success. USDN has been an incredible resource, both personally and professionally, and I think a lot of my colleagues share that sentiment.

Makower: As you know, GreenBiz has a network of sustainability executives from large companies. And as much as companies are alike in terms of their operations, each company is different in terms of its needs, how change happens, the drivers of sustainability and other factors that affect their commitments and achievements. Is it similar with cities, where they’re the same but different?

Nutter: They’re the same but different in a few ways. Certainly, cities have different governance models. Some cities have a strong mayor and a supportive city council. Some have a strong city council and a city manager but not a strong mayor form of government. So that can be different in terms of who is the bottom-line decision-maker for a given city.

The other thing that’s different is that some members of USDN are advisors directly to the mayor, where they don’t actually have staff but they are implementing the mayor’s vision of sustainability, then working with many other city departments to coordinate. The other type is similar to how it is in San Francisco, where we have a separate department dedicated to sustainability issues, with staff, programs with funding and resources to implement the programs. Some cities, like San Francisco, have both the mayor’s advisor as well as the department to move these forward. So there are really three types of models for sustainability at the city level.

But in the end, when you’re looking at something like a building disclosure ordinance, the mechanics of setting up that type of policy can be somewhat formulaic and then shared with different cities and tweaked to fit their particular governance model and needs.

Makower: What did you learn about working with the private sector to effect change?

Nutter: In San Francisco, the private sector is quite progressive and there are many businesses both small and large that have a social mission or a corporate social responsibility focus in addition to their core business. There’s a nonprofit partner that the Department of the Environment works with called the Business Council on Climate Change, whose member companies work to collaborate with the city on different policies and give input on programs and policies that the city is working on. So, in that way, there’s a lot of support.

But even in a city like San Francisco, where we have worked to streamline how to engage with the private sector, there still are barriers in terms of processes around procurement, and in how to engage with the private sector in a way that is palatable and appropriate for a city government. So even when the intentions are there, there still are institutional barriers to creating real public-private partnerships to move these issues forward.

Makower: Is the barrier with the city end or at the company end?

Nutter: It was really on the city side. The rules regularly change. There are different policies put in place. There are administrative rules that change, and because it can be relatively fluid while still being a bureaucratic process it can be confusing even for city staff to navigate. I think there’s still work that the city can do on that front.

Makower: A number of cities seem to be looking beyond sustainability to think about what it means to be a resilient city. Is the idea of resilience starting to gain traction among city leaders?

Nutter: There were a couple of tipping points in the last two years that made cities both in the U.S. and internationally sit up and pay attention. One, of course, was Superstorm Sandy, where all of us were able to see the devastating impacts it had on New York and the surrounding area. It really made mayors, city councils, city staff and others wake up and say, “We need to be serious about this. We need to invest in our future as it relates to resilience.” In a city like San Francisco, resilience and emergency preparedness are not new. Being in earthquake country we have for many, many years invested in preparedness and resilience as it relates to a natural disaster.

What’s new is resilience as it relates to climate change. That has only been on the radar screen of the city for the past three to five years. And just in the past year gotten started in earnest in terms of a focused program. San Francisco being a coastal city — surrounded by water on three sides and knowing that the impacts that we could see from climate change relate very directly to sea-level rise and flooding and how that would impact our city’s infrastructure as well as our communities — the city is paying attention and looking at what needs to be done. But we’re very much at the beginning stage.

Makower: Do you see resilience getting attention by your counterparts elsewhere, or is it one of those only-in-San-Francisco phenomena?

Nutter: This is not an only-in-San-Francisco phenomenon. In fact, through the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, when the members have been polled, it’s clear that a lot of cities are thinking about and prioritizing adaptation and resilience as a top issue.