If ever there was a tree that served as a metaphor for a city – consider El Palo Alto. The tree, whose name means “the tall stick” in Spanish, is a 110-foot-tall California redwood that stands on the bank of a creek near the southwest tip of San Francisco Bay, where it has stood for more than 1,000 years.
While human activity in the first half of the 20th century nearly killed it, people began rallying to care for its health in the 1950s and it has since rebounded – albeit about 50 feet shorter than it once was.
In 1999, the appraised value of the tree was estimated at $55,600, but city arborist Dave Dockter knew the redwood meant more to the community than that.
“…Because of the tree’s cultural history, intrinsic majestic presence and value to the communities of Palo Alto, Menlo Park and the surrounding environs, it is considered to be an invaluable and priceless natural resource – and irreplaceable at any cost in the event of loss,” Dockter concluded.
As a California redwood, El Palo Alto could live for another 1,000 years, and the city that now bears its name would very much like to be around to see that happen.
Palo Alto, Calif., was chartered in 1894 by Leland Stanford who was looking for a place to establish his new college, Stanford University. Today, the university is still the city’s biggest employer and is widely regarded as the cradle of the Silicon Valley tech industry that sprang up all around it. Palo Alto has perhaps the most educated population in the nation, ranking number one for the percentage of residents with an advanced degree (40.2 percent).
Home to numerous heavyweight tech companies, including Hewlett-Packard, Amazon, Dell, and Lockheed Martin, the city has long been a Mecca for entrepreneurs and an incubator for some of the most successful startups in the world, including Google, Facebook and PayPal. So, it’s no surprise Palo Alto boasts one of the highest median household incomes in the country at $119,046, and is also one of the most expensive U.S. cities in which to live, with a median home value of more than $2.4 million.
About the same time local citizens were springing into action to save their iconic tree, they started taking other steps to protect their city for future generations.
Gil Friend, chief sustainability officer for the city of Palo Alto, said his town has been a leader in this realm for decades. “If you go back to the early roots, you see a well-to-do, educated, progressive California community in the Bay area, where there is a background orientation to these issues and a culture of people who get things done,” Friend said. “This is a very entrepreneurial community…. People tend to say, ‘what can we do?’ about something.”
In 2007, Palo Alto developed one of the first climate action plans in the country, and followed that with a strict residential and commercial green building code, a landfill diversion ordinance and a bicycle/pedestrian plan, among other initiatives.
The city has operated its own electric utility since a group of Stanford professors established one in the 1890s, Friend said. Over the years, it has become California’s only “full-service” municipal utility, providing the city with electricity, natural gas, water, wastewater treatment and fiber-optic communications. With all these pieces in one place, the city has been able to move quickly and has already reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 36 percent since 1990.
The city’s electricity supply has been 100 percent carbon neutral since 2013 when the city signed long‐term contracts for clean energy resources, including solar, wind, hydroelectric generation and renewable gas from landfills. With the addition of renewable energy from these projects, the city is on track to reach a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) of up to 60 percent in 2017. For comparison, in 2015 California adopted one of the most aggressive RPS policies in the country, requiring that all utilities in the state supply 50 percent of their retail electric sales from eligible renewable energy resources by the year 2030. Palo Alto was one of the first few cities in the world to reach “carbon neutrality” with its electricity portfolio, and is now planning to do the same thing with natural gas, Friend said. In July, the city will start purchasing carbon offsets to balance the emissions associated with utility customers’ natural gas consumption.
“So, we see offsets not just as a way to buy dispensation from emissions, but to actually be a capital formation channel to accelerate investment in sound emission-reducing projects right here (in California),” he said. “If that works, we think it’s a big deal that other cities will want to copy.”
In 2016, the city council raised the bar even higher by adopting a new Sustainability and Climate Action Plan. The plan has established a framework of principles, goals and strategies for reducing the community’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below the 1990 levels, and to accomplish this by the year 2030, which is 20 years ahead of the state’s target for achieving the same reduction.
In fact, Palo Alto’s water and energy conservation standards have consistently exceeded those established by the state of California, “which are, in turn, among the most aggressive in the United States,” Friend pointed out.
Water conservation, in particular, has been a major focus as the entire West Coast is in its sixth year of a devastating drought. While recent rains have provided some relief, state emergency water conservation regulations are still in effect, Friend said, and Californians know it’s only a matter of time before another dry spell begins.
City Manager Jim Keene recently appointed a “blue ribbon committee” to develop a comprehensive strategy for making the best possible use of all types of water in the city, including stormwater and recycled water. The green infrastructure plan, which every city in California has been required to develop by state mandate, has resulted in a variety of projects now under way.
Karla Dailey, senior resource planner for the city’s utility, said one of those projects is exploring more ways to make use of recycled water.
“Given the long-term water needs in California and the long-term need to protect the Bay from the effluent coming from (wastewater treatment) plants like ours, we have a double incentive to put more recycled water to use,” Dailey said. That means creating a system that allows treated wastewater to be used for irrigation in the short term, but also building the infrastructure that could allow for indirect potable reuse of water in the future, she said.
While there are no “design and build” plans for potable reuse, Dailey said the city is currently using recycled water for irrigation at some city facilities, including a golf course, some parks and at the wastewater treatment plant itself.
“It’s all city-owned (property) right now, but the proposed expansion of the distribution system would work its way through town up to the Stanford Research Park where our largest commercial users are,” Dailey said. While the water would still be used only for irrigation in the short term, having it available in the research park area would open up the possibility of finding other industrial uses for it and/or injecting it into the groundwater system for indirect potable reuse, she said.
Palo Alto has a strong stormwater rebate program, according to Phil Bobel, manager of public works engineering for the city. “We’re practically giving away rain barrels,” he said, and households can also get help paying for permeable pavement, cisterns and green roofs.
“Here in the arid west, we really need every drop of water we can get,” Bobel said.
The city has also made a zero-waste commitment, intending to be at net zero waste by 2021. As part of that effort, the city council in early 2016 revised its recycling and composting ordinance to expand curbside collection of food scraps to multifamily complexes, among other initiatives. Its landfill diversion rate has been at or near 80 percent since 2010, but Bobel said the city hopes removing organic waste will get it the rest of the way there.
The city’s recycling vendor, GreenWaste Recovery, has recently opened the first dry fermentation anaerobic digestion facility in the United States, just 15 miles from Palo Alto in northern San Jose. The facility, Zero Waste Energy Development Co., is operated by GreenWaste in partnership with Zanker Road Resource Management. At full capacity, the facility can digest 270,000 tons of organic material per year to make biogas and compost. Billed as the largest anaerobic digestion facility in the world, the facility currently generates 6,778 MWh of electricity and 30,000 tons of finished compost per year from food and yard waste gathered throughout the region.
Along with curbside collection of residential food waste, which includes soiled paper and cardboard, Bobel said Palo Alto has also implemented a mandatory commercial food-waste ordinance that was phased in over the past three years. He said the volume of waste collected has reached about half the city’s goal and, now that all systems are in place, his department will begin focusing on educating restaurants and citizens on how to optimize the processes involved.
Bobel said the city has also helped facilitate a “food rescue” program to reduce the amount of food waste that is generated at the source. He said some national studies have estimated as much as 25 percent of food produced in the U.S. is wasted as it passes through the supply chain from farms to wholesalers, retailers and households.
“An awful lot of food is wasted, and that’s a shame. So, we’re spending a fair amount of time trying to hook up people who have food with people who need food,” Bobel said. He said the partnership connects local grocery stores and food vendors with nonprofit groups that direct excess food to needy people before it has a chance to spoil and get thrown away. The program also educates citizens and restaurants on ways to reduce food waste and donate excess food whenever possible.
Friend said the city government subtly changed its green purchasing policy last year, as well. Rather than asking staff to purchase the “greener” product whenever possible, the policy was changed to require purchasing the greener product by default, with exceptions allowed if other considerations, like price or effectiveness, are compelling. As an example, Friend said the city had been purchasing vehicles that run on compressed natural gas, but last year the city manager issued a directive to always consider electric vehicles first.
“We recognize that EVs won’t work in every situation, but that’s our preferred choice whenever we can do it,” Friend said.
With the new sustainability plan setting the course, city departments now have their work cut out for them.
“The immediate priority is to turn the Sustainability and Climate Action Plan into a series of implementation plans and work programs for city departments in the next three years,” Friend said. “The trajectory goes out to 2030, so it’s a big, big leap. I’ll be the first to confess that we don’t know exactly how to do everything to reach our 2030 goals …so some of our first steps are to do some deeper analysis, assess opportunities, and conduct certain pilot programs.”
He said Palo Alto’s city government is organized well around sustainability. Its internal sustainability board includes the directors of most city departments, and they are assisted by a variety of community boards, commissions and advisory groups. Many regional groups also congeal around sustainability issues, particularly around the one topic that affects them all – the state’s notorious traffic congestion.
“Mobility is a big concern because at this point, about two-thirds of our emissions are related to road travel,” Friend said. “…So, it’s both an emissions source and a source of misery to people. Reinventing transportation is very high on our agenda. How do we make it convenient for people not to drive; and if they do drive, how do we get them to drive electric?”
Palo Alto and its regional public- and private-sector partners are attacking the problem from multiple angles, seeking innovative new ways to increase walkability, bikeability, car sharing and other solutions to the gridlock, he said.
Friend said Palo Alto’s sustainability programs have been helped along by a “very cooperative citizenry.” Participation at stakeholder meetings during the development of the sustainability plan was outstanding and the tight-knit community has a long history of citizen activism.
Sandra Slater, a Palo Alto resident and the northern California project director for the Cool City Challenge, is working with the city to implement a block-by-block strategy dedicated to reducing carbon emissions, increasing disaster resiliency, improving health and safety, sharing resources and building neighborhood connections. The “Cool Block Program” involves recruiting a block leader (one “early adopter” on each block) who is trained to organize others on their block to learn and participate in strategies that accomplish the goals of the program.
The program is the result of more than 25 years of research conducted by author David Gershon of the Empowerment Institute. The trick, Slater said, is that the neighborhood teams can’t just be about carbon reduction.
“We’ve found that if you just go in with carbon reduction, it’s a non-starter. You’ll get the people who are already green, but you’ll be preaching to the choir and you won’t be able to get other people engaged and involved. You have to go in with other motivators,” Slater said.
“The number one reason people actually join these teams is to build social capital. They want to get to know their neighbors,” she said.
So, the program teaches block leaders how to organize teams to participate in eight gatherings that not only address conservation issues, but also allow participants to express what they’d like to see the city provide in their neighborhoods and what other block activities they’d like to organize. Once the eight meetings are over, Slater said, many of the neighborhood groups continue meeting, and this is how the momentum begins.
Slater said the goal of the program is to train block leaders in at least 25 percent of Palo Alto’s residential blocks and achieve a carbon footprint reduction of at least 25 percent in each of those blocks. If that can be accomplished, studies suggest the lifestyle changes would reach critical mass and spread organically throughout the rest of the city, she said.
Friend said this method of organizing citizens fits perfectly with the approach the city is taking with all its programs.
“In our sustainability initiatives, we’re not just talking about climate, efficiency and environment,” Friend said. “We’re also talking about doing things in a way that enhances the quality of life in this community, is economically positive, and fulfills people’s happiness as well as their resilience. So, we are very much not inclined to think about the environment versus the other things that people care about; but rather the environment AND all those other things,” he said.