City Power: Flexing Municipal Muscles

San Jose shows how local government
can support sustainability - and save money, too

One of the articles in We Can Do It! (IC#33)
Originally published in Fall 1992 on page 13
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

San Jose is one place where a city-wide effort to move toward sustainablility succeeded at least in part because of the city’s whole-system approach. The lessons from San Jose and other cities is chronicled in a Resource Renewal Institute book, Saving Cities Saving Money: Environmental Strategies that Work. This book, which we adapted, is a valuable tool for those working for city-wide transformation; it can be ordered from agAccess, PO Box 2008, Davis, CA 95617.

San Jose, California, population 782,000, used to have a hard-to-shake reputation as an environmental despoiler: the megalopolis that out-competed its rivals in paving over the agricultural Santa Clara Valley, "valley of heart’s delight."

Recently, the city has emerged instead as a leader in the pursuit of environmental efficiency. By the most conservative estimate, its environmental programs now save the city government $6 million a year. When savings to the community are included, the total reaches over $15 million.

The transformation didn’t occur all at once, of course. There were various turning points. The city had officially repudiated the old policy of sprawl by 1975. But it was at the very end of the 1970s that a positive new direction was set.

In 1978, a controlled-growth mayoral candidate achieved a stunning victory over a traditional opponent. One of the architects of that victory, consultant Dennis Church, wrote a report entitled "Toward a Sustainable City: A Report on Natural Resources and the City of San Jose." The paper reviewed the pressing need for resource conservation and suggested that environmental protection, economic growth, social welfare, and fiscal solvency are interlocking, not competing, goals.

While Church tapped away at his paper, two shocks hit the city. The steep oil price rise of the late ’70s and a major sewage spill: the city’s overburdened waste-water treatment plant discharged an appalling amount of untreated effluent into the shallow, slowly circulating waters of southern San Francisco Bay. The Regional Water Quality Control Board threatened a building ban.


When, in the aftermath of these events, Church’s paper appeared, it found an audience wide awake and hungry for ideas. The initial step the city council took along the recommended lines was to create an energy office. Church was hired as its founding director.

The first major assignment of the "energy" office was to help out with the waste-water crisis. The city distributed free low-flow shower heads and other water conservation devices throughout San Jose. The inflow to the sewer plant declined, helping to buy time for needed improvements.

The energy program proper took its initial campaign literally to the streets. At the beginning of the 1980s, the city replaced the mercury vapor lamps in all its streetlights with low-pressure sodium fixtures that use half the electricity. Result: a $1.5 million drop in San Jose’s annual energy bill – not once, but forever.


A third early campaign cleared the way for recycling. For many years, a single garbage company had owned the only landfill in San Jose and held an effective monopoly on garbage collection and disposal. The cost to the city kept rising. Moreover, the contractor was uninterested in recycling and, faced with public resentment at high garbage bills, the city could not launch a serious curbside recycling program for which it would have had to charge.

Councilwoman Shirley Lewis, assisted by Dennis Church, realized that the garbage monopoly had to be broken – if possible, at the 1984 contract renewal. First, the city hurried to open a second landfill: that is, it solicited a private proposal and shepherded it through the multiple levels of approval such a project requires. Second, the city separated the garbage contract into two parts: one agreement for collection, the other for final landfill disposal.

When the contracts were bid, one of two major companies won the disposal contract; the other won on garbage collection. The winning bids totaled nearly $6 million less per year than the city had been paying. The city used half the savings to fund recycling programs and returned the other half to the public as a rate decrease. So San Jose found itself in the delightful position of increasing service and reducing cost.

San Jose’s garbage maneuver changed the waste management world. The two companies that competed for the city’s business – Browning Ferris, Inc. and Waste Management, Inc. – are also the two largest companies in the field. Spurred by the San Jose experience, each entered the recycling business in a big way.


"When we try to pick out anything by itself," John Muir observed, "we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." So it is with natural resources, Dennis Church says. To waste one is typically to waste several; to conserve one may be to conserve them all.

If less water is used, for instance, less energy is used to pump and heat it. Recycling saves not only landfill capacity but also energy, water, forests, and mineral wealth. (Recycling an aluminum can – contents, a cup and a half – saves energy equivalent to three quarters of a cup of gasoline.) Improving mass transit cuts air pollution, energy use, and greenhouse emissions while reducing noise, congestion, and cut-through neighborhood traffic. To take advantage of these overlaps, a broad view and a broad attack are required.

Recognizing this interconnectedness, San Jose in 1986 combined its energy, water, and solid waste programs and created the Office of Environmental Management (OEM).

With support and prodding from Councilwoman Lewis and other members of the council’s environmental committee, OEM has carried out a long list of efficiency and environmental protection measures. Sometimes these programs are distinctly new; in other cases, what occurs is a subtle change of emphasis.


San Jose’s actions toward sustainability took place in eight areas – some have already been implemented, others are still in preparation.

* Saving Heating, Cooling, and Lighting Energy

Energy audits of public buildings identified opportunities to save energy used for heating, cooling, and lighting. A $2.2 million investment in energy savings resulted in savings of $500,000 each year. A resource center helps building designers and contractors meet requirements for energy efficiency in new public and private buildings. The city plans to plant 1 million trees by the year 2000 to reduce air conditioning requirements.

* Saving Energy by Promoting Efficient Driving

The city is buying fuel-efficient vehicles for its fleet and encourages its major contractors to do likewise. Drivers of city vehicles are trained to save fuel by making fewer trips and driving more efficiently. Efforts to improve traffic flow include installing "smart" traffic signals, maintaining streets and roads, and focusing traffic enforcement on trouble spots.

* Saving Energy by Discouraging Solo Driving and Promoting Other Means of Transportation

A hub-and-spoke light rail system is being developed, and adjacent counties are cooperating to develop a network of linked high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes. Employers are encouraged to promote carpooling with the help of a city-run Commuter Network.

* Conserving Water and Reducing Wastewater Flows

The city distributed low-flow shower heads and toilet dams to every household, and is planning an incentive program for installation of low-volume toilets. The resulting savings to homeowners are estimated at $200 per year in addition to saving the city some $68 million in wastewater treatment facilities. Landscaping standards have been adopted that save irrigation water and the city plans a demonstration garden to show what can be grown with little watering. Recycled, treated wastewater is sold for outdoor use.

* Conserving Materials

A preventive maintenance program is intended to extend the life of streets and public facilities. New construction is required by code to use durable materials and to be designed to withstand earthquakes. Older buildings are being retrofitted to improve their seismic safety.

* Recycling Materials

The city recycles its own solid wastes and purchases recycled products. Over 175,000 homes participate in the curb-side recycling program, and a yard-waste composting program is in place.

* Controlling Several Specific Types of Pollution

The city has programs to dispose of household toxins, to recycle CFCs used in refrigeration, and to better manage storm water runoff .

* Setting Land Use and Transportation Policies That Maximize Efficiency

The city is controlling urban sprawl by increasing densities downtown and along a planned light-rail system. The city is also working to locate jobs near housing to reduce commuting. Land use and transportation planning is the most potent lever available to cities to improve resource efficiency.


Once you begin looking at government operations with an eye to extending resources and saving money, opportunities turn up everywhere. It’s natural to divide the list by the resource conserved: here’s what we can do to economize on energy, on water, and so on.

But running through this pattern is another: a series of widening circles of action, beginning with measures a city can take quite simply, in-house, and expanding ring by ring to measures, sometimes controversial, that profoundly affect a whole community. A city has the following powers:

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