Come See a Just and Sustainable Way to Twist, Turn on, and Flush

SF Bay Area folks:  do yourself a favor and come to the opening of Literacy for Environmental Justice’s Living Classroom on People’s Earth Day, Sunday, April 18, 2010.)


Water.  Energy.  Waste treatment.

I’m going to make a case for the sexiness of these overlooked fundamentals. It’s a tall order, I know.

I want a glass of clean water:  I twist the faucet.  I want to hear the Giants dismantle that pathetic So-Cal team in the garish blue softball costumes:  I turn on the radio.  I want to whisk the unmentionables in the toilet bowl away to some place where they won’t make my family sick:  I flush.

Big whoop, right?

But every year, nationwide water and wastewater treatment suck up about fifty-six billion kilowatt hours of electricity, belching forty-five million tons of greenhouse gases into the sky.

Here’s another way to look at it:  what goes on behind the scenes when we twist, turn on, and flush takes more water and energy than we’ll have at our disposal ad infinitum.  Especially as population and climate change force us to stretch our shrinking water supply, as conventional energy becomes harder to find, and as our dire need for clean energy becomes more difficult for corporate tools and cavemen to ignore.

If we want our grandchildren to be able to enjoy the health, comfort, convenience, and livelihoods we do today, we need to create ways to twist, turn on, and flush while consuming and polluting less.

Which is exactly what the whip-smart, impossibly determined superheroes of Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ) have done at Heron’s Head Park in San Francisco.

LEJ has built a LEED certified Eco Center and Living Classroom that will be used by youth and the broader community in the Bayview Hunter’s Point neighborhoods to spotlight our shared connection to the living world.

The Classroom is completely off-the-grid and stands as a real-life example of how we can meet routine needs differently.  And better.

Topped with a living roof and built from reclaimed and recycled materials, the Living Classroom is a monument to green design and construction.  It’s powered exclusively by photovoltaic panels and draws no energy from the power grid.  Its energy-efficient design is shaped by structurally insulated panels that keep the Center’s temperature comfortable (while also resisting mold and creating superb acoustics.)  Its recycled concrete floors are tinted in a rich earth-tone with soy-based stain.

And the coup de grace:  the Eco Center also harvests, uses, and treats its water on site with a source-to-sink system that holds 15,000 gallons of rainwater.  Its rightfully proud builders call their waste-water treatment system “a living machine.”  First, the machine sends waste water through tanks in which bacteria, filters, and ultraviolet light clean the water. Then it passes that water through an indoor constructed wetland (with plants, fish, etc.) before sending it out into a subsurface irrigation system beneath a native plant garden outside.  Check it out if you can; it’s the coolest thing you’ll see in a long time.

So the Classroom won’t draw power from the grid and won’t flush into the nearby Southeast Waste Water Treatment Plant, which currently overburdens the Bayview Hunter’s Point (BVHP) community with eighty-five percent of San Francisco’s sewage.

By the way, there’s a reason it sounds unfair that the low-income, predominantly African American BVHP community would be saddled with eighty-five percent of the city’s toxic sewage:  because it’s unfair.  Disgracefully so.  And this is just one of many environmental assaults the people of BVHP live with every day.  Others include the decommissioned Hunter’s Point Shipyard (a chemically and radioactively contaminated superfund site), the city’s heaviest manufacturing and accompanying disproportionate load of diesel, a hazardous materials disposal facility, and until recently, one of the oldest and dirtiest power plants in California.

Projects like the Eco Center always face more than their share of challenges.  Money was one.  The state pledged vital support, but that funding was threatened by California’s ongoing fiscal insanity, and $150,000 of committed funds were held in limbo by the state for months on end.

There was also the blood-curdling nightmare of securing permits to erect an off-grid building on port (federal) property.  Of course, building codes require that construction projects meet a range of electrical, water and sewage requirements.  Fine.

But here, LEJ was working to create a living example of a way we can live entirely outside that inefficient, wasteful, and polluting system.  No building like this exists on port property anywhere.  So how do you get the permits to build something outside the city’s and the port’s experience?  Go to the city, and they’ll punt the ball to the ports.  Go to the ports, and they’ll punt back.  This put the project in a legal limbo at least as sticky as the financial one.  Working with the city, the state, and the ports, LEJ had to build an entirely new regulatory framework to get permits for this off-grid building.

And their hope is that the Eco Center at Heron’s Head will now provide a blueprint for others to create similar buildings.

For LEJ, it all comes back to the water and the energy.  As project manager/resident unstoppable force Laurie Shoeman* tells it:  “Water and energy are power in California.  In this building, the community is taking hold of that power for itself.”

It’s a model for self sufficiency, community development, and ecological awareness.  And it’s all happening in and led by one of San Francisco’s most disenfranchised communities.

Now what’s sexier than that?


A little background:  Heron’s Head Park was originally San Francisco’s Pier 98.  Once known as the Backlands, it is smack in the middle of the city’s heaviest manufacturing and industrial zone.  In the 1950’s, it was slated to be made into the San Francisco footing of a second bridge to Oakland.  But the funding was cut, the pier was left to decay, and Pier 98 became an unofficial dumping ground and a home to a shanty community.

In the mid-1990’s, local groups started to clean up the area, and since Heron’s Head was in LEJ’s backyard, the group soon joined the effort and has since become the park’s chief steward.

Now Heron’s Head is home to a thriving wetlands ecosystem that’s become a destination for resident and migrating birds, fish, plants, birdwatchers**, nature lovers, and people who want to catch a glimpse of how we can undo the impact of decades of neglect and industrial abuse.

(See photos of Heron’s Head, the Eco Center, and Phoebe here.)


* Many thanks to Laurie Shoeman for sharing her time, experience, and enthusiasm so generously.

** Including one dude who will not stop talking until he’s shared with you the lifetime of data he has compiled on the avocet.  (You are warned.)