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Facing Changing Climate, San Francisco Prepares to Share

Share Graffiti
The city of San Francisco is tapping into sharing technologies in preparation for storms and rising sea levels. 

When climate change unleashes storms and rising seal levels on the city of San Francisco, its residents will be ready … to share. Mayor Edwin Lee recently announced a partnership between the city’s Department of Emergency Management (DEM) and BayShare, a group of stakeholders in the Bay Area’s sharing economy. The city and its population of tech-savvy, share-friendly environmentalists already have big ideas for repurposing existing apps and online services for use when disaster strikes.

Rory Smith of Shareable imagines it playing out something like this: “think Lyft drivers transporting maintenance personnel to priority areas, Yerdle users offering basic supplies to those in need neighborhood by neighborhood, and Airbnb enabling hosts to provide free accommodation to displaced people.”

Airbnb established a precedent for such use during Hurricane Sandy, when it helped connect 1400 people with free places to stay, writes Smith. And the company thinks that number could rise through use of its new “disaster response mode,” a separate landing page where users can post free rooms without Airbnb’s typical fees, making it quick and simple to list (and find) emergency lodgings.

While the sharing concept is exciting, it’s also tempting to approach this new breed of public-private partnership with suspicion. After all, the “PPP” model has failed the public before, and disaster relief is no exception. Besides, shouldn’t we be able to count on FEMA and other government organizations to do the job?

It’s fair to be wary, and we should be able to count on government to respond—but it doesn’t hurt to create ways for people to help each other out. At the very least, the San Francisco-BayShare partnership offers an improvement over the disaster capitalism we saw after emergencies like Katrina. And by tapping into existing technologies, the city gets a head-start on providing easy-to-use services that could save lives.

Of course, apps shouldn’t constitute the entire plan. As groups working under the banner of Occupy Sandy showed, grassroots organizations can do important relief work, filling in gaps left by FEMA, the Red Cross, and city restoration centers. But as Occupy Sandy’s name makes clear, the operation didn’t simply spring up in response to the storm. It owes much of its success to the organizational groundwork laid by Occupy Wall Street over the course of the previous year. San Francisco’s DEM seems to have taken inspiration from Occupy’s bottom-up approach, and is encouraging San Franciscans to prepare by organizing and sharing in advance. “[P]reparedness is about getting your supplies together. But it’s also about knowing your neighbors, lending a hand, and sharing your knowledge,” says the homepage of the city’s new online venue for disaster communications, SF72. “Here’s the thing,” the site continues, “actual emergencies look more like people coming together than cities falling apart. Past disasters—from Sandy to Fukushima—have proven that connected communities are more resilient.”

San Francisco’s willingness to acknowledge and plan for climate change earned it a spot on Grist’s recent unempirical but well-reasoned rundown of the United States’ 10 best cities for riding out climate change. “Yes, it’s on the coast and that means trouble,” writes Jim Meyer, “but San Francisco’s ocean beach master plan acknowledges the inevitability of rising seas and includes a managed retreat from the most threatened areas.” Add a prepared public to that list and the most unfortunate thing about San Francisco’s plan is that more cities aren’t emulating it.

Image licensed under Creative Commons.