A Conversation with San Francisco Mayor, Edwin M. Lee

“One day if I go to heaven… I’ll look around and say ‘It ain’t bad. But it ain’t San Francisco.'” — Herb Caen

It was the early 90’s when I first visited San Francisco, as my [then] business was enjoying the heady ascent of the dotcom bubble.  We’d grown from my bedroom to a real business with clients internationally, and San Francisco was simultaneously our Prometheus, our Athena and our muse.

It’s easy to see why people fall in love with this place, it’s beautiful- there’s no two ways about it- and I don’t just mean the rolling hills, the water and the architecture.  This is a city with diverse arts, eclectic culture and a unique personality of its own.  In much the same way that my hometown, Manchester, became the hub from which the industrial revolution emerged– San Francisco took this baton, and applied it to the knowledge economy.  The five-county San Francisco metropolitan area has a GDP on its own of close to $450 billion; to put that in some perspective, if it were a country- it would be similar to the national output of Sweden or Poland, and larger than Thailand and the United Arab Emirates.

San Francisco stands out, not just for its economic and cultural success story; but for the way it is approaching resilience, sustainability and dealing with the challenges every modern, globalised region is feeling.

To learn more about the past, present and future of San Francisco I spoke to Edwin Lee, the 43rd Mayor of the City and County of San Francisco.

Q:  What does San Francisco mean to you? 

[Mayor Edwin M. Lee] San Francisco is the city of love and compassion, will always be, and will never change that.

I know that’s a very broad response, but I do think that’s what motivates me the most in terms of the vision and feeling I have for the city.

Within that of course, there are a lot of sub-themes at play; diversity, helping those that are not economically successful to gain a foothold here, compassion to end homelessness and help people off the streets, or whether it’s also helping the start-ups become really successful here and blend with the success of our economic drivers, the top two being tourism and conventions, and then healthcare and bio-life sciences technology.

Q:  What has driven the economic success of San Francisco?

[Mayor Edwin M. Lee] The media often talk of technology being the heart of our economy, but it’s actually number 3 in our city- and complements the others so well.

We are a gateway in the Pacific and we’re a gateway to Silicon Valley.

People who wanted to associate to Silicon Valley and all the innovation, technology, start-ups and venture capitalism came here because we offer not just technology, but really the whole package.

San Francisco has culture, diversity and internationalism.  The Venture Capitalists choose to live in our city, so for start-ups, whilst they may get their ideas and technology in Silicon Valley, they’re motivated to come here to be interviewed- get funded- and have a sense of place.

Of course, we also offer the entertainment, the food, the collaborative spirit of the city and the blend of disciplines associated with a diverse economy.

Whilst technology in the pure sense is probably what’s done in Silicon Valley, the collaboration is what’s done in the city.  People who are building don’t want to simply test their ideas in a microcosm, they want to be successful in the real-world, and San Francisco is an international city with real world connections.  We have 75 countries embassies here, and have 18 sister cities.  Over 100 languages are spoken each and every day in our homes and businesses, and we give people connections to Japan, China, South East Asia, Europe and further afield.

The internationalism that became the hallmark of 1960’s San Francisco is still alive and well today, and mixes with the love, compassion, collaboration, openness, encouragement and innovation of our culture.

As San Franciscans, we’re always lifting people up, making sure that they have an opportunity to share in both the experience, innovation, and wealth our city offers.

The success of our city is on multiple levels.  It’s got to be at the social equity level as much as it is on the economic and investment level.

Q:  How are you working to solve some of the economic and social disparities in San Francisco?

[Mayor Edwin M. Lee] Housing is a crisis of our whole state, region, and city.

Think of this… a lot of tech workers, who are actually the talent of these very successful companies, can’t afford to be here- and they join the low-income and immigrant communities who say ‘Mayor, the affordability is ridiculous here’.

We need housing opportunities at all levels.  Everyone has to be able to find a home, and be connected to our city.  Housing is a huge priority, and something I’m working on every single day.

In order for us to be the city that we want it to be for everyone, you’ve got to have affordable housing, you’ve got have good wages, good jobs, you’ve got to have good education, good training, good inroads to the changing work climate, the changing work skills.

We’ve had great success with our concept of a city college.  We believe people don’t have to fear the innovation age as being victims of it.  They can actually embrace it by saying ‘okay, I’ve got to have some additional skill sets I can go back to, and maybe truck driving is not going to be the whole thing but maybe it’s other mobility things so that I can actually use my background of skillsets to get involved in’.

Alongside the importance of education, we also need to have good conversations with organised labour and unions so that they can be part of the innovation and not be a victim of it.  I find that conversation lacking in many other parts of the country and I’m having to lead it with education partners to make sure that our workforces have a broad understanding of what a knowledge based economy is going to do for us.

Let me give you an example: People find that you don’t have to go around managing the maintenance of a building with a tool belt anymore, you can go around with an iPad.  You’ve still got to operate buildings, but our buildings have to be technically oriented as we’re challenging them to be greener.  So, how do you go from a tool belt to an iPad? That’s just one sector that I’m focused on to get people jobs in.

If you’re going to be a city of love and compassion, you’re going to have to develop economics infrastructure, capital planning and job creation policies, complementing them with education.  For those who feel left out, we have to bring them in, and have that conversation with every company, every worker, and fight for them to be part of the more complicated world, the more enriched world we live in today.

That’s the theme of how I actually approach my job every day. I’m always sensitive that just because one or two of these sectors are on fire doesn’t mean we’re really successful.

Q: What is the role of arts and culture in San Francisco?

[Mayor Edwin M. Lee] We are a diverse city, so arts and culture are natural areas we support and invest in.  Our cultural activities represent the tremendously deep and rich diversity that’s here, which is one of our great attractors.

Those who are innovating want markets and want people to appreciate their product… not just in American society, but around the whole world… and you can’t do that without understanding the diverse cultures our world has.

The fact that we’ve got so many different ethnic minority groups in the city that contributes to the wonderful flavour of our art.  We’ve got world class symphonies, operas and ballets that tour all over the world.  We have a Gay Men’s Chorus that is travelling to try to open up dialogue about LGBT challenges for people using music as the common denominator.

Rather than politicising our cultural challenges, we have to allow people to feel comfortable about their culture and about who they are, and to accept each other as equals.

The enrichment of art and culture allows the innovative spirit and mind to actually go beyond what it’s doing in the moment.

Q:  How are you leveraging innovation to solve city-wide challenges? 

[Mayor Edwin M. Lee] We found ourselves challenged at a period when we invited companies like Twitter and Zendesk to be in the downtrodden Skid Row of San Francisco if you will. We wanted to revitalise these areas, and we welcomed in some companies with a tax break such that if you located there we would give you a 6-year break from the payroll taxes that were threatening the ability of these companies to grow.  That worked economically, but it also became a symbol that if that we were  going to be successful, there was a lot of people that needed to feel that the effort was worth it, and was going to improve their neighbourhoods.

Connecting this new workforce to the immediate connecting neighbourhoods that were very low income, South Market, The Tenderloin, the neighbourhoods have an overconcentration of homelessness, poverty, people live under very dire circumstances in these very low run down, low income, single room occupancy hotels…  to say that these companies and their presence would actually contribute to uplifting these groups of people who have been the victim of a disinvested area for so long, made inroads into connecting up what people felt was a good symbol of success.

If you just did nothing? the conversation would be ‘they get to be successful and I continue to be in poverty, they get richer I get poorer’.

There are huge intersections and commonalities where talented people can actually be involved in creating new childcare opportunities and new job skill opportunities.  Key to this is having community space that’s clean, open and allows everyone to come in and interact with their new neighbours and perhaps find some real investors in local non-profits that have been struggling to finance themselves, and which have had a chronic lack of support.

This work is led by some of most successful entrepreneurs in the tech industry like Mark Bennioff his wife Lynn, Daniel Lurie and Ron Conway – they’re all great philanthropists who know how to target areas that are of concern and bring them up.   They have been sponsoring the reinvestment in our public school system in the most challenging grades, with programs like Circle the Schools, and adopt school program where their wealth is literally shared in multi millions of dollars with the kids who they feel can be their talent if in fact we invest in the education foundations and stamp as well as the arts.  And they’ve been doing that for, now my 5th year, to the tune of $7 million and literally transforming school sites that have no Wi-Fi, no iPads, no technology training, no computer science.  Then 5 years later, our school system is the best performing urban school system in the entire state of California.  In less than 5 years.  Because of Bennioff and the Sales Force foundation with Circle the Schools and all these other programs.  We’re literally bringing 10 times more confidence that the public education system which is obviously open for everyone of all incomes, is even attractive enough for those wealthy families to consider staying here and not having to pay for private school.  They can have just as good a school system.

Q:  How are you designing resilience into San Francisco?

[Mayor Edwin M. Lee] Before I became Mayor, I made a few trips to New Orleans to find out (on behalf of Mayor Gavin Newsom) what really happened to have disenfranchised so many people after Hurricane Katrina.  This event is noted as one of our nation’s worst natural disasters, but it was a human disaster, and one they knew was coming.  They knew it for years, they had episodes of it just like we have with earthquakes in San Francisco.

I’ve been working for the city now for over 28 years and have gone through a big earthquake, a number of tremors, and have worked hard to understand the role of earthquakes in Southern California, Japan, Europe, and other parts of the world.

Here’s the thing, people aren’t prepared to have an attitude of recovery before the event happens, that’s the secret.  The secret is to create recovery before the event happens.   We have to have that conversation with everybody.  Every neighbourhood of the city should feel that they can manage themselves through even the largest disaster we have.

Our job is to create the right tools: We have SF72, where we use the best technology we can, we now incorporating early warning systems and early earthquake warning systems that can effectuate everything down to opening garage doors at fire stations so that in the event of a tremor, recovery and response can happen faster.  We also use fleet week and all the other kinds of opportunities to  gather a sense of unity for people, the kids and the schools to have the conversations in the classrooms and with their parents, about being prepared.

We’ve also set-up neighbourhood preparedness networks, and now 13 neighbourhoods that are all low-income neighbourhoods, are training people who live in these areas to be part of a network that uses their earthquake resistant library centres to be their communication centres.  We’re encouraging people to know their neighbours, to have networking tools like Next Door program, to communicate with each other, to have literally search and rescue parties that are neighbourhood oriented for the first 72 hours before firefighters and police officers can get to areas that might be devastated.  We train all of that now, so we have strong neighbourhoods and we have to do that every generation.

We don’t ever want to think that an earthquake of major proportions would drive you away to leave. We can manage this, and so we’re expecting it to come right here, be right here, manage that, have systems in place and tools in place and resources in place to recover immediately.  That’s how we handle disasters, and that’s the formula to be resilient in our society today.  You train them and make it a part of living in the city, and we have more and more people that are trained with CPR than ever before, we have the neighbourhood emergency response teams called NERT that the fire department trains, community organisations to be in charge of themselves for 72 hours.  And we appreciate, during the fleet week we’re not just celebrating the military.  We’re actually doing exercises, how they bring supplies, medical search teams into the city, what routes they use.  And today we know the first names of a lot of our division captains and military leaders, because when that disaster hits, the navy, the coastguard, the national guard, are all practising medical searches and supply routes in and out of the city.  By water, by air.  That’s how to do it, the neighbourhoods are trained.  Before that even happens.  So, these are part of our resiliency things that we’ve learned.

Disaster resilience is also about collaboration. We’ve worked with teams in Kobe, Japan and also in Thailand where they had the huge Tsunami.  We’ve also been working in Asia, parts of China, Turkey and the Middle East- studying their plans, infrastructure and resource and sharing our learnings too.

Q:  What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Mayor Edwin M. Lee] There’s still so much to do, that I’m far from thinking about legacy.  We have to continue making sure this city is serving everyone.

I’m busy making sure my goal of 30,000 units of new housing is built with a guaranteed affordability for more than a third if not almost a half of middle and low-income families.  I am very focused on getting thousands of people off the streets and literally, before I’m through, cutting in half the number of homeless people.  There’s about 300-500 that are still living on the street that I’d love to cut in half that can have enough housing and support services that can allow them to not just have temporary shelter, but permanent shelter with support of services.

I have more to do in the economic sense of people getting the skillsets for knowledge based economy, not feeling victims of it.

I have more goals for education than ever before, and making sure we reach all the children and families in public housing.

I have a goal to integrate communities with the opportunity to more than survive, but to be successful. I never want to see a housing authority that’s never funded enough, the federal government will be in charge of 3,500 units that they can’t do but to have now, we’re turning the corner and getting rid of the housing authority, and we’re operating and managing all of the housing that’s subsidised to new partnerships between for-profit and non-profit housing managers in a very culturally competent way in every single neighbourhood.

These are things that I’m doing… whether they promote legacy building, I don’t know.

People feel a transformation is going on, they feel part of the future of our city, and I think maybe that’s what I want.

I want to continue to encourage people to feel they have no limitations, and can reach their full potential in a city with the openness, cultural vibrancy, diversity and welcome that allowed me to become the first Asian Mayor of the City.

I have a responsibility to make sure we keep the door open for everybody else.  And to every person that becomes successful, I will only ask them one thing, if the door was open for you to be successful, your responsibility is to keep that door open for the next person, so they can see forward and have a vision as we’ve helped to create one for everybody here.


View Interviewee Biographies

The 43rd mayor of San Francisco, Edwin M. Lee assumed leadership of the City while it was experiencing the greatest economic recession since the 1930s. Under policies laid out by Mayor Lee, San Francisco has experienced its most successful economic expansion in City history, with more than 140,000 jobs added during his tenure.

Mayor Lee has added more homes to the housing market than any other Mayor in San Francisco history. As a result, eviction rates are down in San Francisco, and average rental and home prices have dropped. In 2014, he made a pledge to create 30,000 new and rehabilitated homes by 2020, and to date, he is more than 17,000 units closer to that goal. More homes have been created under Mayor Lee than at any other time in San Francisco history.

Mayor Lee has managed to grow the economy of the City and add homes while maintaining San Francisco’s historic environmental commitments. Under his leadership, greenhouse gas emission have dropped 28 percent. He also has made a promise to have San Francisco running on 50 percent renewable energy by 2030.

The Mayor has made historic investment commitments to infrastructure, parks and schools, funding them at record levels while successfully championing bond measures to improve San Francisco’s seismic standards. He has led the call for major transportation projects such as the Central Subway and the Transbay Transit Center, both of which will be completed during his tenure.

Determined to tackle the challenges of the day, Mayor Lee has vowed to end chronic veterans’ homelessness by the end of 2017, while reducing overall chronic homelessness by 50 percent within the next five years.

Mayor Lee has a long track record of working together with leaders from across the country, which includes his involvement in the founding of Mayors Against LGBT Discrimination, a coalition of city leaders that applies political and economic pressure to stop discriminatory laws from spreading in the United States. Additionally, Mayor Lee is a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, where he serves as the chair of the Technology and Innovation Task Force.

A native of Seattle, Washington, Mayor Lee graduated from Bowdoin College in 1974, and from Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1978. Prior to becoming a civil servant, Mayor Lee worked as housing activist and civil right attorney. He is married to his wife Anita, and is the father of two daughters, Brianna and Tania.



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