Beyond the Trails

Supe Steve Kinsey on the greening of Marin


Steve Kinsey is known as the “green supervisor” of Marin County. At first this doesn’t sound like a very radical role, since his is one of the greenest counties in California—at least if you’re just looking at the world-famous landscape, where a whopping 80 percent of the area has been saved from development.

From an environmental perspective, Marin is a triumph of eco-centric land-use policy. So to appear green, a supervisor need only surf the prevailing tide of neo-hippie naturalism. But not Kinsey. He actually finds himself at odds with Marin’s decades-old tradition of conservation, at the juncture where it stops short of true sustainability.

“What really grew out of the 1960s in the Bay Area was a strong belief that people could influence big aspects of policy, especially land use,” says Kinsey. “We’ve had seven decades of conservation, beginning with Mr. Kent purchasing Muir Woods.” (During the early battles to save the coast and tidal areas of Marin and Sonoma, purchasing land to thwart development was a guiding preservation strategy.) But looking at the times and the rising temperatures, Kinsey sees that Marin now needs to shift the focus away from land issues alone and address everything it means to be sustainable.

“We need to move into the realm of integrating social equity and social justice,” he says. “All government needs to be organizing around the synthesis of sustainability and climate change.”

Unlike traditional land battles, climate-change efforts call for unpopular behavioral changes by individuals—a very different set of skirmishes. “Marin County consumes five planets’ worth of resources each year,” says Kinsey. “Compared to the U.S., we consume five times the world’s average. We can’t just continue to protect the environment. We need to move our community toward drastically different lifestyles, to live more simply.” Maybe a green supervisor’s leadership role is a radical one after all.

Kinsey represents West Marin and also the most economically and ethnically diverse population in the county, San Rafael’s Canal district. He feels a commitment to bring the social equity portion of sustainability to the forefront, to look beyond Marin’s beautiful and well-managed landscape to tackle the less attractive but keenly significant aspects of sustainable community life, namely, public transportation and high-density urban redevelopment.

Interestingly, Canal district residents are modeling sustainable behaviors by their transit-dependence; they live in high-density residential areas close to transportation and use it so frequently that buses run every 15 minutes. There, public transportation works efficiently and fares actually cover 100 percent of the transportation costs, compared to the 20 percent average.

Kinsey is excited to have a model that works and sees access to pubic transportation as a key to the county’s future, particularly since the state has, in Kinsey’s words, “abandoned its commitment to transit.” There won’t be any more state funding for mass transit.

“Since 62 percent of our greenhouse-gas production is coming from transportation, we have a long, long way to go in reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Kinsey said. “But while we’re reducing our emissions, we’re building a healthier lifestyle, achieving multiple goals with our resources.”

One example is re-excavating the old train tunnel connecting Corte Madera to San Rafael—one tube for the train and the other for bikes and walking. Marin leads the nation in safe routes to schools, and the multi-use greenway will stretch from the north county line to the Lincoln Bridge.

But greenways are not enough, in Kinsey’s view, when there are enormous transportation problems to be solved and low-income residents for whom enjoyment of the greenway may not be practical. Traditional environmentalism has been called an elitist undertaking, while sustainability demands inclusion of all social classes, all members of the community.

“In some respects, it’s why I’m proud not to be endorsed on a regular basis by the Sierra Club and the Marin Conservation league, why I’m pleased I don’t have their full support,” Kinsey explained. “They have important roles to play, but in my mind they retain the hundred years of conservation, when what we need is to move into integrations, the issues of toxins in the communities of low-income and immigrant people. It’s beyond protecting our trails.”