SAN FRANCISCO — This city is gussying up for an international holiday that few in the United States have ever heard of -- and in typical fashion, its upstart young mayor is hoping the city will stand apart.
The United Nations' World Environment Day is much of the globe's version of Earth Day. In more than three decades, it has generally been marked by conferences and the unveiling of initiatives that fade into obscurity after ceremonies conclude.
No U.S. city has ever been its host.
But with this year marking the 60th anniversary of the creation of the United Nations here in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom and other city officials made their pitch to hold the event here. Why not focus on "green cities," they urged, and the potential power of mayors to effect change around the world?
"A lot of effort has been spent on saving the world's last wild places, but very little time has been spent on the urban environment," said San Francisco Department of the Environment Director Jared Blumenfeld.
"What we've found as we've gone through this exercise is cities have a lot more in common than nation-states. Every city has to fill potholes, deal with parks and urban planning and wastewater and clean water."
The result is a five-day extravaganza beginning Wednesday and culminating on World Environment Day, June 5.
Events will be attended by mayors from Istanbul, Turkey; London; Shanghai; Zurich, Switzerland; Calcutta; Panama City; and dozens of other cities big and small. Select U.S. mayors will attend, but organizers limited their numbers, Blumenfeld said, in an effort not to skew the global balance represented.
To roll out the green carpet, San Francisco has raised $2.5 million from corporations and philanthropic foundations. And at a dinner Saturday in a green tent in Union Square, Al Gore will update the mayors on global climate change.
The dignitaries will participate in dozens of workshops and eco-tours on myriad topics, including smart growth, sustainable energy and environmental justice. Activities also will include lectures, films and art exhibits. Technology to harness the energy of ocean waves and alternative fuel vehicles will be among the products to be highlighted by business.
Other attractions: a house built of scrap metal and a sculpture crafted from discarded chopsticks.
Blumenfeld said San Francisco is hoping to learn. When Newsom recently visited Zurich's mayor, he was astounded by the city's cleanliness. He later deputized his own city's bureaucrats to ticket litterbugs.
London's mayor is expected to share details of a program that charges vehicles for circulating in the city's congested zones. And Calcutta, Newsom said, diverts 87% of its waste away from landfills, compared with San Francisco's 67%.
Still, some showing off is in order for the City by the Bay. On the list: the 60,000-square-foot array of solar panels atop the city's main convention center -- the largest such city-owned installation in the United States.
James Sniffen, a New York spokesman for the Kenya-based United Nations Environment Program, said San Francisco lobbied for the Green Cities theme. Participants plan to sign environmental accords pledging change within seven years in such areas as energy, waste reduction, urban design and environmental health. The pledges will be read into the U.N.'s record at a June 6 meeting, formalizing them, he said, but unless legislative bodies in the respective cities implement them, they will not be binding.
Sniffen lauded the city's approach as ambitious, although he said he was glad to see the name of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan removed from the city's website. Annan will not be attending.
Still, the number of global mayors who have confirmed they will attend is impressive for a city that constantly yearns to be world-class, said retiring San Francisco State University political science professor Richard DeLeon. "Who wouldn't want to be counted among those assembled there?" he said.
Global aspirations aside, Newsom appears to have achieved a local feat by appealing to environmentalists while simultaneously appeasing the city's business core.
The Visitors and Convention Bureau said that by last week, those planning to attend had booked 2,900 room nights in San Francisco hotels and are expected to pump more than $1 million a day into the local economy. More than 50 gourmet restaurants are highlighting organic specialty dishes during the event.
San Francisco's United Nations Plaza, long a gathering place for the city's homeless, has gotten a face-lift of new brickwork, lighting, fresh sod and plenty of flags.
Still, some fear that, beyond the educational value, the event could prove meaningless.