Travel News

Eco-Oakland: The City You Only Thought You Knew

Locations in this article:  Chicago, IL San Francisco, CA

Oakland BridgeIn part two of her series on Green Cities, Virtuous Traveler Leslie Garrett explores the unexpectedly pleasing eco-practices of Oakland, California.

I’m just the type of person that exasperates Serena Barlett. I’m speaking with Bartlett, author of the GrassRoutes Guide to Oakland and creator of the GrassRoutes series, when I confess my own reluctance to venture to Oakland.

While I love San Francisco (I can practically hear Bartlett sigh on the other end of the line), Oakland has always seemed to me to be, well, somewhere I don’t want to be. Especially after dark.

Turns out that Oakland suffers from bad P.R. And with Bartlett as the city’s new unofficial ambassador, the city’s image is getting a makeover – and an extreme eco one at that.

Bartlett’s GrassRoutes Travel Guides promise “urban eco-travel” and with Oakland, she says, it’s easy to deliver.

“Oakland has more diversity than any city I’ve ever been to,” she states emphatically, noting that she herself grew up in New York.

She recalls that when she first moved to Oakland, there seemed nothing but negative comments about the city. Or, she says, it was suggested as a side trip to those who happened to be visiting San Francisco. “Nobody knew how cool it was.”

Or how green.

Oakland LeavesWhat does this mean to the urban eco-tourist willing to give Oakland a try?

For starters, you can put away your portable water filtration system and eschew bottled water as the city “has the cleanest tap water in the nation.”

It’s also leading the nation in the area of renewable energy usage — topping the charts at 17 percent of its energy coming from renewable sources, primarily solar. Barlett also boasts of the city’s aggressive composting program, inner-city gardening and support of micro-enterprise — all principles that make sustainable travelers tremble with excitement.

Let’s take a closer look at overlooked Oakland:

Getting Around

Of course you could rent a car (perhaps even a hybrid!), take a taxi or rely on the city’s public transit, which is powered by hydrogen fuel-cells (zero emissions!). But if weather permits, why not explore on two wheels? Bartlett directs visitors to Wheels of Justice at 2024 Mountain Boulevard at La Salle Avenue, noting that the store offers rental bikes and mopeds. Visit for info.

Lake Merritt

Oakland also has the rich natural areas that much of the Bay Area is blessed with. Bartlett points to Lake Merritt, frequently referred to as the “jewel of Oakland.” The lake is the country’s only inland salt-water lake and covers 155 acres. It’s also home to the country’s oldest wildlife refuge, offering sanctuary to fish, shrimp, birds, clams and crabs. Indeed, five islands offer a stop-over point for such migratory birds as Canada geese, egrets, herons and more. The islands are cordoned off to keep them protected from the boat traffic and water sports on the lake.

Chabot Science Center

While California is noted for its star-watching, most of it is on Hollywood Boulevard. Oakland’s Chabot Science Center offers up the real stars – as in skyward. With three huge telescopes and “incredible” scientists on site to explain what you’re seeing, Bartlett considers Chabot a must-see in Oakland. What’s more, thanks to its aggressive recycling and compost programs, along with its use of drought-resistant plants in landscaping, the venerable science center has just been certified as a Green Business by the Bay Area Green Business Program — the first museum/science center to receive the designation.

Eating Out

I’m an admitted food snob and Bartlett’s description of the culinary offerings of Oakland practically had me purchasing a plane ticket. “The food scene in Oakland is one of the biggest draws,” she says. “It’s almost standard for restaurants to be on the 100-mile diet,” referring to the international movement toward eating local, sustainable cuisine.

Specifically, Bartlett is partial to the Fruitvale, a frequently underestimated area of Oakland that is home to many of the city’s Latin Americans. Tamale Queen (1212 Fruitvale Ave.) stands out for Bartlett, noting that it’s truly authentic Mexican food, with chili peppers grown on the family farm. Another favorite is Bakesale Betty’s, which Bartlett describes as “like a metaphor for the hidden wonders of Oakland, Betty’s stands unmarked and unlabeled on the corner of Telegraph and 51st.” Serving up sandwiches and mouthwatering baked goods is Betty’s forte.

And that’s not all. Along with the myriad restaurants, farmer’s markets are also bustling in the area for those who want to pack their own.

Of course, this is all just a sampling of Oakland’s eco offerings. Next time you’re on your way to San Francisco, take Barlett’s advice and detour to Oakland. It just might change your perspective entirely.

Heading to Oakland? Check out or visit

Leslie Garrett is author of The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World (and one our kids will thank us for!) with a foreword by Peter Greenberg. Visit her at

Previously By Leslie Garrett on

Chicago: More Green Than Meets the Eye


The Good, The Green and the Downright Crazy Tours

Green Travel Gadgets

Green Honeymoons

Bye Polar: Arctic Travel

Or check out our Responsible Travel section for more green travel ideas.