The next time you’re reveling in the redwood mist in Muir Woods or dipping your toes into Wildcat Creek at Tilden Park, you might want to know that these lands—and the quilt of over one million protected acres of open space that weave into the urban fabric of the Bay Area—didn’t just save themselves. These places we love are the result of decades of battles to preserve the bay, oak woodlands, redwood forests, and streams, even agricultural fields, fought for by activists on all sides of the political and economic spectrum.
In The Country in the City/The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area, UC Berkeley geography professor Richard Walker details these battles in a delightful and comprehensive way. Like all geographers, he is a big-picture guy, so the story is told in its entirety. In fact, the book serves as a cultural and natural history of much of the state. For instance, Walker describes how large-scale preservation efforts in the Bay Area were inspired by even larger-scale efforts to preserve redwoods throughout the state and the Sierra. But preservation efforts also had a strong local impetus, and Walker chronicles the “city beautiful” and “pleasure grounds” movements in which urban dwellers could sneak off for a little respite in “nearby nature” at Golden Gate Park, Tilden Park, or Oakland’s Dimond Canyon.
Walker also shows how agricultural and grazing lands surrounding the cities of the Bay Area have contributed to our green necklace, and describes the efforts urban environmentalists have made to save and restore remnant “greenswards” and “wild gashes,” the many streams that still flow through our cities. He devotes one chapter to the history of the movement to save San Francisco Bay from development, and credits that effort with spawning generations of environmentalists, himself included.
As he details the often heroic efforts of a few to save some nature for all of us, he also describes our destructive, extractive acts. Gold, mercury, sulfur, gravel, and mineral mining have left their marks on the landscape—and can still be seen today in places like the East Bay hills where scars tell their tales. Despite crediting the wealthy with helping to save much of the Bay Area’s open space, he reminds readers that wealth is often created with great impacts to the land.
It’s easy to get discouraged about the state of the natural world, and that includes our local environment, despite its city, regional, state, and national parks, especially when you see the nonstop onslaught of sprawl. Yet reading Walker’s book reminds us that we are lucky to have as much open land as we do. The book is a tribute to activists all around the bay—north, south, east, and west—from the late 1800s through the present. More importantly, it is a reminder that now is not the time to sit back and fret but to get active. There’s a lot more work to be done.
I chatted with Walker by phone.
I appreciate the homage you pay in your book to women environmentalists, especially those in the Bay Area who were so critical to saving places.
Nobody’s really written about the role of women in the environmental movement. As usual, history gets written about big names and organizations—white men have usually gotten the vast majority of the credit. When I sat down to write this book I suspected the role of women. It was just apparent from what I already knew but the more I plunged in, the more I learned. Women are the grassroots, and the men were the leaves of grass blowing in the wind. Of course, there were lots of good men doing a lot of good things too. But earlier on, you had these quite liberated, very well educated women, usually housewives—that Rachel Carson generation or even before—who were smart, worldly, energetic, and had time on their hands.
Now everything has become institutionalized; there are more environmental nonprofits. But that’s a sign of success of the environmental movement. Of course it’s women working at them, often for low wages. I do think we’ve lost something since the “good old days.” Progress comes at a price.
I was surprised to learn of the depth of the contributions of some of the Bay Area’s wealthier citizens.
It was interesting; there was an amazing cross-class alliance in this deep green culture. If it was not actually explicit, it was implicit that people were bearers of the same kind of ideas working sometimes in parallel without knowing what the others were doing. They had the sense that if I work hard, I might succeed at this. Often that success comes from a combination of people in high places who tilt your way; it’s an important political lesson
We always celebrate the grassroots—the most democratic form of rebellion and participation—but the elite have the power, so to have an enlightened elite is really important. There was this tradition of liberal Republicanism that was still alive until the new conservatives, starting with Reagan’s governorship. Weinberger was against Reagan and was fighting freeways in San Francisco, then he got swept away by Reagan’s charm and became a bastion of Reaganism. It’s so important to have a political culture that sweeps people toward the green.
It seems like we’ve lost some of these cross-class/cross-party environmental efforts.
It’s very hard to say; it’s always hard to read your own time. Still, there’s a lot of enthusiasm out there. I’ve hit a nerve with my book—how widely [environmental activism] crosses class and race lines; it runs very, very deep. Now it’s more institutionalized, but that’s almost inevitable. When you win you get laws to make things work. It’s that kind of boring, long-term grind. There’s always a danger that you lose your movement edge, your spontaneity, your radicals. Yet it never ceases to amaze me how people come out of the woodwork—sometimes it takes a trigger like UC Berkeley’s developmental foray.
Your book describes the sprawl that our two most famous universities, Stanford and Berkeley, have caused, and you are somewhat critical of what UC Berkeley has done to its campus. What is your feeling about the proposed demolition of the oak grove? Are there better sites for a sports training facility?
They’re the two worst [universities for creating sprawl]. I have mixed feelings about Berkeley, of course, and I like football. They need to shore up the stadium, but the stadium should never have been built there. That was a catastrophe and idiocy at the time, and a lot of people knew it. Andrew Lawson quit Berkeley and went to Cal Tech after that fiasco he was so furious. He went down there with Richter and made Cal Tech great. The stadium is dangerous; the west side is exceedingly dangerous. It’s true that we probably put far too much money into sports, but compared to war, sports are OK with me. I don’t think the oak removal is as drastic as it’s been portrayed, but probably a lot of trees will be killed just from the construction. The practice facility shores up the west side of the stadium; it’s really a hidden earthquake retrofit. Its footprint is large but not that large. The biggest problem is the stupid new parking lot. It’s being built so the old Blues who give a lot of money to sports can have a place to park on game day. The other problem is access. We do not need more parking lots near campus. What the protest has already achieved is that I think the university has downsized the parking lot.
What about the idea that has been proposed of putting the facility at Golden Gate Fields?
You could build a whole new stadium complex at Golden Gate Fields, but looking at it from the East-shore State Park perspective, you don’t want a stadium down there. The university is very tied to having the stadium where it is, so what can you win in this debate? What you want to win is absolute minimum of oak tree removal and parking spaces.
It’s easy to get discouraged about the environment these days. Do you stay positive, and if so, how?
It’s discouraging now because of global warming. We’ve been thunderstruck by this imminent disaster. It’s one of those cases where Chicken Little is right, and the enviros who have a bad name for exaggeration are right. What’s going on is really catastrophic; it needs to be slowed down as much and as fast as possible. On the other hand, I think it has energized some people.
I wrote this book not out of thinking of global warming but out of Bush’s victory and how depressed we all were. That’s when I started it. I was thinking that we needed something positive, and here right on my doorstep was something I knew about. The achievements were great—the greens had saved the bay and the coast. And I thought, my god, nobody really appreciates this achievement, albeit checkered and with losses on the way. But overall, you’ve got to say, given what we were up against, it’s a remarkable story of success. In 1960 or 1970 you could never have imagined that development would be so hemmed in as it is today.
I’m far to the left of most of the greens I write about. I know all the problems environmentalism doesn’t address. At the same time I appreciate what the greens have done, and I admire their courage. They’re more radical than a lot of non-green lefties think. There’s been a failure of imagination on the social left and racial left to appreciate environmental radicalists. Since I’ve been a red green for thirty to forty years now, I’ve always been a bit appalled at how isolated different segments of the left are. There was a moment in the ’70s of convergence, and there was more convergence here than anywhere else. You had counterculture combined with green combined with antiwar combined with racial justice.
There’s convergence now too. Global warming, while very discouraging, has people very energized. The dam is broken now; the right had completely jammed up the political discourse on global warming, minimally during the early years of Bush, but it’s actually been longer, since the ’80s. The dam has finally broken, and there’s lots of activity from places you wouldn’t have expected—from businesses with solar power, Wal-Mart reducing energy (of course, a lot of that’s greenwashing and they are not to be trusted as far as you can throw them). Corporate people are often a bit more open-minded and less ignorant; the Bush people were to the right of Schwarzenegger, who’s a total business Republican. He sees that you can have energy conservation, and that we can create new technologies around it and generate new businesses.
What can people do to make a difference now?
The environmental movement has reenergized a lot of ordinary people, who are thinking, “I should do something, but what?” We’ve made a beautiful city here; in many ways we have a big greenbelt. But our transportation technology is behind, and we’re still automobile-dependent. We had a lot of people fighting for more intelligent transportation planning for years, but we still have a huge problem. We need to tax SUVs, keep pollution standards high, keep raising gas standards, come up with new technologies and subsidize our buses better. We really don’t do a good job of that. MTC actually has a lot of teeth, they just don’t want to use them. That’s a pressure point; people have to get on them.
People need to get out of their cars and get off the grid at home and work. It’s really about social behavior. In the energy crisis of the ’70s, people changed their behavior. California energy usage per capita is still the lowest in the nation because of that—we passed a lot of good laws. But you look at young people today, and the lights just stay on. We always jump to “Can I put a wind tower on my roof” instead of “Can I get my kids to turn the lights off?” There’s a lot of easy stuff we can do.
We have to build our cities differently. We need more gardens, collective community spaces, and local food sources, which means rethinking land use even more profoundly than just [legislating] open space. It’s a tremendous challenge, but the Bay Area is well positioned to take some leadership. There’s a lot of NIMBYism here; a lot of anti-density movements. We have to have more density. You have to fight every fight. You can’t just say, “Oh well, we need density and therefore it must be good.” Never accept a developer’s proposal on its face; you always have to fight for improvements.
I hope people don’t read my book and rest on their laurels. I tried to keep some undercurrent of dissatisfaction in it. But I think people have to have that sense of what you can accomplish if you have a movement. That’s always the hardest thing, to get people active if they have a sense of futility. If my book contributes to making people feel empowered, then that’s most important.
What about kids who sit inside all day on the computer? How are they ever going to learn to love nature—and to do something to save it?
We’ve got to get the kids outside; that’s partly the responsibility of all our park and open space entities—service agencies—to make sure the kids get out. There’s a lot more organized stuff than when I was a kid—more stream cleanups, coastal cleanups, etc.— but maybe less of the family-based disorganized stuff.
You became inspired by the movement to save the bay.
I used to listen to Don Sherwood on the radio, and he got converted by Kay Kerr [one of the three Berkeley housewives who started Save the Bay]—that and the Sierra Club and David Brower and his ads. But my parents had also taken me out to these places that I felt a personal connection to. I thought, how dare they build a dam in the Grand Canyon; how could we fill the bay? That just made no sense, but that was because I had experienced it first-hand. It doesn’t take that much to make a difference to kids.
More than ever, the Bay Area seems to be divided into “haves” and “have nots.” How does that affect the environment?
The United States is more unequal than ever. The data shows we’ve the most unequal we’ve ever been; we’re getting close to Brazil. The bottom’s dropped out from the lowest 20 percent. We have higher unemployment and crappy wages and pickup jobs while the top 5 percent made out like bandits, thanks to the stock market and tax cuts. I think that “keeping up with the Joneses” effect is harmful. Most of us don’t suffer absolute poverty, but people are dissatisfied because they see all the toys, the way of life of the rich and famous through movies and TV. It makes people feel “it ain’t fair,” and it isn’t. So middle-class consumers are trying to be like the rich, and the poor aren’t going to be able to do that in any case. It also encourages the sense that the purpose of life is to get rich, that money is everything, that what life is about is accumulation, accumulation.
That’s always been a problem, but buying into that in our time is fantastic because there is no social alternative right now in the mainstream. It seems like the only thing that makes sense is to make money; it wasn’t like that in the New Deal era where there was a much stronger sense of social obligation, that you do things for the social good and you feel good about it and that is reward in itself, that you don’t need a lot of money. For example, I love teaching, but I don’t need to be paid fabulously to do it. We’ve lost a lot of that. We need a new New Deal to revive faith in government to help those who have the least.
For such a positive, inspiring book you end it on a not very optimistic note—that as long as we continue our capitalist, consumptive life styles, the environment will always be in danger.
We’re filthy rich. We’re still the richest metropolitan area in the county. There has to be a way to consume that is built around human satisfaction and not around compulsive buying because you’ve got the money and you want the toys. It’s not about going back to the Stone Age; it’s not about living without buying anything. But we could all live so much simpler. I got divorced a few years ago and I had to move from the hills to the flatlands into a smaller house. I’ve found that I like being in the flatlands. I like to be able to bicycle everywhere. I found that I didn’t need to consume at the level I was consuming. We can have a modest amount of clothing, smaller cars, the simpler joys of getting together and talking instead of going to the latest rock concert.
But we’re all full of contradictions. I watch my daughter and see how she’s a fashion victim to advertising and school pressures. Advertisers are clever. And the way we raise children is more and more lax. Because we’re all richer we buy them whatever they want; with my parents it was pretty minimal, except maybe on Christmas.
It isn’t enough to wait for the government; it’s not enough to wait for a new law on high, you have to have a sense that other people are trying. But you also have to do things on your own even though you might not think anyone else is doing anything.