The Country in the City

Sometime in the mid-90s I was driven up 280 for the first time with a colleague, and I marvelled at the unbuilt hills. “Why isn’t this covered in houses,”, I asked. I had grown up in suburban Philadelphia, and sprawl was an unchecked force of nature. Why weren’t those hills all built up? My colleague didn’t know. The Country in the City answers the question.

Land conservation has been part of San Francisco Bay Area culture since John Muir’s Sierra Club in the 1890s, and the Sempervirens club founded to save remaining strands of Redwood trees in 1900. The best-told narrative of US environmental history is a national story, tracing from Muir’s romanticism and Teddy Roosevelt’s outdoorsiness through the founding of the national parks and the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. The story Richard Walker tells is a distinctively regional story, with Bay Area groups of citizens organizing to protect land from residential and industrial development, using a set of beliefs, organizing methods, and institutions, with some dramatic successes over periods of many decades.

The preservationist history has a number of themes: protecting watersheds, creating networks of parks inland and on the coast, protecting landmarks like Mount Tam and Mount Diablo, and the dramatic and ongoing movement to Save The Bay. Part of the story is financing — in the wake of Proposition 13, which reduced state funding for conservation, the Bay Area made increased use of private land trusts to continue to preserve land.
Part of the story is grass roots community support. There is a nonprofit organization devoted to taking care of San Francisquito creek which runs through my neighborhood, a group that is part of a network of groups that care for local creeks.

Part of the story is entrepreneurialism and fragmentation. Where there is a ecosystem to preserve or a development to fight, Bay Area residents spontaneously create organizations that work in coalitions to achieve the common goal. This reflects several cultural traits: skills and enterprise at creating organizations; and preferences for independence and alliance-buliding. Part of the fragmentation is regional. The Bay Area is big and not easy to get around. On any given topic, there are likely a variety of local groups connected with loose social and organizational ties. This may be a strength in some ways (local experimentation). In some areas, like transportation, the fragmentation and competition results in a flawed and suboptimal system.

The story is ongoing, and the cultural themes are current. Menlo Park is one of a number of towns currently organizing to combat global warming, and forming loose regional connections. This is following in a long tradition of loosely affiliated local groups working on environmental issues. Two of the biggest controversies in the last Menlo Park election cycle were about building a golfcourse at Bayfront Park, and a controversial infill which is reclaimed landfill open space. The development referendum was defeated. Another controversy was about a 135-unit mixed use development, which is part of a trend toward suburban infill.

The idea that environmentalism is about preserving open space is a cultural trope. When I told a woman at a community event that I was interested in environmental topics, she referred me to the groups that work to preserve open space in the hills and by the bay, though my personal interests are more about energy and global warming.

Another cultural theme, I suspect, is poor memory for local history. Walker tells the stories of local heroes:
* Bill Kortum who was a leader in protecting the coastline
* Edgar Wayburn and Amy Meyer, the patrician physician and local teacher who were leaders in the expansion of Golden Gate Park in the 70s,
* Claire Dedrick, the research scientist who was active in preserving the peninsula foothills and saving the bay, and went on to a career in state environmental agencies
* Newton Drury, the advertising executive who was a stalward of the Save the Redwoods league
* Dorothy Erskine and Jack Kent, cofounders of what became the Greenbelt Alliance.

The obscurity of local heroes reminds me of a recent conversation with Eugene Kim who was lamenting the poor cultural memory of people who contributed to ideas about technology that we now take for granted. The Bay Area is great at hype but perhaps not so great at history.

The way Walker tells the story, preservation is the result of an ongoing, never-finished series of battles between the forces of development and the forces of conservation. That is surely part of the story, but the conflict narrative underestimates the roles of built-up institutions at protecting the environment. When I got to California and started looking around to figure out how this place got to pass AB32 (the global warming bill) and the less glamorous but hugely important SB1368 which bans out-of-state coal power, and what created the beautiful path around the bay, I found established and professionalized institutions, with sources of funding, executive directors, staff research departments and scientists.

Richard Walker is a proud lefty, in a way that is refreshing to read coming from Texas, where folk left-of-center have self-esteem issues from years of right-wing mockery and marginalization. The leftiness also leads him to be chronically surprised that rich people and businesses can sometimes do good and useful things. This is particularly true in the global warming fight, where capitalism is a critical to the infrastructure transformation needed to reduce the use of carbon-based energy.

At the end of the book, there is a short and unsatisfying chapter on the environmental justice movement, which calls attention to the fact that poor folk are disproportionately the victims of environmental degradation. Poor people are more likely to live near toxic industrial sites and neighborhoods at risk of flooding, and have had less clout in fighting these problems. The way Walker tells the story, the environmental justice movement is small, fragmented, disempowered, and rather isolationist, which doesn’t help with the disempoweredness. I don’t know how much of Walker’s picture is accurate, but surely the story isn’t over.

The book is about the successes of environmentalism at preservation and restoration. Walker’s preservation is more domesticated that Muir’s vision of primal wilderness — the parks, watersheds, and truck farms integrally connected to the urban and surburban landscape. But the vision is still one of protecting nature from development. The current environmental crises — and new understandings of old ones — eliminate the barrier between “nature” and “development”.

The book’s introduction was written by William Cronon, an environmental historian who specializes in the interconnection between “nature and “civilization” Walker goes part of the way — but not all of the way — toward fleshing out that vision. I had the honor of taking Cronon’s course in college. One of Cronon’s themes is that the idea of nature is a profoundly cultural idea.

Cronon himself is an environmentalist – he serves on the board of national and local land conservation organizations. He also critiques the idea of “wilderness” untouched by human hand. In North America, the idea of primal wilderness is created by forgetting the role of native Americans in shaping the landscape they lived in (Cronon’s great book, Changes in the Land). The idea of western wilderness is created by forgetting the role of the state in establishing and protecting franchises for the extraction of water, mineral, and forest resources (Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West). The idea of “wilderness” can seem to absolve environmentalist Americans from their responsibility for the consequences of our resource-extracting civilization.

The 21st century issues — global warming, peak oil, water supply, fisheries, sustainable agriculture cannot be addressed through a lens of protecting islands of nature from people. These issues result from the ordinary patterns of food, housing, and transportation — the basic elements of material culture. There is no “preservationist” tactic that will help with global warming or peak oil. We need to fix how we live or go down as a civilization.

Follow-up questions:
* Proposition 13. Has anyone wrote a good history of prop13 and its affect on California other than the trashing of the school system?
* Global warming and environmental justice in the Bay Area. When I cycle by Belle Haven and East Palo Alto, it doesn’t take a scientific study to see that poorer folk who live in the low-lying neighborhoods are more likely to be flooded when sea level rises. Who is doing neighborhood organizing on the issue?
* When China wakes up in 50 years (assuming industrial society gets through peak oil), will the institutional knowledge about habitat restoration be available to them.

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