Daily Archives: March 4, 2013

Mapping Open Waters: Bay or River?

The relation between land, sea, marsh, and landfill provided something of a dilemma of cartographical rendering in the Bay Area, mirroring the fluid relationship that has long existed between land and sea.  But if fluidity of the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay was less understood in terms of erosion, global warming, coastal flooding, and king tides back in the 1950s, the human fiction–and graphical statement–of the map of expanded bay fill provided a potent image to engage the shifting contours of land and sea.

The grassroots community activists reacted to it to protest plans for a radical narrowing of the Bay, whose success created the first inter-city compact for shoreline preservation with broad consequence for habitat conservation in the Bay Area–preserving tidal flats, coastal marshes, and wetlands that stand as a living model for conservationists, in close proximity to the city and coastal highway–as well as a legacy of the protection of open waters.

The subsequent designation of a large strip of coastal lands as a margin including Regional Protected Areas would later cover 1,833 acres of coastal lands and tidelands from the Bay Bridge to Richmond, along eight and a half miles of coast; the removal of all hazardous chemicals and garbage from 1998 restored the seasonal wetlands that were developing atop landfill in the seventy-two acre meadow, which was restored for $6 million over five years in a model to protect habitat and open space, as well as restoring a protective barrier of coastal wetlands that has long helped to protect the shoreline and bay. But the buy-in of 4,000 stakeholders in the multi-year project of habitat restoration and native habitat types however began from a protest map.

The story of coastal preservation that has often been cited as a model of a broad range of stakeholders began from a map. When the Save the Bay organization was formed by an improbably interested Berkeley patricians and Sierra Club members to prevent the waters from development and city housing that proposed building out into the bay in the post-war period. The military engineer John Reber drafted a plan that would reduce the bay dramatically, eliminating wetlands by adding landfill West Berkeley into the San Francisco Bay, in a monument of post-war engineering. The project of landscape modification bore all the hallmarks of modernity, and would have dramatically shrunk the bay’s open water, as much as open space, narrowing them by a massive fill to dramatically shrunk its size. The shallow East Bay coast, and large tidal lands, encouraged a re-engineering project, in the years before the Bay Bridge, to create a corridor from Richmond to Oakland that appeared to opponents but a shipping lane, in a modernistic plan for domesticating the bayshore to maximize its economic utility and shipping locks would contracted San Francisco Bay.

The counter-map of the Bay waters that Reber’s plan inspired, and the effectiveness with which it won buy-in from a variety of stake-holders–stakeholders that now exceed 4,000–is the subject of this post.

Reber Plan: Proposed Barriers in San Francisco Bay (1959)

If the bottom topography of the Bay had been dramatically altered by the flushing of sediment downstream rivers as the Sacramento, bearing much sludge and sand into the neck of the Bay, infilling banks with sediment that was not there, that set an invisible precedent for the bay’s changed bed.

So radical was the scale of the transformation of the Bay that Reber drafted to provoke a catalyst for the collective buy-in for opposition at the start of the environmental movement. The counter-map became a rallying cry of the defense of the bay’s open water against development by the shipping industry that affirmed the defense of a privileged relation to place for Berkeley residents, shocked by the alienating nature of the expansion of the lines of old wooden docks that dotted much of Richmond and Oakland, the two largest harbors in the East Bay. The plan would have both promised economic development, and expanded housing, into the Bay, eliminating open waters by amalgamating harbors to a straight manmade shoreline that would have connected the San Rafael Bridge and Alameda Naval Station, imposing expanded shipping lanes over the bay waters, that, as its effects were mapped, were realized to radically threaten habitat. The remapping of the preservation of bayshore helped radically change the perception of the water from the land, that helped to create a place where, when one walks today, the city and San Francisco indeed recede across the tidal flats.

The plans for developing the coastline by the addition of bayfill that would create either a vibrant port for pacific shipping industry were stayed as a rallying cry to mobilize opinion around the planned bayfill that would contract the East Bay, erasing wetlands that would be landfilled, dike or leveed for development, as growth of the Bay Area in the postwar period had already brought the filling in of entrance of the Sacramento River and five other rivers to the unique wetlands complex of the Bay Area–a lost environment that has been contracted by urban expansion and the reshaping of the shoreline ecosystem of so much of the bay, from the south Bay to the north bay to the estuary complex that framers of the contracted image of the San Francisco Bay to shipping channels that Reber envisioned took for granted as an inevitable process of development–but which we are now far more liable to map in terms of loss.

But the Save the Bay revision of Reber’s map was, in a sense, a critical turning point, or crossroads–suggested by the etymology of the word “crisis”–in how the bay could be actively remapped in the face of development, more recently culminating in how San Francisco Estuary Institute has mapped past against present landscape to orient us to historical ecology of the man-made nature of the shoreline we have inherited.


The protest to “Save the Bay” was animated by a counter-map that animated resistance that asked residents what sort of bay they wanted to live beyond. The abstract map of a landfill project of 1961 came to concretize the costs of development, and served–perhaps for the very reason that it was not detailed–to generate a broad coalition of protest against the imagined expansion of housing and shipping development in the East Bay. The printed map delineated how much was at stake in proposed coastal transformation so persuasively it became a powerful logo and rallying cry for the Save the Bay project from a new alliance of environmental groups and other stakeholders: if the military engineer’s map documented the modernistic redesign of the natural shoreline, in ways that extended the compromised habitat loss in other areas of the Delta and estuary, the convincing contrast between two visions of the bay–“Bay or River?” the map’s legend directly framed the future of the San Francisco Bay–put breaks on the continued development of much of East and South Bay. The map helped pose a simple question that asking readers to consider themselves stakeholders in a bulwark against massive environmental change in suggesting the near-apocalyptic scale of added landfill in dark black. While the story has been often told, the vital role an engineering map played in pushing back against vested propertied and industrial interests is arresting.

It was begun by a realization prompted from seeing a map announcing the future re-engineering of the San Francisco Bay, reprinted in the Oakland Tribune, and contemplating the possible extent of changes that would reconfigure the shore of an area that drains up to 40% of the land of the entire state, that prompted the preservation of its open waters. The prospect of such a radical remapping of the region’s open water–more than its shores alone–invested the planning map drawn up by the Army Corps of Engineers triggered the attention among three women over tea, contemplating the reduction o the Bay–and the beauty of vistas from their windows–against the areas up for potential expansion with landfill.

The simple two-tone graphic generated a broad awareness of the region at a significant time in urban development, and helped to brakes on the inertia behind the radical reengineering of the bay as a shipping lane. The Save San Francisco Bay project that was the contribution of three women tied to educational groups and educators at the local university by marriage mobilized public opinion around the preservation as the wife of the past University President, Kay Kerr, herself “very disturbed about the filing of the bay” assembled a group disturbed by how “ongoing filling of the edges of the bay for airports, harbors, subdivisions, freeways, industrial sites and garbage dumps,” threatened to transform its open waters to a biological desert. Aptly, she calling an assembled group of conservationists and neighbors to order a meeting in a home overlooking the bay by a map of a produced by the Army Corps of Engineers calling for adding landfill that would leave “little more than a ship channel down the middle,” as she put it.

Proposed 1959 “Reber Plan” for Barriers Expanding East Bay Piers as Shipping Corridor

The City of Berkeley eager to expand to provide more housing, sought to double in size by filling in 2,000 acres of the bay shallows. Indeed, as late as 1980, the City of Berkeley hoped to expand the bay waterfront into a shopping center, resulting in the public trust over tidelands of the East Bay that preserved them from bay fill almost two decades later, in a suit that one of the first legal advisors of the Save the Bay Association directed as amicus curiae, in City of Berkeley v. Superior Court (1980) 26 Cal.3d 515, continuing to defend the bay wetlands’ integry against a defined shoreline.

The ability to stop the projected bayfill set. a precedent that altered the relation of citizen groups and ecologists to the preservation of coastal habitat and parkland. The power of the rhetorical contrast between two maps of the future framed a vision of the local environment and access to a coast in an effective manner that one can forget looking out over the living landscape of the Bayshore Trail, but that provides a powerful reminders of how maps mobilize consensus and embodied the wetlands and tidelands as a features we have only more recently detected in the Bay as a wetlands ecosystem, truly far from built space.

1. While we appreciate the restoration of the complex estuary along the Bayshore, as a fluid ecotone whose wetlands provide a rich habitat that is a success of land reclamation, the near-transformation of the eastern seashore of San Francisco Bay to a large development for housing may have eased the housing crunch afflicting the Bay Area, but would have erased that seashore, without public intervention, and prepared the restoration of the wetlands as a habitat, rebuilding the sinuous streams entering marshes as a delicate membrane of freshwater and saltwater.

Eastshore Park, Albany/Richmond CA

Yet the master-narrative of land-reclamation along the San Francisco Bay had gained an increased inevitability of infill that only increased and augmented the sense of what open waters were “potentially fillable” in the future, for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as the expansion of massive land-changing practices developed in wartime took advantage of new mapping expertise to map development at home.

The expansion of areas that were long know to be low-lying waters, filled with centuries of sediment, led Army engineers to plan contracting the San Francisco Bay to a narrow shipping channel by 2020. In response, the movement was laid for the eventual moratorium on future addition of landfill to the Bay, and agreement in a precedent-setting permanent agency overseeing all shoreline development–that called off expanding housing to the low-lying waters of the Eastern Bayshore.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

March 4, 2013 · 11:02 am