Category Archives: ecology

Natures of San Francisco

A man in the city,” wrote American novelist William Gass, “has no natural thing by which to measure himself.” But self-measurement is increasingly difficult to gauge in an age of global warming, and increased catastrophic weather. We are with less of a rudder than in the past. When Gass wrote, two thirds of the way through the last century, he was describing cities on the east coast of the United States with the wry bitter logic of a longtime midwesterner. Most cities were clearly bounded, we had no sense of urban sprawl, even if the United States was still–as it is now–distinguished by the highest per capita urban areas of any industrialized nation in the world. If San Francisco was predominantly green, bounded by the Bay and Pacific Ocean, dotted with parks and green space, although its development has been confined by faultiness, as much as by environmental strictures on urban growth and neighborhood improvement associations.

If we imagine interconnections of the Bay Area by analogy to transportation infrastructure, we might approach a deeper understanding of the migration patterns and natural presence that continues amidst the growth of ground impermeability and urban footprints. There was a deep tie to nature present in San Francisco, after all, back when some fifty daily ferries that in the 1930s, a century ago, shuttled an annual fifty to sixty million passengers across the Bay waters, and a quarter left the water through the Ferry Building daily from the hundred and seventy ferries making daily landing. The bay offered a deep structures of Bay Area before the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate definitively reshaped the webs of transbay travel, that we might argue offer a means to reconnect to the land. It was not only for reasons of public transit that Lewis Mumford bemoaned the end of a relation to a rich ecosystem on the bay waters for which the Bay Area opted in budding a bridge linking Oakland and San Francisco, which quickly sent “a once unnecessary volume of private traffic between them, at a great expense in expressway building and at a great waste in time and tension, spent crawling through rush-hour congestion.” The volume precipitated a demise of past public transit webs, hardly resolved by the underwater tunneling of the Bay Area Rapid Transit at huge expense.

Cross-Bay Ferry Transit in San Francisco Bay and Ferry Building, Post Card sent 1930

The casualties and damages on the Bay Bridge since the bridge was built have sent many to hospitals and injured more, unlike the pleasures of open-air transit across bay waters gleaned in from tninted postcards. If the old hand-tinted photographs of an urban “sky line” suggests a closer and far more intimate relation to bay waters on ferry lines, it offers an important point of departure to take stock on the persistent presence of nature in the city by the bay. We often sense nature only through the calls of owls and morning doves, and increasing number of families of crows searching for food, is there not a therapeutic benefit of trying to map the relation to natural habitats across the ever-expanding ecological footprint of urban space, even as so many commuters daily drive to and around San Francisco in our cars, more than by foot? Even if the massive freeway once designed to run along the bay was cancelled, only by mapping the resilience of a relation to nature can we take stock of the rich biodiversity that exists in the city, in hopes to cultivate it both on the ground and in our minds.

The place of nature of San Francisco may have constricted, but cartographers have recently realized its importance to map. If measurement has been outsourced to numerous devices–from not only height and weight, but caloric intake, income, carbon footprint, and racial identity, the mapping of the proximity between nature and the city in the Bay Area is concentrated in San Francisco, bound by beaches, hills, and habitat. As a Midwesterner, Gass was aghast at the notion of nature in the city, and of the reduced relation to nature in urban life: “Nothing can live and remain free where he resides but the pigeon, starling, sparrow, spider, cockroach, mouse, moth, fly and weed, and he laments the existence of even these and makes his plans to poison them,” Gass writes with acid specificity, winding up to the final punch: “His parks are potted plants.” The reservoirs of green that interrupt the urban footprint of San Francisco are hardly afford a coherent ecosystem. But the relations of urban and rural that have animated many west coast cities has created a demand to reconsider and to remap relations of “urban” and “rural” that were once clear dichotomies, pushed by the increased absence of open spaces that once surrounded cities like Portland, Seattle, or San Francisco.

Indeed, if the Golden Gate Natural Recreational Area, a Marin-based park that hosts two thousand plant and animal species over nineteen distinct ecosystems shares the largest boundary with an urban environment of any national park, the focus on conservation that brought together what has been heralded as a “new urban park” was created by cobbling together public and private lands that redefined the value and relation of the constellation of interconnected parks to urban space that presents a compelling model for a new urban park” outside of the growing city, and a new relation of nature to the city than Gass experienced. Awareness of the biophilic needs of urban inhabitants for contact with urban greenspace, that has prompted active redesign urban environments in an overpaved world, responding to evidence greenspace reduce stress and mental illness, mapping the presence of nature in the city cannot be reduced to parks. As our contact with nature and the natural is endangered or at risk of deterioration, the perspectives that open space around San Francisco offer on the ravines of built space make the case for remapping urban space and open space a Nature in the City has worked to do, focussing not on human settlement of built space, but privileging the inversion of how habitats intermingle with the built environment of a city like San Francisco, shifting a tacit prioritization implicit in all maps. San Francisco is, of course, the beneficiary of the huge area of the nearby Delta, through which over 40% of run-off from the Sierras have long flown, bringing with them sediment from the mountains that flows to the sea, creating alluvial deposits that have made it a nexus for fifty mammal and fish species, from salmon to striped bass to sturgeon to steelhead trout and endangered smelt, and a stop on the Pacific flyaway from Canadian geese to sandhill cranes, and a habitat for over two hundred bird species, twenty reptiles and amphibians, attracted by sediment-rich marshes of the watershed’s historic wetlands and open lands. Can we map their presence in the city nearby? Or do we not have to do so better than in the past?

1. In ways that invite the recession of the “city”–just barely visible as a skyline a full three quarters across the view form Loma Alta Open space, in Marin–the Nature in the City map inverts the equation, by asking us to view the city in its relation to surrounding habitat that still presents a living ecosystem that enters the city’s paved streets.

San Rafael Bridge and San Francisco Skyline Seen from Loma Alta Open Space, Marin CA

Long before politicians railed against cities, asking where the heart of the nation’s heart lay, this icy put-down summoned the identity of the interior to dismiss the paltriness of urban parks as poor replacements for the nature world. But the if the built centers of San Francisco have grown in recent years–both in its downtown skyline and neighboring Oakland–as any departing airplane can see–the maps we make of our changing cities demand we attend to how they invite us to explore and navigate urban space in all its dimensions–including the role of the city as an ecosystem, as much as a built structure.

We bristle in San Francisco at the dismissal of our built environment, or verticality as a measure of cosmopolitan urbanism. From the seat of the departing plane, one might forget that the city not only borders significant greenspace across the Bay, but that San Francisco and the East Bay are living habitats–an area we who live there are more sensitive as a site of potential loss, whose greenspace demands preservation as an ecology that many city dwellers often fail to note. As more mindful outfits like the Nature Conservancy seek to preserve a public consciousness of the need to mitigate incursions of urban areas into the urban greenspace, we might ask not only how to convince public planners and developers to be more conscious of such incursions–and the serious problems that they create for fire, as well as compromising ecology and habitat. While the most rigorous conservation plan. based on the Bay Area “Greenprint”–a model soon to be expanded to all California–suggests the proximity of critiical ecosystems in need of protection in their “Mitigation Wizard” that takes a base map of sensitive species’ habitat–

–the intersection it creates between habitat and potential extra-urban growth is designed to better help us negotiate the futures that the Bay Area might meet. Tracking the density of species in critical ecosystems lying in proximity to the Bay Area’s urban agglomeration, different levels or criteria of conservation can be entered against current natural science observations of sensitive habitats of up to one hundred species around San Francisco’s wetlands, forests, and grasslands that can create a dialogue between areas ecological sensitivity in close proximity to urban growth. The hope is to offer a baseline for mitigating the effects of urban growth–and to elevate those concerns to a level comparable to the attention to property that is increasingly seen as vulnerable to sea-level rise, the aridity, fire risk or soil subsidence as consequences of warming and temperature rise, acknowledging local ecosystem integrity as consequences of anthropogenic change.

2. There is a need for pictorial maps to inspire us to orient ourselves to habitat in urban space. We who live in the city are more accustomed to see a unique sort of habitat, and a confluence of not exactly rural but open space and green corridors in an urban environment. Even as vertical crowding may eclipse its green, the urban ecosystems they nourish prevent the symptoms of urban dysphoria associated with built environments, and notwithstanding threats of seismic disturbance or sea-level rise. Novelist William Gass’s rather bone-chilling evocation of the coldness of rural isolation eclipses the real work of nurturing deep ties to a abundant ecosystems in San Francisco’s built space. And in an age when trees, and urban greenspace, face threats of car pollution, extreme weather, and the uprooting of trees to make way for construction sites or trim branches for urban safety or interference in above-ground power lines in many Bay Area cities, the value of absorbing CO2 and preventing floods by absorbing water have created a virtual boom of greening urban space.

Increasingly, we are attendant to the urban habitat they offer, beyond the cult of verticality as a metric of urbanity. Trees have been increasingly seen as presenting a basis for the future flourishing of cities and sustainability of urban space, with the growth of greening projects across the developed world: since 2007, an active New York City overseen by Bloomberg rooted over a million trees in urban space, and have taken root in London, where Mayor Sadiq Khan aims to make it the first “National Park City” while Paris is building four inner-city urban forests by 2020. While building heights provided a measure of a metropolis in the twentieth century, projects of urban greening have led to a search for more climate-tolerant trees–including “resilient” non-natives, like the three-toothed maple, even if urban planners are wary of invasive non-natives: Ireland’s commitment to plant 440 million trees by 2040, and hopes in Ethiopia to plant five billion seedlings in a year suggested a positive project of greening before the coronavirus pandemic, and an optimistic foot-forward re-engineering of the urban biome of unprecedented scale.

1. It was not always that way, and the spate of overbuilding in San Francisco has led it to aspire to a vertical landscape, as if out of envy of urban skylines of the east coast. If environmental dysphoria might be countered by planting of trees, San Francisco has gained a skyline of something like skyscrapers–as if in spite of its seismic risks–

–while the place of nature in the city in San Francisco, rather than on its outer bonds or beyond its walls, even before construction of a looming Salesforce Tower, we seek still to see as a site for outdoor recreation–

–if we may, as in a recent encomia to the city’s often beleaguered transit authority, bracket its impact as a building by reducing its size, and presence on our skyline, by continuing to render its towers as roughly equal to the TransAmerica Tower familiar as a point of reference that once dominated it in the past, as if its skyline remained roughly uniform.

The transformation of overpaving urban space has led to city maps that are more reliant on a strictly automobilistic perspective, as Google Maps and Bing are drawn from the perspectives of a space that is inhabited by cars, more tan the wildlife of the city: the perspective of the walker in the city is less easy to approach, in maps that are biased by their exclusion of open space that is so important to one’s mental health and sense of place: if the American West was once defined by its open spaces, “where the pavement ends,” the pavement that spreads out from cities to the burgeoning Bay Area makes it a sort of transportation hub, where cars move along its freeways and downtown, often clogging Market Street, increasing a market for new navigational tools of traffic flow, rather than the open spaces that drivers might even neglect if they did not also wander the neighborhoods off the beaten path: the decal of urban wildlife associated with the car’s perspective is, unsurprisingly, marked the pigeon as an urban inhabitant of peaking into this automobilistic world as if from an Archimedian point–

–whose cocked beaks and blank eyes emerge from the car door’s gleam to note the increased compromising of a biophilic relation to urban space.

And if we may still sense the city is present in nature, overlapping with bodies of water in ways one can still smell in its oxygenated ocean air, one want to map its relation to its environment, and find environments of living species that coexist in and with it, from raven nests or occasional hawks and odd coyote, or the pleasures of the butterfly, cormorant, and heron–that we too often fail to notice and to see, as if to cut off aspects of urban livability to create the environmental dysphoria we seek to avoid.

The sense of San Francisco as surrounded by the Pacific and freshwater basins, and a confluence of saltwater and freshwater, and a terrain whose sandiness and lack of bedrock has limited its urban growth. But the clear and unmistakable sense of being on the water, or lying close to it on three sides–defines a sense of what it is like to move in its micro-climates, and indeed the rewriting of its shores, while expanded by landfill, have resisted the possible dramatic change of an elevated freeway that bound its edges. If one can look back wistfully at the redefining of its relation to land and sea, there is a sense that even if some of the shorelines around the Embarcadero have clear breakfronts, and that undersea rivers, underground shipwrecks, and some bays are overpaved–

–that the older pre-1854 exists in the ocean air that enters its shores, if the coast is fixed. For if the low structures around the shoreline reflect in large part seismic risk, there is will to remain a model urban area, unique and exemplary even in an age of globalization and climate change, not entirely low-lying, but facing significant threats from sea-level rise. The overlapping of ocean and land environments are nicely captured in the species, from shorebirds to insects to thistle to prehistoric radiolarian, that populate the surface of San Francisco in the elegantly dynamic, if static, full-color map from Nature in the City, which presses web-sources and online data into a new illustrated paper form.

3. Fostering of a changed relation to urban habitat has left the Bay Area and city far less insularly defined in relation to nature than most other places in the United States: Rebecca Solnit rightly observed the old geographers were wrong only in one–if one significant–way in describing California as an island, which extends to San Francisco. In California, one finds, still, significant surviving greenspace, cultivable land, and open space, that while under threat, in proportion to much of the eastern seaboard extends to San Francisco and much of northern California, and significant parts of the southern coast. If the state is known for giant redwood forests and sequoia groves, strikingly significant habitats enter San Francisco’s own natural ecology in its urbanized space.

The recalibration of the place of nature to which San Francisco has been long open has long been measured as something that is threatened and endangered in its scarcity, as paving of asphalt and concrete have dramatically changed its landcover, toward a shift to appreciate and embrace its nature, and indeed embrace the benefits of cultivating not only plants, but rather ecophilia. The celebration of an urban environment far often reduced to being mapped for seismic peril and proximity to fault-lines offers a deep picture of the specific formation and sustainment of a rather unique coastal habitat, both based on accurate data and pushing the boundaries of data visualization to excavate a rich record of–and promote a wonderfully tactile relationship to–broad concerns of ecology and environmental history.

The engaging design of the 2018 map commissioned by Nature in the City begins from a datapoint of each and every tree and green space the city offers, but fosters a productive way of looking at the urban environment, different in that it focusses far less on the pests we often seek to eliminate from our homes with urban fastidiousness, than to appreciate the range of species beside which city dwellers live, despite their frequent focus on roads of paved concrete: in a map that embraces the city at the end of the peninsula from bay to sea, the living cornucopia of habitat that spans the urban environment offers a new way to understand this urban space.

Nature in the City/2018

Although ecosystems are the most living areas of cities, they remain hidden from view on city maps of the built landscape or paved roads that define the mobility of “urban” life.  

But we often fail to orient ourselves to the extent of urban environments in most maps–especially as we privilege the images of the city seen from the air, as if on landing and take-off, rather than on the ground. The changing vulnerability of cites to climate change and extreme weather has directed increased attention to the vulnerability and instability of urban space, in ways we are still taking stock through maps, the question of what maps best orient us to the future of the city have provoked increased attention from maps of sea-level change, to maps of vulnerability to earthquakes and seismic risks. No city has been more subject to such demands for recalibrating its lived space, perhaps, than San Francisco, the city that is most conspicuously built on several fault lines–so much that the expansive recent downtown rebuilding is cast as a “seismic trap” or a disasters waiting to happen–showing the spate of high-rise construction–

–against the backdrop of the widespread urban devastation of the 1906 earthquake on its hundred and twelfth anniversary, as if to suggest that the memory of that devastating event has receded into the past of public memory.

And if San Francisco was long haunted by the devastating downtown fire that spread through the city with the earthquake of 190 destroyed a good section of the inhabited city, as if it is burned into public memory. The recent shift in rebuilding of elevated buildings allowed to be constructed in the downtown region half almost reflexively prompted the worries or concern of a “seismic trap” in which recurrent seismic tremors threaten the city, and an incursion of nature of underground plate tectonics might even more consequentl disrupt the urban plant once again.

Are the danger of such seismic shocks a different image of the sudden entrance of nature into the city?

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Filed under data visualization, ecology, environmental geography, San Francisco, urban ecology

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 complex bayshore that bridges four to five individual cities in the East Bay presents a complex picture of landscape and shoreline preservation and conservation, one whose sense of wonder and interest was in fact fought out in maps: if the mosaic of shoreline restoration, habitat preserves, parks, and greenspace that dot the coastline of San Francisco Bay between Oakland and Richmond offers a unique way of respecting open space on the margins of developed land, offering a landmark constraint for building out into the bay, the battle of visions for bay conservation were very much waged out through how mapping redefined the individual’s relation to local space and the world.

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 shrunken size, as well as the expansion of shipping lanes in Marin and Sausalito, that would have altered the Bay Area.

Proposed Barriers in San Francisco Bay (Reber Plan)

The triumphalism of the Army Engineers seemed almost to unite the U.S. Army bases in Alameda as a guideline to shape a modernistically sleek shoreline, punctuated by shipping corridors the open waters would accommodate. The expanded plan identified with Reber and the Department of Public works was announced quickly in the postwar era, as a massive project of infilling tidelands for a deepwater port, airports, and military bases by 1949, that would imagine an expansion of greater pierspace and nautical traffic in a Bay Area that seemed poise for financial growth as a hub of trade, as well as military outpost, expanding an “industrial site” in the smaller cities of Berkeley and Richmond, now equipping them with a airport terminals and a permanent Naval Base, and a Torpedo base in Hunter’s Point, expanding the military presence in northern California far beyond the military base in Alameda.

Reber Plane for a deepwater port, airports, and military bases (1949)[1580 x 1224]

Although the proposal for a contraction of the open waters was set as a landscape view, as if to naturalize it within the scenery, the 1949 proposal attracted heightened possibilities of greater infill that led to the reduction of the San Pablo Bay after its development of a massive landscape intervention for ten years that is rightly included among possible destructions of San Francisco by overdevelopment, even if it would have impacted the entire Bay. But the proposal for subdividing and radically reinventing the San Francisco Bay and bayshore as a basis for further development came to a rather sudden halt after over ten years of expansion, stopping in its tracks the promotion of a a modernistic streamlining of bayshore and bay waters as sites of economic development, as the plans were adopted to proposae an alternative model of conservation.

The questions about conservation that were posed at the local level on the East Bay mounted a staunch opposition, applying pressure as it coalesced through the compelling rendering of an alternative map, questioning the public commitment to a new level of landscape change and leading to a sense of reckoning about bay waters. The logic of remapping the plans of development, and the effectiveness with which a map that posited the problems and dangers development posed, however won buy-in from multiple stake-holders–now exceeding 4,000–of huge consequence.

1. What allowed the revisioning of the Bay’s open waters to be preserved? The Reber Plan would famously attract condemnation as an artificial reduction of the open waters to a shipping land, the power of the map in mobilizing resistance suggests an episode of cartographic creativity as much as public mobilization.

But the very possibility of local resistance to such rebuilding preservation of greenspace in Tilden Park had no doubt provided a stunning achievement for the Works Progress administration, allowing land procured from East Bay Municipal Water District to be converted into the East Bay Regional Parks, in one of the great New Deal projects of land conservation, leading to a decade of landscape transformation across 4,300 acres, the potential of converting lands by the precedent that invited residents to explore the local greenspace must have provided an encouragement to the preserving the bay. And the cartographic celebration of the conservation of lands and expansion of East Bay parks was able to provide a powerful, and indeed liberating way to contemplate and engage the material landscape.

The luxurious relief maps created by the Civil Conservation Corps who had administered the East Bay parks through 1942, since restored, invitingly celebrated pathways to explore and navigate the greenspace in plastic form–made during the 1930s–that preserved an image of a sense of rural versus urban space, back in the days when the hills were far more green.

While the relation between the shore and bay is hardly the focus of the relief map made in the early 1930s for the East Bay Regional Parks–perhaps as a working model to demonstrate the easy linkage of city to open space that the acquisition of lands from the Water District allowed–the careful shading of the bay waters in a gradation from deep blue to the shore provided a quite detailed sense of the sensitive of land and sea that the detailing of several creeks underscores. The aesthetic contemplation of landscape was a consideration of land and bay–or demanded one, offering a rendering of the complex of open space, lakes, creeks, and estuaries as a unified whole, and aesthetic unity, that the transformation of the bay to a shipping channel–or “river,” as polemic maps of the Save the Bay project would affirm. The old piers of Berkeley’s marina was not clearly landscaped, but the shore was defined by the tracks of the railroad, in the restored East Bay Parks relief map in a model of conservation and what land conservation might achieve, and indeed the possibility of securing land against over-development, a plan accentuated by the addition of rustic architecture and monuments in Tilden, Lake Temescal, Sibley, and Redwood Parks. The monument to conservation that had become part of the sense of place contrasted in their ethos with the stark shipping lands that would have altered not only the shoreline, but the bay waters as well.

The counter-map of the Bay waters was inspired by the subsequent brutality of adding infill in the Reber Plan.

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

Designed with the apparent abandon of a crayon coloring book, in order to maximize the piers for arriving container ships in the postwar boom, the Reber Plan suggested a startlingly bold intervention in natural space to accommodate economic growth, crudely imposing economic infrastructure as if saddling it on the bay. For the Army Engineering Corps, the shallow East Bay coast, and large tidal lands, beckoned re-engineering provided a plan to envision the region in terms of “areas susceptible of reclamation” by the year 2020, back in 1957; years before the Bay Bridge, the bay’s low waters seemed ideal for a long-term plan of engineering a shipping corridor from Richmond to Oakland, domesticating the bayshore to maximize its economic utility and shipping locks would contracted San Francisco Bay, in a vision of development imagined in Washington, DC, with the endorsement of the US Chamber of Commerce.

For the project of land reclamation that the Army Corps of Engineers envisioned in the postwar era were a program to transform the settlement of the Bay Area in ways that extended pathways of marine communication by shipping industries as well as the U.S. navy in areas that were long predominantly marshland, imposing a dualistic opposition between “land” and “sea” in an area where the barriers between land and sea were blurred and fluid, and indeed on which local ecosytems were dependent: the eclipse of the regions of the Sacramento River’s expansive estuary were defined by marshland, tidal flats, wetlands, and in the East Bay shoreline, especially in Berkeley, seep or wet soil that the Plan did not register or accommodate, in its premium on economic expansion and strategic development. The coastal mapping projects that the United States Coastal Service had long engaged were put aside, and the stark land/sea duality proposed a limited way of seeing or imagining ‘development’ that seemed a logic of urban expansion that ran against the ways that the conservation ofEast Bay parks ha provided an important precedent to to manage, indeed taking it in different directions than the mapping of open space had set a powerful precedent by the 1940s–and a future that they would want to resist. If a full third of the bay had been diked off, infilled and built out that radically shrunk its open waters, Save The Bay was founded in 1961 to stop the acceleration of projected infill that would severely compromise the Bay, and has survived as an ecological monitor on infrastructure expansion and one-sided plans for development that would adversely affect the integrity of the Bay. The proposed reduction of wetlands and wetsoil along the Berkeley shore became a precedent for the ecological vulnerability of wetlands and bayshore to expansion, at a time when only a small fraction–but a tenth–of the Bay Area’s wetlands remained, and almost none of its shores were publicly accessible to residents, in the manner that the preservation of parks in the hillls provided such an important precedent that led directly to the 1965 foundation of The Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) to restrict or limit future projects of adding infill to reduce its open waters.

The relative murkiness of the areas the Army Corps of Engineers projected as ripe for infill envisioned a narrowed body of water without coastal access, in sharp contrast to conservation of greenspace around the expanding city:

The vision of the massive constriction of wetlands, tidal marsh, intertidal plains, and shallow sea or seep soil marked 325 square miles a “potentially fillable bay” as if it was an area for potential economic expansion, as much as urban growth, developing the port city as a set of functional shipping channels, seeking to crystallize a notion of functionality that offered no space for conservation. While the infill would have doubled Berkeley in size, the dramatic disappearance of San Pablo Bay by a hundred miles, even if it wouldn’t have obviated need for the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, already opened in 1956, would have been a development project of San Francisco’s coast that expanded the considerable growth of San Francisco by landfill to the entire Bay Area.

The logic of development that the vision of the Army Corps of Engineers promoted publicly in 1961 Save the Bay crystallized around a cartographic 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.

Viewed a bit differently, in materials that were provided by Save the Bay, to situate the organic place of the bay within the western landscape, the rivers whose confluence runs into the Bay join waters from the Sacramento to San Joaquin rivers run to the San Francisco Bay as a delivery of sediment from the landscape, uniting the Sierra Nevada and Coastal Range in its waters.

Save the Bay

If the bottom topography of the Bay had been dramatically altered by the flushing of sediment downstream rivers as the Sacramento, sending sludge into the Pacific Ocean, the arrival of sediment may have set a precedent for the proposed addition of infill that would deliver unprecedented sediment to the San Francisco Bay’s seabed.

But the “green shoreline” of the East Bay suggested a unique biophilic resistance to the addition of landfill, preserving the sense of open waters with which this post began.

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.

2. 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.

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, that encapsulated and condensed the areas the Army Corps identified as susceptible for 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.

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March 4, 2013 · 11:02 am