Tag Archives: environmental history

Losing Beaches, Losing Places

We have long considered man’s impact on the world, but are only starting to be able to chart the vastness of the scope of anthropogenic change. And wen it comes to the contraction of shores and beaches that has been forecast in current climate scenarios, the oldest of human environments, the shoreline and coast, seems in danger of drastic reduction at a scale we have rarely considered. The shifting littoral landscapse of the world have ben long neglected, if they are turned to each Earth Day for coastal cleanups and have been the site of intense preoccupations as a result of sea-level rise, as we have protected much of our national seashore.

National Seashore (National Park Service)

But the prospect of an accelerated global erosion of coastal landscapes, and the loss of beaches, have only begun to be processed as triggering cascading consequences from disturbing ecological niches and coastal economies to the human relation to the natural world–a new relation to global ecology that we may well lack the vocabulary and structures to map on adequate scale to process, let alone discuss. But the mapping of coastal retreat that is projected for the coming century charts the magnitude of the scale of impact of human-created modification of a global environment in NOAA’s Fluid Dynamics Project calls for a broader reckoning of the impact on the global environment that stands to be created by coastal retreat akin to a global pandemic like SARS-CoV-2, and a remapping of the global shorelines that we have a very limited chance to come to terms with in any active context; terms like East and West don’t work in a climate catastrophe that does not differentiate not only nation states but that we lack the narrative categories to come to terms with in terms of economic inequalities, but suggest a crisis of global proportions that contrast with the delicate organization of space on shorelines near our home in their brute redrawing of the increasingly impermanent sandy shore projected for 2100, according to a rather modest climate change scenario.

The discovery of margin of the shoreline in the middle of the twentieth century as a privileged site of intense biodiversity risks obliteration as a particularly fragile ecosystem. Yet the shoreline habitat is now a site of unprecedented vulnerability. (The same stretch of sensitive shoreline habitat was quickly closed to comply with shelter-at-place directive, given the range of urban residents who drove to flood its trails, beaches, and shoreline as a way to find balance, many standing transfixed before the waves in a particularly stressful time, seeking purchase on a moment few could really grasp.)

McClures Beach, Inverness CA

The seashore seemed a natural place of reflection. But it was hard to imagine the sensitivity of these littoral lands. While the national seashore at Point Reyes is a unique preserved coastal environment, where eroding cliffs meet sands along broad strips of beach whose low grade offers habitat to coastal birds, grasses, and shellfish, in a meeting point of fresh and salt water, the beauty of the coast seemed a perfect refuge in a time of disorientation.

This blog has long discussed the specter of anthropogenic change, but in the panic of COVID-19, it seemed clear that we lack the mode to talk about the scale, continuities, and complexity at which such world-changing processes will occur. The future loss of shores would be quite difficult to imagine, even if one stares at the remote sensing maps that predict the effects of sea-level rise.. So many had voyaged to the shores as if by instinct during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in 2020, from Long Island to Marin, to the extent of disturbing many coastal residents, who read searching for break from anxiety by acts of coastal distancing as an unwelcome promotion of the danger of importing viral spread.

In England and elsewhere, many departed from the city, in search of a new environment, by traveling to the coasts–where they were greeted, similarly, by protests by those who saw their arrival as a harbinger of infection. Many public beaches, concerned about close contact, have outright closed, as coastal communities do their best to dissuade visitors seeking to escape infection in Hawaii, Moab, Alabama, North Carolina or the Gulf Coast–in ways that cut us off from the shore as a place of reflection and rumination.

If undue media attention may be directed to bemoaning college students on Florida Spring Break, we must remember that Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, ostensibly encharged with securing the state’s well-being and public welfare, stubbornly insisted on keeping beaches open in the state the shore until Easter, to allow “students to party” on Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Clearwater Beach, and other “hotspots” of pleasure into hot spots of viral infection: DeSantis, never one to stop claiming higher ground, hypocritically or not, only turned his wrath on the partiers after facing a lawsuit from the state Attorney General, and even as communities closed beaches, refused to shutter state beaches to limit the spread of the Coronavirus that were a vital parts of the state’s economy–reluctant to close them until local municipalities intervened.

John Raedle/Getty Images

Shifting the blame to foreign travelers–and insisting on self-quarantining visitors from New York state or New Jersey–he sought to keep them open for business, by casting them as more vital than viral. DeSantis refused to accept the national scope of the problem, defending an economy that depended on tourism, elevating the economy over national health–and keeping them open a week after the closure of Disney World, after trying to keep a “six feet distance rule” to “stop large crowds from congregating,” as if the crowding was an issue, more than human proximity and contact–and refusing to take leadership on the issue by “deferring” to local government and causing confusion. As he reflected on the large number of elders in the state population, and their potential hindering of his own chances for re-election, it seems, did he alter his stance entirely, and beg the President to declare a national emergency, as the spread of the virus led to thousands of layoffs, with all non-essential businesses closed in coastal communities, as De Santis issued a state of emergency March 9, 2020.

Initial Florida Sites of Coronavirus Outbreaks of COVID-19 Infections/March 9, 2020

Meanwhile the COVID-19 data timeline by mid-March had spread across Central Florida, with cases of infection clustering on the shores. While the map that sizes the isolated pathogen as its symbol of COVID spread seems freakish, the telling newspaper graphic captures well the problem of coming to terms with the transmission of infections along the beach.

Orlando Sentinel

The abandonment of the closed Miami Beach–one of several citie that refused to keep its beaches open, as infection spread, as they knew what was really best for them–seemed to confirm the shore’s status as a natural site of reflection. The scope of projected reconfiguration of future shorelines would effect a deep change in the human relation to the shoreline, as much as the shoreline as a site of shelter and habitat.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

For environmental geographer Clarence Glacken, the “traces on the Rhodian shore” were signs of civilization and the human modification of the environment that were fundamental to historical processes of change. The reference of the title of his survey of the modification of land through the industrial revolution took its reference point as antiquity–the image of the philosopher taking geometric figures drawn on the shores of Rhodes where he was shipwrecked as evidence of human habitation. The anecdote was prized by Vitruvius as evidence of the ability of geometry to frame the environment, and respond to it; Glacken took the image of the shores as a leitmotif for a magisterial survey of relations to the natural world that we now observe expanded and refracted in the remote sensing that tracks the broad impact of how industrialization has inscribed human relations to the environment far beyond Glacken’s four on the environmental influences on human history and man’s remaking of the environment. And the problem of the continued access to shores, and future of the shores, makes us go back to some of the early work of Glacken to recover its new relevance, if only because of our failure of models to come to terms with such massive anthropogenic change.

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Filed under anthropogenic change, Climate Change, coastlines, data visualization, remote observation, shoreline change

Mapping Open Waters

The relation between land, sea, and landfill long 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 shore was less understood in terms of erosion, global warming, coastal flooding, and king tides, the human fiction–and graphical statement–of the map provided a supple too to engage with the question of the shifting contours of land and sea in the years after John Reber sought to expand the landfill of West Berkeley to extend into the San Francisco Bay, in a forgotten monument of post-war engineering that maps provided a compelling tool of collective action to forestall the restriction of the San Francisco Bay–and of its habitat–that might have been, by dramatically shrinking its size through a massive addition of bay fill that effectively re-engineered the bay into freshwater lakes transformed the harbor to housing tracts.

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. For in pondering the prospect of shrinking the San Francisco Bay to a narrow shipping channel by the year 2020, 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–the Bay Conservation & Development Commission (BCDC)–that stopped a process of increased addition of landfill that had already reduced by the low-lying estuary of San Francisco Bay by a third, with the elimination of wetlands, and set a model for coastal zone managment that would be a model for ecological preservation.

The complexity of a bay whose shore is itself  half of California’s coastline and includes over forty cities on its waters, the map of the reclamation of land revealed a massive reconfiguration of the shoreline from which questions of habitat or preservation were entirely absent in 1960. The extent of coastal reconfiguration of the South Bay that had already proceeded, redefining its sloughs and estuaries, were extended in the proposed land reclamation project that can be seen as a huge expansion of the early expansion of Marin near Tiburon, on a collective project and scale scarcely imaginable before the postwar period. If reclaimed land had begun in wharfs and piers that extended into the San Francisco Bay’s waters in Marin, Tiburon, San Francisco and to some extent the East Bay, the cancellation of cross-bay transit was expanded in the hopes to expand land reclamation far beyond imagined, beyond southern Marin, to transform the Bay into a functional waterway tied to transport terminals.

Perhaps the most authoritative and influential assessment of filling the Bay was the reaction to the project that the Civil Engineer’s map provided after it was diffused in the local press, and readily extrapolated by East Bay readers. If the logic of reclaiming the tidal zone of much of the South Bay and Marin had developed in the post-war period, filling almost nine hundred acres at the hope of housing over 10,000, had led to the Marin Conservation League after it was proposed in 1956, by raising funds to buy back the tidelands, with help from Marin County and the California Highway Department, and Belvedere, the bayshore had less clear alliances of mutual support and advantage to depend on, but redirected opinion through a very successful map to envision the almost dystopian consequences of transforming the lung-like bay into a shipping terminal.

Future Development of the San Francisco Bay Area 1960-2020″
U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. © Corps of Engineers

While the image of the proposed project for narrowing the San Francisco Bay with landfill has been long forgotten, it marked a striking rhetorical redeployment of an engineering plan to stir up public opposition to the narrowing of the harbor with bay fill that John Weber had enthusiastically advocated since the late 1950s into a movement protecting the open waters as a unique open environmental space.  The transformation of a harbor that had been designed by the predominantly commercial mandates of a harbor was transformed into an ideal the aesthetic protection of open waters through the unexpected power of how the image of a lost landscape was evoked by the proposed augmentation of landfill additions that would allow the expansion of San Francisco and Berkeley as cities that could be traversed by cars; if Weber believed that the project he long championed would correct the “geographic mistake” by which the bay fragmented a master-plan for the region, seeking to shrink saltwater influx that had interrupted the expansion of a metropolis that would link Oakland and San Francisco. Reber may have compensated for his lack of formal education by his adherence to maps in his persistent promoting and continued evangelism of his vision of urban modernization of the Bay, relying on the plan as a theatrical device to accommodate the “geographic mistake” by the expansion of paved areas, locks, roads, and viaducts Robert Moses-style.


Reber gestures to the proposed area to be filled in San Francisco Bay

But the ultimate rejection of his plan came as the very image that proposed the effects of bay fill-reduced open waters was re-presented to invite viewers to consider the definitively changed relation to place that such a massive public works construction would create.  For the map, reprinted beneath the three words “Bay or River?,” linked text and image to trigger resistance to the new relation to space that the disappearance of the Bay’s open waters  would have implied.  It prompted resistance to crystallize against the proposed public works projects to add bay fill to replace the saltwater active harbor with that would promote the expansion of urban spread and forever change the lived setting of the region.  The addition of a simple interrogative invited viewers to imagine the landscape that they desired, “Bay or River?” not only attracted more immediate attention than any of REber’s maps but mobilized opposition to the effects of encroachment with the force of a public polemic of preserving an aesthetic–rather than only commercial–landscape.

At the same time as growing public awareness was directed to the mitigation of water pollution as discharging raw sewage and pollution into harbors and rivers diminished as a common practice with passage of the first water quality laws that led to the 1960 Clean Water Act, and five years later created the Land and Water Conservation Fund for recreational spaces.  But the resistance to Reber’s plans for the closing of the open waters of the Sacramento Delta led to a collective topophilic rendering to the preservation of wetlands and estuary that prevented the impending additional of landfill to contract the San Francisco Bay that would have erased the estuary and bay alike, so resonant to lead the  Save the Bay grassroots citizens’ movement to preserve and protect its open waters against the constriction of the Delta and estuary, and erasure of open spaces of wetlands.

Bay or Rivewr

The legend transformed a plan into a map which intersected with readers’s mental geographies in particularly powerful ways; by inviting viewers to map which of two futures they wanted against their experience, the image became a lodestone for preserving the open space of the bay, as well as a powerful icon of regional topohilia and an emblem of resistance to the over-engineered landscape that we identify with the proposed shrinkage of the Bay to a canal whose space would have been dominated by barriers and ship locks.

In the map that was made and distributed by the Save the Bay movement, it is striking that the land already built on in the Bay Area is rendered by a delicate stippling of the sort that once might have indicated marine expanse in many early modern engraved maps.  But stippling is used to call attention to the projected landfill that would reduce the size of the San Francisco Bay considerably in the above newsmap.  Indeed, the maps so alarmingly suggested the loss of open waters to landfill through the subsequent redefinition of the familiar shorelines into a set of what were clearly artificially narrow estuaries to be a cause for public alarm.  The arrival of such an expanse of landfill could be described as achieved according to an artificial delivery of sediment that would be a massive feat of engineering.  But the map, derived from an engineering proposal that sought to describe the extent of housing lots that might be created by the full expansion of landfill to fill the East Bay, in the model that had already erased Mission Bay and defined the Embarcadero in San Francisco, was less readily interpreted as an advancement of the march of progress as it met readers who were alarmed by the appearance of the reduced Bay’s shoreline.

The image of the shoreline that might have been still shocks–though it is easy to be understood also as a continuity with the increased amounts of landfill that defined the city as a peninsula.  Rather than provide an illustration of triumphalist progress, however, the map became adopted as an icon of local resistance to engineering that redefined the ecological movement around 1962 and gave it a focus on the preservation of open waters that still exist.  Mapping is deeply tied to cognitive modeling, as much as to precision, and the historical role that was played by the map that projected the expansion of levels of landfill across the East and South Bay were no exception.  The map first designed for the project of the drastic reduction of San Francisco Bay that was first publicly floated around 1959 in the popular press provided a rallying cry for maintaining the current configuration of wetlands, before the idea of making the San Francisco Bay a habitat for birds and wildlife could have been even foreseen.

The land reclamation map produced in newspapers, portended helped to energize an unlikely movement, and provided a basis mobilize a rather unlikely coalition in favor of the preservation of the unique ecosystem–and indeed ensure the overlapping of environments of land and sea that are described as “ecotones”–in the Bay Area.  The map, as it was adopted by Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr, and Esther Gulick of the fledgling “Save the Bay” movement, came to concretize and effectively embody deeply resonant and evocative relation to the liminal areas of its wetlands and its open space, at a time when some 30% of the San Francisco Bay had already been lost to landfill or diking.  Maps provided a way to visualize the constantly shrinking space of the wetlands, without an eye to either environmental consequences or the potential loss of habitat, as the advance of reclaimed land seemed inevitably associated with the drumbeat of progress, pictured below in three relief maps that foresaw the expansion of landfill expected to steadily reduce the bay’s once watery expanse over the next fifty-five years, which seemed to create new acreage for housing or farming, enclosing once open waters by river banks, building upon the massive reclamation and redefining of the South Bay shores in the 1950s.


Those reluctant to encounter this almost inevitable expansion of landfill were not only undaunted by the map of the prospective shrinkage of the San Francisco Bay, and progress of the US Army Corps of Civil Engineers, which, according to a map that first appeared in the Oakland Tribune, envisioned a massive reduction by 70% of the Bay’s size by 2020 as part of the region’s modernization.  While the future seemed inevitable, somewhat surprisingly, the same map was adopted and reprinted with the new legend “Bay or River?”, inviting readers to reflect on the very inevitability of the shrinkage of open waters with such force that it became a potent symbol and rallying cry.   The appreciation of the suasive force of the map marked a historical victory of self-determination for most residents–but the local enlistment by interested citizens, fearful of the map that the future showed, led three women to invite for coffee the directors of the Save the Redwoods League, Audubon Society, and Sierra Club, to describe the possibility of reversing the steady drip of garbage, sewage, and growing shoreline stench that must have encouraged the logic of extending landfill to an area where garbage was regularly dumped and set on fire, at night, fell on deaf ears, only with the growth of the Free Speech Movement, and as 90% of Bay wetlands were lost and the Bay already reduced by a third due to dumping garbage and land reclamation, the appearance of the map, “Bay or River?,” electrified resistance to redevelopment projects, and the creation of the Save San Francisco Bay Association.

While the number of urban waste incinerators has grown massively in the United States in ways that have been quite misleadingly, and deceptively, been classified as “renewable” since the 1980s, in a public deception that has transformed waste management, and the energy sector, in a set of “trade-offs” that have led to the multiplication of Solid Waste Incinerators along the eastern seaboard, the relatively limited number of coastal incineration plants has become a pillar of coastal protection in western states, offering a distinctly different relation to the environment in which the resistance to anthropogenic land reclamation projects like the Save the Bay movements played no small part. The massive disposal of an average 30 million tons of municipal solid waste is sent to incinerators in recent years in the United States, far greater collectively than the 22 million tons composted, just below half the 67 million tons recycled, and a quarter of the 136 million tons landfilled, often posing health risks to disproportionately affecting people of color and low income, suggest a map of coastal pollution and incineration that the western states have resisted.

Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators/ELA (2016)

And for the group that approached the Berkeley City Council to turn back the fill project, the iconic emblem became a rallying cry of resistance for the “Save the Bay” movement–then “Save San Francisco Bay”–from 1962.   While the expansion of San Francisco was closely tied to landfill, as early maps of the city pointed out to builders when mapping out additions to the city as building lots:  the expansion of the short of the city into the Bay of San Francisco was a gradual practice of urban expansion, even if the ghostly outline of the former shore remained encoded in maps as the 1852 Britton and Rey map “compiled from the latest Surveys & containing all late extension” that showed the “lately planket [sic] streets” atop landfill, and the considerable size of what might now be called a liquefaction zone that redefined what had been a harbor and would later become a set of piers, and reconfiguring a once undulating coast as a streamlined shore around a dense downtown.

mapping San Francisco Landfill.pngBritton and Rey, “Map of San Francisco, Compiled from the Latest Surveys . . . ” (1852)  Courtesy the David Rumsey Map Collection

So complicated was the rendering of the proposed expansion of the additions of the mid-nineteenth century that the new additions to San Francisco seem to float above renderings of the current of the Bay, and the original coastline of the peninsula seem more prominent than the ghostly buildings and newly planked streets that lay atop.

Bay waves.pngBritton and Rey, “Map of San Francisco, Compiled from the Latest Surveys . . . ” (1852)  Courtesy the David Rumsey Map Collection

Rather than view the expansion of further landfill as inevitable, the redefinition of the shoreline of the city of San Francisco was more acceptable to prospectors than that of the Bay Area to East Bay residents, who were quick to see the dangers of the dramatic shrinking of the estuary as changing the experience of the Bay, and indeed removing Berkeley from the sea.  The printing of an effective counter-map countered the project, which would be financially encouraged by David Rockefeller, of filling a full 60% of the shallowest bay waters with housing billed as a “New Manhattan”–and reduce the Bay, already surrounded by some thirty garbage dumps at that time, with a narrow shipping channel to serve Oakland’s port.  The idea of reducing the waters of the Bay by a full 70%, which were deemed to serve no real “use” or function, aimed to transform it into what was deemed “usable” land, both for the expansion of public housing, and for an expanding of the East Bay some three miles into the ocean–somewhat improbably imagined by plowing the top off the San Bruno mountain and moving the future fill to the West.

There was little basis to understand the coherence of the water, or indeed its function, even as it was disappearing before the eyes of local inhabitants.  The symbolic success of the map however not only mobilized public opinion behind the rejection of the continued landfill of the bay’s shallower areas, but the rejection of the continued dumping of waste into the Bay Area waters, and according to Richard Walker helped transform the ecology movement into a popular, rather than only an elite, cause.  The image of filling some 2200 acres of watery expanse, reduced now to but a slender channel, provoked the project of saving the estuary, although most of the region was at that time closed off to public access, let alone ringed by a Coastal Trail as it is now:   of the Bay’s 276-mile shoreline below the entrance of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, less than 5 miles of shore were in fact open to public access.  

The image of the destruction of the Bay was not focussed on the shoreline, of course, but rather on imagining the consequences of the potential loss of the open waters of the Bay that would change the relation of land to water in an irrevocable fashion. But the scale of the increasing anthropogenic moderation of the shoreline, in the name of land reclamation, has since led to a historical archeology of the habitats along the creeks and old coastal meanders of Mission Bay and much of the city of San Francisco, from the old U.S. Coastal Survey of 1859. That project seems to have no small tie to the cartographical revision of the vision for halting and stopping the land reclamation project of 1960, that would have remade much of Marin, the East Bay, and shrunk the South Bay in definitive terms.

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March 4, 2013 · 11:02 am