This is history with a purpose and point of view. Walker is pro-environment, anti-expansion to a fault, and if you remain a bit detached, The Country In the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area is a fascinating and instructive guide to how we treat our space. It’s well known, I think, that the pollution of the bay and its surrounding waters began with the gold rush and the use of mercury, the remains of which still litter the bottom of the bay and infect fish and wildlife. It’s also fairly well known that a great deal of the bay has already been filled in. Again, starting in the mid-nineteenth century, the most common approach to bay wetlands was to toss stuff into it till it disappeared, then build roads and towns on top. Walker provides some other stories, however, that add dimension to the more common knowledge.
Oyster point (you see the signs beside highway 101 on the way to and from SFO) really was a profitable oyster bed until pollution killed the shellfish in the 1920’s and it was sold to a cement company. I believe that was where much of Jack London’s famous oyster piracy took place, though Walker doesn’t mention it. Until some kickback began in the 1950’s, about 90% of the bay was inaccessible to the public. Today, the proportion has been reversed. Remarkable.
Walker doesn’t confine himself to the immediate shores of the bay, of course. He ranges all the way up through Marin and Sonoma and Solano counties for tales of the founding of Muir Woods, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the struggles over San Pablo Bay. He takes a close look not only at important figures in the struggle (David Brower, Jack Kent, et al) but traces changes in the demographics of the groups that were formed. In the beginning, it was pretty much the privileged buying and saving green space out of noblesse oblige, and it was often dominated by women. As the years went by, the movement has become much more democratized, though still dominated by the educated and the relatively privileged. Which brings up the problem of how low-income folks fared in all of this.
Walker is unabashedly in favor of every blade of grass, unabashedly opposed to every square inch of concrete. He never met a housing project or a dam for which he has a good word (no matter who needs the water how much.) He sings the praises of such worthy projects as the East Bay Municipal Parks and other tracts which have been set aside and saved forever from developers. And, of course, I am more than happy to have these lands next door, use them often and gleefully. Less convincing are his arguments that these set-asides have had little or no effect on the housing market. I find it hard to refute the developers’ argument that stonewalling development in tens of thousands of acres must inevitably have had something to do with driving up housing prices and helped made affordable housing as scarce in the bay area as it has become. Thus, have the greens not had something to do with the mass movements to Tracey and Oakley and Discovery Bay and do they not have some responsibility for the piles of pollutants that central valley commuters daily spew on their way past and through the greenbelts and on into jobs in the crowded cities?
Walker argues that the real problem is cities’ refusal to plan for density and to make the scarce land that is available more habitable and conducive to good living. Perhaps. And certainly if Tilden Park were entirely devoted to dwellings, it’s arguable that we still wouldn’t have affordable housing or fewer commuters. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Walker tosses off these arguments rather blithely. This is still a universe where, despite the discoveries of quantum physics, some of Newton’s laws hold sway. So, if for actions there are reactions, doesn’t it make sense that, at least in some measure, that if buildings can’t be built in one place they will be built in another? And yet, don’t I still love the trails through the hills and love walking over the concrete remains of old Nike Missile compounds? Guilt and pleasure exquisitely mixed. And at least we’re not still dumping our garbage into the bay. Thanks to the likes of Richard A. Walker. So, in the end, I thank the man. Unobjective though he and his ilk may be, green earth is not a bad thing, and the end may justify the means.