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A Flash from the Past

Retrospective: Reviewing a 12-year-old op-ed

The op-ed below first appeared in the Journal in 1996 as a What I Think column. All I can say about my writing then or now is that when I started writing letters to the editor a few years before it was hard to even formulate coherent sentences, so I've made some sort of progress.  

The context for the piece is that I had been attending base closure meetings since the closure was announced in 1993 and I was beginning to learn the local political landscape, but as an avowed environmentalist I hadn't found a lot of allies when I wrote this. Local politics seemed to be a somewhat impenetrable old boy network for a guy like me and community activism was nothing like it is today. 

                                         What I Thought

During the heavy rains of 1982-83  a section of Sausal Creek in East Oakland was threatened with being culverted. Alameda County Flood Control had devised a make-work master plan back in the early sixties to culvert all the creeks from the Bay up to the hills. When erosion from heavy rain would threaten property built dangerously close to a creek, they would set out to bury another section of creek. Often the erosion was caused by the threatened structure, but the policy of protecting private property required the creek to take the blame and the brunt of the concrete solution.

That winter I worked with people in the neighborhood to save a section of Sausal Creek from culverting. Those were the formative days of the urban creek restoration movement, which has been blossoming across the state and the country ever since.  County flood control has since modified it's policy. Now storm drains are routinely labeled with the warning "drains to the bay." Some sections of creeks are even being "daylighted," or unburied.

During that rainy winter I spent many hours in the Oakland Library History Room, photocopying old maps and navigation charts, studying the original lay of the land. I heard of a plan proposed in 1865, by Frederick Law Olmsted, best known as co-designer of New York's Central Park, which called for 100 foot easements along each side of the creeks in the East Bay watershed, creating linear parks, connecting to a long park at the ridge of the hills.

Olmsted was a man of diverse interests and tremendous vision. He not only pioneered landscape architecture, but was a capable farmer, journalist and social critic. He saw landscape design not simply as a physical art form, but also as a vehicle to positively affect social interaction and to build a sense of community, especially in urban settings. Olmsted is known locally as designer of the Stanford University campus and the Mountain View Cemetery. He also consulted on Golden Gate Park and the U.C. Berkeley campus. He lobbied for the preservation of Yosemite Valley decades before John Muir.

If you question Olmsted's foresight, consider this quote: "If the reduction of foliage in any considerable geographical division of the world tends to make it's seasons capricious, as there is much evidence (El Nino?), the evils both of destructive drought and devastating flood are very likely to extend and increase until we have a government service which we dare trust with extensive remedial measures. It is not a matter which commerce can be expected to regulate."   

Though he wrote in the language of Melville, Olmsted's words often seem apropos in our day. On the role of government in elevating culture, he wrote: "...that the simple protection of capital and letting alone to native genius is not the whole duty of Government. Government should encourage and sustain at points so frequent and convenient that they would exert an elevating influence on all the people, public parks and gardens, galleries of art and instruction in art, music, athletic sports and healthful recreations, and other means of cultivating taste and lessening the excessive materialism of purpose in which we are, as a people so cursedly absorbed, that even the natural capacity for domestic happiness and...for the enjoyment of simple and sensible social life in our community, seems likely to be entirely destroyed. The enemies of Democracy could bring no charge more severe against it, than that such is it's tendency, and that it has no means of counteracting it."

These words seem relevant today as a counterpoint to the Libertarian viewpoint that all aspects of culture should flow from the "free market" as the prime regulating force and that developers should lead the way in city planning.

The changes in land use along the Oakland Estuary proposed in the Port's new estuary plan, along with changes on the Alameda side, including the redevelopment of the Naval Air Station, offer a unique opportunity for planning with foresight. There may be no Olmsted among us, but perhaps collectively we can rise to the call of his legacy and strive toward his inspired vision of land use and community. This can only occur with broad input from the citizenry to the local governing bodies and their appointed committees.

Post Script, 3/18/'12: Olmsted's watershed park plan was obviously never fully realized, in part because it would have required eminent domain over structures already encroaching on the 100-foot easement, though private property was similarly acquired to build Central Park in Manhattan. Samuel Merritt and other City fathers didn't have either the vision or political will to execute his plan. We are lucky enough to have Tilden and Redwood Parks which fulfill the second part of the plan.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Mark Irons March 19, 2012 at 05:41 PM
FYI-urban creek maps: http://museumca.org/creeks/crkmap.html
Frances Montell March 19, 2012 at 07:54 PM
Thanks for an informative article. I am especially interested in Olmstead's thoughts about "lessening the excessive materialism of purpose in which we are, as a people so cursedly absorbed". Yes! What are we, ants? It can be so hard to look up and think about the purpose of our lives beyond simply producing and acquiring material goods. What else can we do?
Jon Spangler March 20, 2012 at 06:14 AM
Mark, thanks for your historical perspectives, both from the near-term and from long-term (Olmstead's era) views.

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