The San Francisco Bay Area is unique. Most of us who live here feel a connection not only to the city or town we live in, but also to the region. We are citizens of both.
We feel affiliated with the Bay Area in large part because of its natural scenic beauty, which we can readily access and regularly enjoy. This abundance of opportunity for outdoor recreation is a vital and vibrant facet of our region’s identity. However, viewing Bay Area open space through a regional lens risks ignoring the fact that these lands are managed by a wide range of disparate government agencies and environmental groups. Each managing entity has its own set of specialized issues to deal with and must attend to local priorities first and foremost. How then do we reconcile our unified vision of the region with this underlying fragmentation?
A chance to explore this question came recently via the Bay Area Open Space Council, a network support group that serves the conservation, parks, and stewardship communities across the region. The nearly 30-year-old group is undergoing a rebuild, and in true network fashion, engaged 146 people in four sessions to get feedback on its future. Seeking to learn how members of local open space communities think about their connections to the region, the Monitor attended the San Francisco session — and found that complex issues facing the broader Bay Area were not far from anybody’s awareness.
Several attendees pointed out how park users bounce around the region to access public open spaces, and how those experiences connect them to the Bay Area as a whole. While the nonprofit San Francisco Parks Alliance supports 200 local community groups and strives to build the capacity of parks and public places in the city, they also maintain a wider view. “It’s important to know that residents in San Francisco don’t stay in San Francisco,” said the Alliance’s Amanda Montez. “They head out all over the Bay Area, are very aware of what’s happening, and demand the best.”
Her Alliance colleague Claude Imbault offered his own experience as an example. He lives in the Castro District and cares about the public spaces there, such as Harvey Milk Plaza. He is also in tune with parks outside the city. “Within 15 minutes, I can be in an open space in Marin, and that does a lot for my physiological, mental, and physical health. I am a resident of San Francisco and a resident of the Bay Area. I can’t think of myself as separate,” he said.
For him, open space provides the connection. “When I’m in the Presidio and look across the bay to the Marin Headlands, to me it’s one body,” he said. “I see the green expanse and the connectivity. It brings me joy.”
Montez added that the connectivity goes both ways. “I imagine that people from Marin are just as excited to go to Harvey Milk Plaza. People [from outside San Francisco] want to feel a part of what’s going on in that public space as much as somebody in the Castro wants to feel part of an open space in Marin.”
Annie Burke, the executive director of the Open Space Council, lives in Berkeley, but doesn’t think of herself as just a Berkeley resident. “Pescadero State Beach is one of my favorite places on the planet, and I could name 45 different things that I like to do in the Bay Area that aren’t in Berkeley. I love the whole Bay Area,” she said. “We travel in the 21st century, and need to think in a much more integrated way because we are integrated.”
Considering the region when making local management decisions can be fraught; it can also be imperative. Robert Doyle, the general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), which by nature is regional in its span across two counties and 43 cities, said it can be a challenge to work regionally. “People have worked really hard to create communities with a distinctive character. They want home rule,” he said. He has also seen communities come around to embrace a more regional outlook, since many of the complex issues we face don’t recognize boundaries.
Examples of issues that call for regional approaches include transportation, wildfires, air quality, sudden oak death, endangered species, sea-level rise, and the climate crisis. “What you do in your city matters,” added Doyle, “but you also have to take a larger approach, because like John Muir said, ‘Everything is hitched together.’”
Doyle pointed out that in Muir’s lifetime there weren’t a lot of people here. San Francisco was the only major city (with the exception of Oakland), and everything else was agriculture. “Now there are so many people you can’t solve a problem in one area without solving the bigger problems. Everything is connected,” said Doyle.
Thinking regionally and crossing artificial boundaries when needed can help support science that leads to the stewardship of water, land, and wildlife. Pepperwood Preserve is anchored in Sonoma County. It also provides data and analysis to support the entire region’s efforts to conserve land and manage resources. “Data and the improvements in technology of data are helping us to see things in a more regional way,” said Lisa Micheli, president of Pepperwood Preserve. “There is a paradigm shift underway that’s part of the information revolution.”
She sees “green infrastructure,” or open space and greenbelts, as the public’s safety net. “Climate change is creating stresses in our environment, on top of the fragmentation of natural and working lands to other uses,” said Micheli. “We’re facing a potential tipping point, and in order for our human communities, even our cities, to be functional, we need this framework of natural lands that support our economy and ecosystems.”
That requires regional thinking and regional action. Measures on the ballot that affect the entire region can be powerful and help connect us. “That’s one thing to get excited about when you talk about regionality,” said Montez. “I may not be able to vote in another city’s election, but I will be able to make a difference in my region and have those conversations.”
Groups can also benefit from networks that go beyond the region. Harry Pollack, general counsel at Save the Redwoods League, the organization that hosted the BAOSC session that the Monitor attended, cited the Land Trust Alliance and its national accreditation standards as a powerful example of a network. “It helps foster better-quality work nationally. We all do a better job when we’re communicating, collaborating, and learning from one another,” he said.
Imbault recently attended a City Parks Alliance national conference, and learned how other groups are dealing with social equity, inclusion, and diversity in open and public spaces. “There are great ideas happening all over,” he said. “There’s not just one way; there are multiple ways.”
“People don’t see a bright red line when they cross from one city to another or one open space to another,” said Montez. “They just know it’s open space and they’re on a walk. Those are all voters, and their feet are going to take them to every single one of our domains.”
“It’s all integrated, but we also need to recognize we are in silos,” said Burke. “I’m motivated to think how we can work across our silos on some of the biggest challenges we are facing. What does that look like? I don’t know, but I’d love to see even more collaboration.”
Aleta George covers open space for the Monitor.