The Bay Area: King of Urban Parks

By Kyle Heise

When I began teaching the English names of animals to my students in Mallorca, I started with those located from my home region: the East Bay. I knew the abundance of animals from the immediate parks and open spaces around my house would be a good jumping off point. Besides, I was supposed to transmit parts of my culture to these children and parks are part of it, right? I delved through the usual list of our animals and fell into an immense diversity of owls, squirrels, deer, turkey, hawks, bobcats etcetera. My list was almost never ending.

It wasn't until the Mallorcan students could only muster a percentage of my list that I recognized my home region’s unique place in the world. I sat there in my classroom filled with little Catalan speaking children, thinking of how spoiled I was to grow up with the docile belief that all urban areas cradled such diversity, that every child was as lucky as I was to grow up with access to the quality of parks and open spaces abundant throughout the Bay Area.

These very open spaces and landscapes are the precious habitats of all the animals I was able to boast about. This seemingly infinite variety of life doesn’t exist unless we, the citizens of my region, foster an environment for them to thrive in. I am fortunate to be from an urban area nestled between numerous open spaces and landscapes. Our geography is uniquely equipped to handle the symbiosis of urban parks unlike any other in the world. We are lucky that since its discovery, the Bay Area has been viewed as a landscape to protect. 

From the very beginning, the first European settlers to the San Francisco Bay were awed by the unprecedented body of water they discovered. In fact, the first Catalan explorers in the mid 18th century called the San Francisco Bay the “harbor of harbors.” It was forthwith viewed as an area to cherish and protect. Throughout history, the revelations of grandeur by the earliest settlers were heeded by those who followed.

From pioneers like John McLaren and John Muir, to modern contemporaries like William P. Mott Jr. and Charles Tilden, the Bay Area has seldom ceased to be on the forefront of land conservation. Today we see well over half (as much as 75% depending on your sources) of the viable land in the region protected within a matrix of park systems throughout the nine county greater Bay Area. Our convergence of parks and cities is unparalleled across the globe. Sure, certain cities like Paris or New York are well-known for possessing parks with grandiose descriptions and vibrant flora, but what these parks lack is the access to the true wilderness and biodiversity found in the Bay Area. These urban parks across the globe act as escapes from the concrete jungle, a last touch to a natural world increasingly forgotten. And here in the Bay, we are confronted daily with the beauty of the natural world. Simply put, there is no escaping the reach of our parks.

Our parks are big. Real big. From seashores to forests to rolling hills, our various parks encompass a vast biodiversity. The Bay Area is one of 35 biological hot spots in the world. These hot spots cover small areas of the globe yet contain the majority of our biodiversity. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area, with its 80,000 preserved acres, 19 distinct ecosystems and over 2,000 plant and animal species, shadows the numerous state parks and the massive East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD) that cradle our natural landscape. The EBRPD is the largest urban park syndicate in the country and oversees more than 120,000 acres. It is a major highlight in the grassroots push for land conservation. Our local state parks are impressive as well. Mt. Diablo boasts one of the most awesome viewsheds in the world. 

The various state and regional Redwoods parks scattered around the Bay make the world’s tallest trees accessible beyond well known reserves like Muir Woods. An informed local will go to Samuel P. Taylor State Park in Marin or the many South and East Bay preserves to find Redwoods without crowds. To our immediate north we can follow Point Reyes National Seashore for miles, or flip your orient and descend onto the many protected beaches that protect our shorelines south towards Santa Cruz. Point Reyes is also the only National Seashore located on the Pacific coast. And lest we forget the Bay itself is a natural playground as well! The lands between the evocative John Steinbeck-esque rolling foothills shelters woodlands valleys of oaks and grassy knolls that provide small escapes for suburbia-- usually right in our backyards. The variety of protected landscapes is astonishing. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, our adherence to land protection, and the diversity of it, makes our region a bastion of the natural world. 

The Bay Area's unique geography is a lifeblood to the dynamic spirit of the region. Our geography and regional features have fostered innovation and creative ventures across many capacities. From the Marin County mountain biking revolution in the ‘70s and ‘80s to the birth of Burning Man at Baker Beach, our parks have been central to our cultural evolution and foundation of our regional spirit. And I like to think that our parks reflect our people: we prioritize both hard work and hard play. We incorporate parks and the natural world into our innovations because they are a part of us. We use them as an escape from urbanization and an exploration into the natural world.

What would we think if along Crissy Field the hangars were replaced by apartments built by the highest bidder? What would we think if we had gone through with the dreadful Reber Plan to fill in the bay? Or if the Marin Headlands fell victim to high-end developers?  That's not what happens to our parks and landscapes because that’s not who we are. We are as dedicated to the preservation of our own environment as any other cause. We’ve used our parks as a method to increase our living standard. We've delicately weaved the natural world into the social construct of our communities via our parks.

The Bay is a hub for innovation in many industries and disciplines: tech, sports, academics etc. Our parks, like our communities, are leaders in their respective fields. They champion positive agendas and are beacons of conservation to the rest of the world. Of the 90 species originally listed as endangered within the Bay Area by the 1973 Endangered Species Act, none have gone extinct. In fact many species originally thought to have left are returning e.g. bald eagles and beavers.

We have seen our mistakes in the past and are on the forefront of restoration. We restore marshlands and buy up new lands to save entire watersheds, not just the riparian environments. Our appreciation and cultivation of the natural world cleanses our prejudices and reminds us of our greater impact. This shows in the relentless agenda to protect and promote our parks through park initiatives like the nationally championed “Find Your Park” campaign. We promote the parks because we feed off their spirit and energy.  Our famous authors and musicians and artists echo their beauty in their words and works. Those who were only lucky enough to pass through have always left with marvelous impressions of the landscapes. It's one of the main reasons those who visit the Bay Area leave with nothing but good praise. Muir said 'climb the mountains and get their good tidings.' As citizens of the Bay, we've made it far too easy to heed and project their messages. 

The Bay Area within the greater umbrella of CA and the western states are the representatives of the cliche wild west and open space. The cliche still rings true, to an extent. We have open spaces and the wild among us. We are exposed to nature unlike many large metropolitan regions of the world and many of our communities are enclaves within the parks. This exposure provides the world class views, the quick shangri-la escapes, and the connection to natural world many of us are all accustomed to.

This is not normal around the world. We are special and we know it. That's a quality all of the Bay can agree too. We may not all be mountain bikers or hikers or surfers or botanists or bird watchers, but we can all agree that we are lucky. Lucky about where we live and fortunate enough to incorporate the immense biodiversity the Bay Area provides into our lives. The chance to let our natural world be consumed into a sprawling metropolis presented itself and we did not fail ourselves nor our posterity.

Teddy Roosevelt said the natural world belongs to the past, present and future generations of the world. Roosevelt referred to all species. The natural world isn’t just ours. We preserve this land because it is a sanctuary for us, its visitors, its plants and animals, both present and future.

This is not to say we are doing the best we can. There still are roughly 90 plant and animal species who share our environment that are listed as endangered. The natural landscape is forever vulnerable to our appetite for destruction and urban growth. What’s promising is for how à la mode as encroachment is around the world, the Bay Area remains a stalwart in the success of parks and people together.

The pressures from the sprawl and the increased migration into the region pose an imminent dilemma for the people. But in a world of increasing human impact, the survival of myriad species rely on our grace for continued existence. However, history shows that the residents of the Bay Area value the symbiosis between people and parks. From John Muir to William Mott Jr., our citizens have triumphed the conservation movement. We are our own Lorax.

Nowhere does a large and influential urban center protect its land in such a hefty percentage. The Bay Area is a gem among the world with its accessibility to the natural world. The balance reflects its people's ability to innovate. We champion what many call America's best idea: the National Park Service and its conservation ideals. We do not underestimate the clean airs and abundant wildlife so close to one of the world’s most renowned urban areas. We cherish it. We are champions of the symbiosis between park and people. We are the kings of the urban parks.