Lands End Area, San Francisco, CA

There’s an engraved marker at the top of Copp’s Hill in the North End of Boston not far from my apartment. The marker explains that the hill provided 17th-century colonists with a respite from the “three great annoyances, of woolves, rattle-snakes, and musketos.” Mosquitos may not be so far-fetched, but rattlesnakes and wolves in the North End of Boston? It’s hard to imagine. But ever since I discovered this marker, I’ve wondered what the area looked like when European settlers first arrived.

The current view of downtown from Copp's Hill in the North End of Boston. Note the absence of "woolves and rattle-snakes."

Few human pursuits alter the natural landscape in such a radical way as the act of building cities: waterways are filled in, hills are leveled, rivers are encased in subterranean pipes, buildings are built, demolished, and rebuilt. A quick comparison of a  1775 British military map of Boston and a current map of Boston illustrates the point.

Boston in 1775 (left) and today (right)

Today it’s almost impossible to imagine what many cities looked like before they were cities. But that’s exactly what the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Welikia Project aims to do in New York City. Over more than a decade researchers working on the Project have assembled a massive quantity of data from historical maps and accounts, as well as present-day soil surveys and ecological field work. The goal is to create a digital reconstruction of the ecology and landscape of New York City as it appeared in September 1609 when Henry Hudson sailed into New York Harbor. So far the Welikia Project has recreated the 17th century ecological landscape of Manhattan. You can check out the results of their work in an interactive map overlay. Work on the other four boroughs is ongoing. If you ever find yourself in Manhattan, and are curious about what the island looked like before it was a city, the last vestiges of the original forests and salt marshes that once covered most of Manhattan’s coastline can be found in Inwood Hill Park at the far northern tip of the island.

While Welikia Project researchers have painstakingly recreated a virtual representation of New York City before it was a city, in San Francisco the National Park Service has gone one step further and actually restored the ecological landscape of large sections of the city to its pre-urban state. I visited San Francisco for work a few weeks ago, and luckily I had enough down time to do some exploring. After a long, crowded bus ride across town, and a short walk through Lincoln Park (which turned out to mostly be a golf course) I found myself on the Lands End Trail, which runs along the Pacific coast at the northwest corner of the city. As I walked toward the coast I descended into a dense fog bank which obscured what had been a clear, sunny day just a few hundred yards inland. The landscape was all coastal scrub, pine trees, crashing waves, and rocky outcrops. I was less than half a mile from the densely populated Richmond District neighborhood, but I felt like I’d entered a wilderness area.

Lands End Trail, San Francisco, CA

Walking along the trail I noticed a side trail leading down the hill toward the water. It was the kind of trail that’s just overgrown enough to make you think that maybe you’re not supposed to go down it. But nevertheless the trail is there, which means people must use it semi-regularly, which means there’s probably something cool at the end of it. So needless to say I followed this side trail through some undergrowth and down a steep slope. The trail ended at a deserted rocky beach. It was silent except for the sound of the surf on the rocks and the far-off drone of dueling fog horns. I was completely unprepared to find myself in such a beautiful, wild place – it wasn’t something I’d expected to come across within the city limits of the most densely populated urban area in California. It looked like this:

The section of coastline traversed by the Lands End Trail probably looks similar to the landscape that Spanish explorers encountered when they first arrived in the area in 1769. But it hasn’t always looked this way. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries a railroad ran along the coast, and a massive swimming pool complex called Sutro Baths was built in a cove between the cliffs near what is now the Lands End trailhead. Sutro Baths burned to the ground in 1966, and what remains of the foundations and pools have become part of the natural landscape.

The ruins of Sutro Baths

Over the past several years, the National Park Service has restored the Lands End area by reintroducing native plant species and controlling erosion along the coastal cliffs. The Park Service’s job was made easier by the fact that the natural landscape in the northwestern corner of San Francisco was never completely destroyed. For over 200 years a military base, the Presidio, occupied the area. Access was restricted and large portions of land surrounding the base were left unused and more or less undisturbed. Native plants and animals continued to thrive in these pockets of unused land, even as the city of San Francisco grew and expanded right up to the perimeter of the Presidio. The Presidio was closed in 1994 and the land it occupied was transferred to the National Park Service, which began the process of restoring and expanding areas of primordial coastal landscape.

The Presidio’s impact on San Francisco’s natural landscape, however, was not entirely benign. In the early 20th century, a large salt marsh and beach along the northern edge of the Presidio was filled in and converted to a military airfield called Crissy Field. When the Park Service inherited the area in the mid-90s, Crissy Field was a heavily polluted expanse of crumbling pavement and derelict buildings, but the Crissy Field I visited a few weeks ago was a very different place. I spent an afternoon walking the full length of Crissy Field, past a tidal marsh and drifting sand dunes covered in wildflowers and shrubs. It was an unusually windy day and seabirds shot by overhead, riding the wind gusts, while kids flew kites all along the beach. Because the area is flat, I had amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands across the bay.

The restoration of Crissy Field was a carefully executed, 34 million dollar project that involved cleaning up contaminated materials, digging an artificial marsh and opening it to the tides of the bay, and planting tens of thousands of native plants among the newly restored dunes. After clean-up and landscape construction was completed, the Park Service took a hands off approach to the area’s ecological restoration, waiting for wildlife to return and native plants to spread and grow unimpeded.

Restored sand dunes along Crissy Field

The Park Service’s ecological restoration work in San Francisco has largely been a success, and this kind of urban ecosystem restoration has become increasingly popular in cities around the world. But is it a good idea? There are definitely some major benefits. Restored areas provide habitat for wildlife as well as a natural buffer from storms and flooding. Native plant life can even help control air pollution, and the native plants tend to look out for themselves, so the landscapes require minimal energy and resources to maintain. Restored ecosystems can also provide city dwellers, especially children, with a more authentic experience in nature than might otherwise be available to them. At the same time not everyone is a fan. US Department of Agriculture social scientist Paul Gobster has argued that ecological restoration emphasizes the health and diversity of natural ecosystems at the expense of human use of the land. By turning back the clock of a landscape to a time before it was settled, restoration projects can erase the human, cultural history of a place. And access to restored landscapes may be restricted to control erosion and protect fragile plant life, preventing residents of surrounding neighborhoods from fully enjoying the space.

Crissy Field, San Francisco, CA

As I wandered around the Lands End area in San Francisco, I noticed a number of roped off areas with signs explaining that landscape restoration was ongoing. But as I walked through Crissy Field I couldn’t help but notice that the beautifully restored natural landscape was balanced with plenty of open space and beaches for dog-walking, frisbee-playing, jogging, and all kinds of other recreational activities. There’s even a restored, grassy airfield that recalls the area’s historical roots. Because restored ecological landscapes like the Lands End area and Crissy Field are located within densely populated areas, project planners and park managers need to find ways to balance the needs and desires of city residents with a desire to maintain a pristine ecosystem.

References and Further Reading

Boston’s Urban Wilds Initiative works to preserve pockets of natural landscape in the city.

Gobster, P. (2007). Urban Park Restoration and the “Museumification” of Nature Nature and Culture, 2 (2), 95-114 DOI: 10.3167/nc2007.020201

Boland, Michael (2004). Crissy Field: A New Model for Managing Urban Parklands Places, 15 (3), 40-43

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