Nature vs. Politics: Saving urban canyons

by Elaine Brooks

    I thought many of you might be interested in this letter I've just written. I'm putting hard copies of this letter in the mail this morning. I think it's a topic worthy of community discussion, not around the narrow issues presented by this particular project but by the much larger issue it presents as far as the future opportunities that the natural history of our city represents.

    Elaine Brooks

Mr. Ron Ottinger
Board of Education Office
San Diego City Schools
4100 Normal ST., Room 2231
San Diego, CA 92103

Dear Mr. Ottinger,

SUBJECT: Conserving our natural history legacy for our children's future: The Case of 32nd Street Urban Canyon and the urban canyon system in the region.

    I am concerned about the planning that is underway to build a school in the 32nd Street urban canyon in Golden Hill. Although I live in another district, I see the region's canyon system as a critical public asset in toto, one that exists throughout the city and needs protection and care if we are going to manage this important natural legacy for our future. I have been teaching biology in area colleges as an adjunct professor using very new ideas about urban ecology that are emanating from some National Science Foundation projects in Baltimore and Phoenix. This experience convinces me that the whole area of biological education badly needs opportunities for direct hands on experiences with these remnants of wild nature that are found in cities. The canyon system in San Diego represents a unique opportunity to provide an exceptional educational resource for our region's children, as well as a legacy to their children, if we reason together about its potential.

    Although I understand the short term trade-offs and project-by-project planning decisions that get made in the nature of local politics that decides to provide only narrow solutions to specific public policy demands (in this case, the need to site a school, to preserve affordable housing in an older neighborhood in the city, and to do it all cheaply), I am increasingly concerned about the long-term consequences to our future. Larger and larger parts of the urban area are paved over haphazardly. Opportunities for passing on an important legacy about our living world are neglected, piece by piece, as the region's natural history is obliterated parcel-by-parcel and block-by-block with these incremental decisions.

    The canyons in the urban area are a legacy from the original coastal ecosystems that are dwindling rapidly as the region grows. They have been spared mostly by serendipity and the early construction costs involved in building on steep slopes. Technology has changed those possibilities. But right now, in this place, we have a brief moment where this legacy sits in our own hands, to either conserve or destroy. I think, as a region, we are better people than narrow expediency dictates. But rarely do we display the political courage to exercise this kind of maturity. I'm urging you to do it now.

    One of the things that is little understood by the San Diego pubic, as well as its public officials, is that over the past 20 years the canyons have become an important natural laboratory for scientists from around the world studying the consequences of habitat fragmentation. This is an outgrowth of the work of the well-known conservation biologists Michael Soule, who did the early work in San Diego in the 1980s; subsequently, his colleagues at UCSD and elsewhere have continued these studies. A series of important papers have been published from this work over the past two decades. ...

    There is, I believe, a rare opportunity we have been handed with this urban canyon system in San Diego to develop creative and innovative programs that will give our children and our children's children the chance to learn about and study our own regional ecology, using these canyons as natural laboratories. For a number of years I have been using the vacant spaces in the urban area as natural laboratories for teaching various college classes as an adjunct professor. These remnant natural spaces provide a powerful lesson about the biology of the natural world that exists just outside our front doors. A major part of this remaining system is the urban canyon system.

    I'm convinced of the importance of this experience – actually studying living nature where students live – in providing an essential connection to the place where they live. San Diego is not just a collection of cultural artifacts and historical archives. San Diego has it's own rich and varied natural history that is as much a part of this place as is the weather and the mountains. If we obliterate this natural history by filling our remaining canyons and flattening our remaining mountains, and scraping off hundreds of years of biological interactions in a single afternoon with a bulldozer, we will finally declare our ignorance about who we are in a major way. We will succumb to the redesign of our city – as every other city – branded no differently than a place filled with the Wherehouse stores and MacDonald's hamburger outlets, subdivisions and institutional looking buildings, and corporate-looking malls...

    Much of the curriculum in biology today removes children from any real experience with nature, just as they are removed from nature by mostly being born and raised in cities, Nature as a remote possibility only, in the virtual world of documentaries or as exhibits in the living museums of zoos and botanical gardens, make it no longer an intimate and necessary part of who we are. We all lose by declaring these experiences irrelevant when we never consider them in their totality. There are whole generations of San Diegans who have been raised around the area's canyons – and played there in all parts of the city – who look back on that experience as one of the most important ones of their childhood. If the canyons disappear, so does that option.

    If we start down the road of piecemeal politics with the urban canyons in San Diego, and broker deals that allow them to be destroyed one by one, we destroy a very basic part of what it is about this place that brings people here. ...

    Canyons are spread throughout the area. There is a canyon within a reasonable distance of nearly every school in the city. There is an exciting possibility of embracing these places as natural libraries for teaching our children, assets spread all over the region. But this will never happen if we dream on only with the drumbeat of political expediency, one narrow project at a time.

    There must be a way to build a school in Golden Hills – a school that is badly needed – by incorporating this canyon as a natural educational and community asset, leaving it for the enjoyment of new generation's of San Diegans, rather than destroying it. ...

    If the Board considers it from this perspective, our region's children and their children will some day reflect that there still is a real core of wisdom left in our public officials. This is the same thread of wisdom that set aside the 1,500 acres of Balboa Park in the 1850s. It is your chance to be just as visionary. There is a chance to look a bit beyond the next election, a bit beyond the next budget, and construct a real creative dream for our children's future. The community of Golden Hills and their stewardship of the 32nd street canyon could be the model for the entire District. The canyons exist in every community in the city, and thus it is our entire region that can benefit from your ability to see this larger picture. Children in every community in the city have a right to these natural opportunities. I hope you will seriously consider this. I think there is a win/win situation for everyone possible.


Elaine R. Brooks
La Jolla, CA