Richard A. Walker

The Country in the City

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The Country in the City Summary

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In his non-fiction book, The Country in the City: The Greening of San Francisco (2007), American author and urban geographer Richard A. Walker chronicles the history of environmentalism in the Bay Area, arguing that San Francisco can serve as a template for other regions looking to tackle environmental issues. For The Country in the City, Walker won the Western History Association’s Hal K. Rothman Award.

Walker traces the history of environmentalism in the Bay Area to long before the 1960s, when similar movements began to arise across the United States. His narrative begins in the late 19th century with the work of the Scottish-American naturalist John Muir. After traveling the United States and Canada as a naturalist and botanist, Muir settled in San Francisco. Almost immediately, wanderlust struck him, and he traveled to the Yosemite Valley where he fell in love with the Northern California wilderness. After leading a successful campaign to create Yosemite National Park, Muir worked with a group of professors from Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley to found an organization devoted to preserving the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains. The association would come to be known as the Sierra Club, one of the first large-scale environmental organizations in the world. Headquartered in San Francisco, the Sierra Club made San Francisco the first major American city with a significant environmentalist presence.

At the turn of the century, Muir and the Sierra Club became embroiled in a controversy over the construction of the Hetch Hetchy Dam. With the city of San Francisco rapidly outgrowing its water resources, many so-called “resource management” conservationists like US Forest Service head Gifford Pinchot split from Muir and others who believed natural lands should be preserved regardless of the resource concerns of the city. In an effort to stop Pinchot and San Francisco mayor James D. Phelan from building the dam, Muir appealed to then-president Theodore Roosevelt to halt its construction. However, although Muir was his friend, Roosevelt ultimately chose to stay out of the fight, particularly after a San Francisco city referendum showed seven-to-one majority support for the dam’s construction. Muir’s hopes were further dashed with the 1912 election of President Woodrow Wilson, with whom Muir had little personal connection. Nevertheless, while the Hetch Hetchy Dam constituted Muir and the Sierra Club’s first major defeat, it emboldened the group to lobby for the creation of the National Park Service, which would oversee the nation’s national parks rather than the Forest Service. This was significant because up until this point, the Forest Service had looked at National Parks not as untouched lands for the public to enjoy, but rather as a way to control the use of these lands for commercial resources.

At this point in the narrative, Walker takes a step back to look at the specific circumstances under which San Francisco became an early center of environmentalism. While many attribute this solely to the presence and influence of John Muir, Walker argues that there were countless other factors involved. For example, San Francisco is often described as an “instant city,” in that full-blown capitalism and industrialism hit it all at once, in large part due to the Gold Rush and other mining industries that arose almost overnight around the same time. Moreover, a large proportion of the residents who lived in the Bay Area at that time were sophisticates from New York and New England who were shocked to see the natural beauty around them seem to be disappearing all at once.

Over the next few decades, Walker points out that some of the most influential conservationists were women. In Marin County, Caroline Livermore, the wife of a wealthy businessman, established the Marin Conservation League in the 1930s. Its objective was to implement a “green, open-space county master plan” that would preserve the natural beauty of the Marin area through the establishment of various state parks, including Stinson Beach and Tomales Bay State Park. She did this at a local level by encouraging the city to acquire these lands.

Walker also highlights the establishment of Save the Bay as a major event in the history of San Francisco’s environmentalism. Founded in 1961 by Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick, Save the Bay was an organization committed to slowing the development around the Bay Area that was threatening the area’s ecological balance and natural beauty. In 1965, the group successfully lobbied the state government to establish the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Committee, which worked to balance business interests and preservation interests in the development of the Bay Area. A few years later in 1969, San Francisco once again asserted its position at the vanguard of environmentalism when the city hosted a UNESCO conference where the peace activist John McConnell proposed celebrating the first-ever Earth Day.

The Country in the City is a well-researched look at how business, political, and environmental interests can come together to preserve the natural wilderness in and around cities for all the public to enjoy.