A Changing Environment

(By Steven Moss) Today, it's difficult to imagine that the playground my daughter and I play in was home to a 30-foot-wide pond surrounded by wetlands...

Every Sunday my three-year old daughter Sara and I get bagels at Katz, in San Francisco's Mission District. This ritual is vaguely related to my Jewish roots, though I'd be hard-pressed to tell you how my great-grandparent's travels from a Russian shtetl led me to a bread outlet in a Hispanic neighborhood. As we eat our food every manner of urban animal can be seen -- hipsters, gay guys, lonely seniors and a variety of homeless, from deeply depressed or uber-angry alcoholics to comatose figures in clothes that would be proud to be called ragged.

Sara's friendly to all of them. After all, the urban environment is her home. She knows about freeways, and that it's often hard to park. She recognizes McDonald's trademark arches. She's learning the elements of urban survival, which have nothing to do with plowing a field or identifying what plants have medicinal value, and is all about knowing who you shouldn't be too friendly with, and why it's not good to touch some of the things you find on the street.

Not so long ago, though, this same walk would have taken us past fields and streams, diverse habitats for plants and animals, all of which are now buried under roads and buildings. Throughout the 19th century, San Francisco's coastline was molded and extended, creeks were filled in and built over, and water found new routes to the bay. Prior to intensive human habitation, water nearly surrounded my Potrero Hill neighborhood. Mission Creek wound its way past the west and north sides of the hill, while Islais, Precita, and Pollywog creeks bordered the south side. Marshes encircled the waterways for hundreds of feet.

Today, it's difficult to imagine that the playground Sara and I travel past, and sometimes play in, was home to a 30-foot-wide pond surrounded by wetlands, where residents used to collected watercress in the early-1900s. Likewise, automobile traffic through the intersection of Cesar Chavez and Vermont Streets doesn't evoke the creek that used to flow there, although PVC pipe lining the ditches of a construction project suggests that water still lurks somewhere nearby. The families who will soon move into this new development may scarcely believe that their predecessors played in open waterways.

Outside San Francisco Sara's seen horses and cows, redwood forests and marshes. But as a City kid by the time she hits her teens she'll be better able to differentiate between designer clothes labels than types of butterflies. And she's not alone -- the average American, living in the ”Ëœurbs, recognizes more than 1,000 corporate logos, but is hard-pressed to name ten native plants or animals.

The problem is, we've imposed extreme separation between ourselves and nature. Animals are kept in large centralized feeding pens in the Central Valley, or at the zoo, and wilderness is a place you drive to on the weekend. Yet while we can't walk through an orange grove or throw stones into a creek, Sara and I travel under a freeway, past two gasoline stations and lots of urban debris to get to our Sunday bagels. Why couldn't the same journey lead us by a small farm, a butterfly sanctuary, or a reclaimed urban stream?

Urban environments have plenty of cultural and demographic variety, but they're starved for ecological diversity. My ancestors may have left one shelter -- a small village notable for being populated by a single, generally poor, group of people -- only to have their great great grand daughter live in another -- a large city suffering from monochromatic environmental poverty. That's a long way to travel to end up in a similar place.

Steven Moss serves as Executive Director of San Francisco Community Power, a non-profit dedicated to helping low income families and small businesses better manager their enery use. This commentary is based on a piece that originally aired on KQED-FM's Perspective series.

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