The Country in the City

When I first started hiking in the San Francisco Bay Area, I assumed that its open spaces existed as naturally as the Pacific waves lapping at the Golden Gate. It took me five years to understand that the wild hills surrounding the bay — from San Francisco to Oakland and Palo Alto — had actually been protected as open space. And it took another five for me to understand that such protection had been long and tenaciously fought for. Now, thanks to Richard Walker’s informative history, The Country in the City, I know exactly how, when, and why such a wealth of open space exists.

Walker has painstakingly researched the story of what he calls the Bay Area’s “greensward.” In a nicely paced reportorial style, he recounts how, park by park, people banded together to fight the bulldozer all around the bay. After outlining nineteenth-century horrors such as the logging of the redwoods, Walker offers a profile of local activists who worked tirelessly to block developments, create parks, stop polluters, restore ecosystems, and promote legislation for a more livable world. Throughout the twentieth century, Walker points out, these activists were usually women — often white, well-heeled, and self-effacing but highly effective leaders. Walker suggests that Caroline Livermore, Dorothy Ward Erskine, and Kay Kerr should be better known, given the significance of their environmental legacies.

The scope of Walker’s history, albeit regional, is chronologically and geographically broad. He takes the reader through the Bay Area’s nine counties — recounting the birth of groups like the Sierra Club and Urban Habitat, zoning fights in Napa’s and Sonoma’s wine country, and the rise of minorities in the environmental justice movement. The Country in the City is a masterful and much-needed chronicle of the Bay Area’s diverse ecopolitical scene. It is a fruitful serendipity that such a rich and wonderful place has a scholar who, with intelligence and affection, can gracefully capture its green evolution.