Tag: Environment


Urban Humanities and the Creative Practitioner

Dana Cuff
Jennifer Wolch

The flow of the Los Angeles River, ever-precarious and never navigable, attracted settlement along its shifting course for centuries. When the cataclysmic 1938 flood followed on the heels of lesser, recurrent flooding, the straightening and channeling of fifty-one miles of the river began in earnest, until engineers had riven the city with a concrete conduit from the Chatsworth hills to the South Bay. The channel was built to contain the water, measured in cubic feet per second, predicted to flow during a 100-year flood event. This technocratic solution precluded other forms of the Los Angeles River from emerging. Once channelized, only those alternatives in keeping with its infrastructural identity were conceivable. Therefore, when freight traffic congestion at the Los Angeles–Long Beach Port grew intolerable in the 1980s, the new vision promoted for the river was to pave over it to form a truck freeway. A new river wasn’t inscribed in the public imagination until a motley crew of poets, artists, outlaw kayakers, park advocates, cyclists, wildlife advocates, neighborhood activists, and academics turned attention to those fifty-one miles, with all the futurities such a new narrative might permit. Their interventions, ranging from policy proposals to public art actions, opened up the region’s population as well as its politicians to a different spectrum of imagined possibilities—that is, that the LA River is an actual river.

At each stage in the recent history of the LA River, people brought with them motivating ideas about the city—what it is, where nature belongs, what history is inscribed there. These ideas are the foundations for conventional wisdom about practices such as flood control, appropriate levels of risk, how to improve extant conditions, or whose interests matter. The narratives that grow from those foundations govern the spectral array of possibilities. For example, the responses to flooding in the context of a channelized river are unlikely to begin with anything other than a channelized river; the most likely proposal is for a deeper channel. But there is no reason for conventional thinking to remain so constrained. What we call “urban humanities” produce historically grounded conjectures, launched from the present toward an unknown future, that depend on and simultaneously help construct new urban imaginaries.


The Los Angeles Urban Rangers demonstrate that the megalopolis is a habitat for adventurous exploration; here a Ranger leads the LA River Ramble (2010-present). Photograph by Christina Edwards.

The Los Angeles Urban Rangers demonstrate that the megalopolis is a habitat for adventurous exploration; here a Ranger leads the LA River Ramble (2010-present). Photograph by Christina Edwards.

When poets such as Lewis MacAdams staged readings from the middle of the LA River in the last decades of the twentieth century, the public’s historical perception of the river migrated from a concrete site of danger and water-borne pollution risk, toward a place for human creativity and wildlife habitat—even though not a single piece of concrete channel had been removed.This example demonstrates the radical power of urban humanities, for which we offer this manifesto. To escape digging deeper channels to solve urban problems, cities instead can be transformed at the creative intersection of design, urbanism, and humanist perspectives. The manifesto is more than a declaration of principles; it is a call to action for scholars to become engaged, creative practitioners.

At the University of California in Los Angeles and in Berkeley, we are working in tandem to develop knowledge about urbanism that weaves together perspectives from architecture, city planning, landscape architecture, and the humanities in order to create much-needed, transformational urban practices. Under the auspices of a Mellon Foundation international program aimed at encouraging multidisciplinary dialogue and pedagogy focused on cities,2 California is one test bed for exploratory intellectual configurations of urban inquiry focused on global metropolitan regions on the Pacific Rim. We propose that a particularly rich terrain for both intellectual reflection and action occurs at this confluence of urban humanities. Two questions that motivate our collaborative efforts warrant further consideration here. First, what conditions spark the desire for new ways of thinking through cities, particularly ways that entrain the humanities? And second, what might a contemporary California-based effort contribute to new urban understandings?
The need for creative practices

The case of the LA River illustrates that the city as an object of study intrinsically carries implications about action and about the future. Questions about the city are fundamentally questions about our situated, collective existence—not only our histories and contemporary circumstances, but how our shared lives could and should evolve. In contrast to many disciplinary objects of study, urban humanist scholars have something at stake. Their epistemologies matter, because the products of their scholarship engender a speculative project concerning possible urban communities and, therefore, hold public significance.

We need creative practices to address the range of issues that confront contemporary cities—issues such as social justice, economic development, and environmental quality. Urban humanities emphasize innovative methods and practices, which evolve along with shifting epistemologies. This view stands in contrast to a current dominant narrative which holds that contemporary cities depend upon attracting a creative group of citizens.3 While blue collar jobs and manufacturing marked the vitality of cities like Detroit at the turn of the twentieth century, and a services-based consumer economy fueled late-twentieth-century growth in cities such as Los Angeles, cities in the coming decades will depend on innovative tech-startup founders, creative designers, and bold eco-entrepreneurs, a population most visible today in the San Francisco Bay Area. But it is now apparent that these populations bring new problems along with new economies.

A wide array of disciplines, from the physical sciences to art history, hold potential for creative urban practices. Such practices involve a disruption of existing ideas and the definitive transgression of boundaries that govern existing urban thought. There have been productive breaches of disciplinary boundaries—urban planning and geography in the form of geographical information systems (GIS), or architecture and computational science in the case of digital design. Now, with big data and the “city science” movement enriching our understanding of urbanism, the absence of a humanist perspective in urban thought is brutally apparent. The number of households living below the poverty line in Mexico City, toxic air emissions in proximity to freeways in Los Angeles, suicide rates among Tokyo’s youth, or miles of subway built in Shanghai over the last decade—such cold metrics need translation via history, narrative, and interpretation if they are to make a meaningful difference and influence creative practice and novel approaches in each city’s evolution.

Experiments in urban humanities

For new structures of knowledge based on multiple disciplines to emerge, two conditions must be met. First, there must be an object of interest that defies conventional logic and resists constructive change. For us, this common object of interest is the city itself, along with the many challenges it poses, such as segregation, congestion, and affordable housing, but also, proximity, precarity, and identity. Second, those who try to collectively address the issue at hand must be willing to transgress boundaries that separate their fields of expertise and modes of urban understanding. It is worth reflecting here upon what we mean by “the city,” which is used synonymously with the urban. Ours is a wide net with a tight weave, one meant to catch material artifacts, cultural nuance, literary accomplishment, social relations, and power struggles that collide in space over time. By “city,” we mean situated collective life emplaced in an urban context, comprised of historical interpretation, material environments, contemporary culture, and speculative futures. Therefore, the name “urban humanities” captures the metropolitan dialectic between space and humanism.

Perhaps the most widely recognized fields of expertise considered relevant to urban concerns are design and planning along with engineering and the physical and social sciences. But what of the humanities? Those fields that aim to understand history, the arts, meaning, expression, and experience make substantial contributions to our thinking about cities and culture. From classicists to contemporary film scholars, humanists enrich an understanding of situated collective life. Yet, we are uncertain about just how that scholarship ought to contribute to urban practices, broadly defined. At least since Plato’s Republic, the tangled web of urban social life comprised utopian narratives. But if the death of this genre has been proclaimed, it gives rise to other kinds of narratives. As suggested by the LA River example, the possibility of the river as a greenway linking diverse neighborhoods throughout the city emerged with humanities-oriented creative practitioners reinterpreting this metropolitan seam and critical site of urban infrastructure.


CONFLUENCE, a dance piece, performed where the Los Angeles River meets the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach. Photograph by Catherine Gudis.

Only through sharing a common object of interest—the city—are we effectively bridging disciplinary divides. At UCLA and Berkeley, we are integrating the humanities and humanistic social sciences into the epistemological mix. Students and faculty have joined from history, area studies (e.g., Asian Languages and Culture, Latin American Studies), film studies, literature, performance studies, art practice, anthropology, ethnomusicology, architecture, landscape architecture, and planning. Using the rubric “urban humanities,” we have taken global cities of the Pacific Rim as our objects of interest at the broadest level, knowing that they defy conventional logics and need creative practices—and creative practitioners—to instigate new urban possibilities.

Over the past three years of this exploration, we have learned that when designers, urbanists, and humanists come together to explore some particular urban concern, there are no ready terms of analysis, grounds for interpretation, or prescriptive responses. Creative practices for engaging the concern have to be invented. Even the dimensions of any issue must be detected.

When architects consider urban density, for example, they are likely to give it material dimensions (measured in square footage or building mass, etc.) and to consider program (such as density of housing, parks, or commercial space), whereas planners will consider some of the above as well as policy (such as floor area ratio maximums) and metrics (such as residents per acre). What humanists add to the conversation is as vast as the disciplines that comprise the humanities. For example, density might be reformulated as proximity in terms of social relations between neighbors, cultural representations in film and fiction, or tensions around constructs of property. A history of the idea as well as the emplaced idea (proximity in a specific city, such as Mexico City) is informative. By broadening the basis for imagining the city, we intrinsically engage history that imparts a critical perspective on the present, enriching our understanding of contemporary circumstances, which in turn adds new dimensions to our speculations about future conditions. If we learn how proximity, in its relevant forms, is managed in the packed informal settlement zones in Mexico City—whether through the artful orientation of houses or community-based mediation processes for conflict resolution—we might begin to understand the braided system that any new densities must reference and deploy.

At the same time, a focus on the city has the power to reshape the humanist project to at least some extent. Exposed to alternative forms of pedagogy and practice, place-based speculative exploration, and a project orientation, the humanities may bolster their relevance to the everyday and the future. In so doing, they may dramatically disrupt conventional urban approaches and move from the sidelines to the center of urban activism. As the humanities undergo a marked transformation with challenges to postwar area studies designations along with energized alliances from digital to environmental humanists, activism is a distinctive characteristic of urban humanists. Rather than utopian narratives, activism underscores the significance of creative urban practices that have real world consequences and take positions that engender conscientious action. Criticism has not lost its value, but yields an additional dimension—one that bears the risk of speculation about the future. Returning to the river, poems drift out from the poets’ public readings to form collective visions in and about the urban landscape that in turn guide new possibilities for action.

That these experiments are happening in California and focus on Pacific Rim cities matters. When Saul Steinberg created his ironic 1976 “map” for the cover of The New Yorker entitled “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” its westward gaze portrayed everything between the Hudson River and the Pacific Ocean as a deserted wasteland. Indeed, American urban histories have typically looked the other direction, across the Atlantic toward ancient Greece and Rome, and the Medieval and Renaissance cities of Europe. Within the United States, New York and especially Chicago undergird our urban imaginaries; the latter provided the dominant model of the city with a singular commercial-industrial core surrounded by concentric residential rings of decreasing density and increasing socioeconomic status. This model was held to be true even though the twentieth century cities of the Southwest bore little resemblance to Chicago or other earlier gridiron economies and cultures.

Not until the mid-1980s did a group of academics codify this new order—and they were from the West Coast. Building on Michael Dear, Mike Davis (both in this issue), as well as Reyner Banham’s famous “four ecologies,” the Los Angeles School counter-posed a new polycentric suburban logic in which the hinterland organized the center, against the bull’s eye urban form forwarded by the Chicago School. Both of us played some small role in the LA School debates, when it was useful to consider the sprawling Southern California metropolis as paradigmatic.4 Whether neo-Marxist or postmodern in terms of theoretical bent, the future envisioned by LA School scholars involved further racial and ethnic segregation, advancing environmental degradation, fragmented governance, and technology-driven spatial and class divides, with little hope for more optimistic urbanities. Davis’s City of Quartz presaged a bleak future that stemmed from surrounding trauma at the time—from Rodney King and the 1992 LA Uprising to the 1994 Northridge earthquake; from Blade Runner to ballooning homelessness and Reaganomics. The LA School was dominated by planners and geographers with little benefit from architecture or the humanities. However, it is not clear that adding designers and humanists would have changed the tenor. Since that time, several turning points have caused new directions to seem more plausible: the city’s first Latino mayor was sworn into office in 2005, the seemingly endless sprawl of the city reversed when thousands of new housing units were built downtown, and artist-activist Lauren Bon turned thirty-two acres of urban wasteland into cornfields. Her next project, “Bending the River Back into the City,” will create sustainable public spaces along the LA River through the artistic engineering of a spectacular waterwheel and dam. Projects like Bon’s can open a future for the city that was hardly imaginable before, one that lifts up communities, the arts, and the environment simultaneously.

Urban humanities at Berkeley and UCLA are founded on this augmented LA School, taking into account the area’s role in the twentieth century as global producer of urban imaginaries through arts, film, music, and design, from Hollywood to hip-hop to Frank Gehry. Now, urban humanities must ask what the twenty-first century might bring.

Over time, LA scholarship has increasingly emphasized the region’s pervasive links to the Pacific Rim, along with its cultural hybridity, artistic effervescence, and openness to transgressive identities. Humanists contributed to this regional understanding, with the emergence of the digital humanities generating broad (if controversial) interest in big data and multimedia visualization for creating narratives of place and the formation of urban identities. At the same time, the rise of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area’s techno-youth culture is shaping academic ideas about urban futures in a context of deepening inequality, gentrification, and worries about climate change. Drawing on the public arts, creative place-making, design innovation, the DIY “maker” movement, and digital technology powered by big data, speculative ideas about the city have become more nuanced, tactical, political, and material (as illustrated by several of the articles in this issue).


Porciuncula, an installation on the LA River made of balloons filled with the river’s fragrance: ‘‘grass, ocean air, desiccated concrete, industrial zoning, railyards, soda cans, wild animals.’’ By LA-BOR (Jia Gu and Jonathan Crisman), 2015. Photograph by Monica Nouwens.

As such, the urban humanities constitute an emergent epistemology arising from this multidisciplinary confluence in this specific place. It is just this sort of creative discipline-crossing scholarship that can encourage new historical narratives, new contemporary interpretations of culture, and open speculation about urban futurities. In short, a manifesto for urban humanities rests on the conviction that such place-based, engaged scholarship and pedagogy will produce cadres of creative—as well as reflective—practitioners.


We can distinguish between predictable next steps in addressing problems (an urban equivalent of Thomas Kuhn’s normal science) and speculative, engaged approaches. The aim of urban humanities is not to create visionary, utopian schemes or science fiction scenarios, but instead to open new paths of possibility. For thick mapping, see Todd S. Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano, Hypercities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); for futurity, see Amir Eshel, Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013); for crisis and revolution, see Eric Cazdyn, “Disaster, Crisis, Revolution,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 106.4 (2007): 647–662.

The Mellon Program, started in 2012, is called Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, and has funded a series of related academic projects in over a dozen universities.

The term “creative” seems more ubiquitously applied to new developments than the term “green,” as in creative office or creative class. Popular adoption of Richard Florida’s ideas about the latter have done little to expand our understanding of the metropolis or guide cities toward more humane futures.

Members of the Los Angeles School included Michael Dear, Mike Davis, Ed Soja, Michael Storper, and Alan Scott, among others.

Dana Cuff is a professor, author, and scholar in architecture and urbanism at University of California, Los Angeles, where she is also the founding director of cityLAB, a think tank that explores design innovations in the emerging metropolis.

Jennifer Wolch is professor of urban planning and geography, and dean of University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design. Her most recent work analyzes connections between city form, physical activity, and public health, and seeks to address environmental justice issues by improving access to urban parks and recreational resources.


What Are the Urban Humanities?

Anthony Cascardi
Michael Dear


Photograph courtesy of Margaret Crawford.

The efforts in research and teaching that fly under the flag of the “urban humanities” represent one example of a much larger set of phenomena that have emerged across humanistic disciplines for the past two decades. That hybrid initiatives like this have appeared alongside many more broad-based interdisciplinary efforts is telling of the challenges involved in attempting to transform the knowledge and practices that had settled into more or less stable institutional configurations. The existing configurations have proven difficult to change because our institutions are less malleable than we might wish, and because they provide a sense of permanence—some would say a false sense of permanence—in the face of broad shifts in the external conditions surrounding the academic enterprise such as the withdrawal of public support for state institutions and the privatization of higher education across all sectors. But the naturalization of disciplines cannot be a good thing because it leads us to forget that the disciplines are human constructs, and that neither the objects of their study nor their methodological predilections are natural features of the world. It is not that disciplines are intrinsically pernicious, since specialization has led to greater insight and practical interventions, but that academic disciplines have progressively narrowed an appreciation of the meaning of human existence and ways in which it can be bettered.

The creation of interdisciplinary fields has been one way of moving beyond disciplinary specialization toward a more holistic appreciation of the world and its problems. Since the 1980s, interdisciplinarity has given rise to various subdisciplinary “studies” (e.g., women’s studies, gender studies, sound studies). California was on the forefront of this trend. With them there have emerged new departments and centers. Their aim has been to establish areas of inquiry not recognized by preexisting disciplines (or concealed by them) and to create institutional spaces in which they could achieve the legitimacy enjoyed by the “traditional” humanistic disciplines like philosophy, history, and English. At the same time, the very notion of the “humanities” has come under various pressures, some originating from external demands to justify their relevance to contemporary realities, and others originating organically from within the disciplines themselves, motivated by the desire to establish more meaningful connections with a broad range of worldly activity. This has given rise to the hybrid humanities.

Why the “hybrid” modifier? Taken by itself, the term “humanities” carries relatively little meaning for those disciplines internal to it, serving mostly as a convenient abstraction for scholars who need to represent their disciplines externally, or for those on the outside who often demonstrate very little knowledge of the kind of work that humanists do. By contrast, the “hybrid humanities” better describe new areas of inquiry, areas where humanists have been making productive new connections, often outside established disciplines. These connections bridge some of the time-honored questions in the humanities with a set of new and emergent methods, technologies, and materials. The digital humanities, including some of its specific foci such as digital history, are some of the most prominent examples of the hybridization of the humanities. Other fields coalescing as spatial humanities, geohumanities, urban humanities, and global urban humanities represent more recent instances of this same hybridizing effort.

The hybridization reflected in the emergent field of urban humanities has happened with the willing participation of the environmental design disciplines, including architecture, urban and regional planning, and landscape and environmental design. Indeed, some argue that both as a discipline and as a practice, architecture became hybrid early on. In lectures delivered during the 1990s, later published under the title How Architecture Got its Hump, Roger Connah argued that architecture has long been “subject to interrelations with other disciplines. Film, photography, drawing, philosophy, and language are perhaps more familiar and fashionable interrelations. Recent indications suggest that dance, music, opera, physics, chaos theories, the new science of materials, computer science and software, and even boxing and cuisine are now being explored as serious analogical sources and interference for architectural theory, prediction, space, and metaphysics.…”Add to this list the new technologies associated with geographical information systems (GIS) plus a renewed interest in place as a means of counterbalancing the anonymizing forces of globalization, and it is not difficult to see how and why an environment hospitable to collaboration would begin to emerge.

The short history of the geohumanities is instructive because it represents a transdisciplinary merger that originated outside the humanities, from geography. The movement has its origins in a 2007 conference at the University of Virginia, organized by the Association of American Geographers (AAG). At that time, the term “geohumanities” had not yet been invented. The conference’s principal presentations were later included in a collective volume entitled GeoHumanities: Art, History, and Text at the Edge of Place (Routledge, 2011). It included critical reflections, empirical analyses, topical vignettes, and artwork from many fields, organized in a four-part structure: creative places (geocreativity); spatial literacies (geotexts); visual geographies (geoimagery); and spatial histories (geohistory). Place emerged as the common analytical focus of the book’s contributors. The editors prized transdisciplinarity, which seeks a fusion of diverse disciplinary approaches into novel hybrids distinct from parent disciplines, because its nonexclusionary openness to all forms of knowing produced a kind of “democratic intelligence” incorporating different ways of seeing and offering a firmer foundation for the shift from knowledge to action. Not until the very last pages of the volume did a tentative definition of the field materialize: “The geohumanities that emerges in this book is a transdisciplinary and multimethodological inquiry that begins with the human meanings of place and proceeds to reconstruct those meanings in ways that produce new knowledge and the promise of a better-informed scholarly and political practice.” A few years later, in 2014, the AAG launched a new journal entitled GeoHumanities, with an editorial board comprised of geographers and representatives of many humanities disciplines, signaling the legitimacy of this maturing discipline.

As with the geohumanities, the global urban humanities exert an expansive force over the way the humanities have tended to operate, both at the level of theory and as a set of practices—i.e., it has encouraged expansion of the theoretical and practical fields operative among humanists with global relevance. What specifically are those expansive forces?

The humanities have long privileged texts as their model, even where their primary materials were not texts in the literal sense—for example, musical scores, or easel paintings. The dominant metaphor of the disciplines was “reading,” a term that signaled both the preeminence of texts and the fact that the work of the humanities lay principally in interpretation. But in privileging reading and interpretation, too little attention was paid to lived experience; indeed, most sophisticated theories of interpretation cautioned against making connections between what was available as text and any sense of experience at all. To make the humanities global and urban meant, first of all, attending to conditions that cannot be fully metaphorized as “texts.” They incorporate what is left out in the process of textualization—that is, all the physical, material, social, and geographical factors that happen together in real time and in real space, even if they are recorded textually in ways that can be retrieved post hoc. And second, going global and urban introduced to the humanities a much broader tool kit of representational opportunities and analytical methods—e.g., in mapping and comparative textual investigations. In short, the urban humanities expanded the field of humanistic inquiry by adding new dimensions—of time, space, mapping, method—to the relatively two-dimensional world of textual interpretation.


Photograph courtesy of Margaret Crawford

The urban humanities have also posed previously neglected questions about practice and intervention on top of, or alongside, questions of interpretation. Humanists rarely use the word “intervention,” or have done so principally in the context of discursive engagements in response to a conference paper or lecture. By contrast, profession-oriented fields such as architecture and urban planning embrace questions about what can and might be done. The hovering question—what should be done?—demands a practical response to what is but also creates an opening for speculation about the possibilities of what might be. In the zone where environmental design intersects with the humanities, humanists are drawn to think in ways that are at once more practical and more imaginative than they are accustomed to. That effort, in turn, has consequences that are potentially beneficial for the disposition of the humanities more broadly conceived. Indeed, one of the criticisms leveled at the humanities is that the disciplines are too heavily weighted toward critical analysis and take insufficient notice of the possibilities for positive transformation.It has too often been forgotten that “ideology” is only meaningful in contrast to “utopia,” and that bottomless critique will eventually eat away any hope for a constructive view of the world. In engaging with future prospects, the urban humanities have introduced a way of thinking that stands some chance of breaking free from the hermeneutics of suspicion.

Not surprisingly, much urban humanities work has drawn on the creative disciplines—art practice, new media, theatre and performance, etc. But there is an additional reason why the disciplines just mentioned have been so hospitable to this work, which has more to do with method than with subject matter. Conventional humanistic scholarship has by and large been an individual affair. Notwithstanding exemplary efforts of teamwork that have produced magnificent outcomes (e.g., the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary), humanists have operated for the most part as solo practitioners. The dominant model has been the lone scholar in the archive. Because divergence and dominance weigh more heavily than collaboration in the appraisal of humanistic research, there have been few incentives for humanists to collaborate. In the traditional humanities, the important thing is to demonstrate how one’s particular view (interpretation) diverges from those already available, and then to hope for the dominance of that view, which all others will respectfully cite, at least until they can assert some powerful divergence from it. In work coalescing around the urban humanities, where interpretation is not privileged over creativity, design, and intervention, there is greater room—indeed, an imperative—for collaborative endeavors. Because work in theater and other arts is also open to the participation of multiple actors, the convergence between these disciplines and the urban humanities is not difficult to understand. At the same time, exposure to the kinds of studio work and field study that are familiar in environmental design challenges humanists to experience what it is like to work collectively, hence less proprietarily than they are used to. These pedagogical situations have obliged humanists to explore new ways of working, drawing on skills that they may find new and strange, pressing the need to show work that is preliminary and offered in formal criticism sessions at various stages of finality, and questioned for its practical utility and application.

None of these comments should be taken as a judgment against the traditional humanities. There is simply too much of the world’s knowledge—and experience—bound in books (and musical scores, and works of art) for anyone to forsake the values of reading and interpretation. It should not be forgotten that reading itself generates new experiences. Montaigne wrote, “…there are more books about books than about any other subject.” A master of irony, and endowed with great worldly wisdom brought from experience, Montaigne did not abandon writing, but rather assumed a distanced stance in relation to the book he was writing, which he also claimed was identical with himself.

Looking ahead, gathering researchers in transdisciplinary dialogue may not be as difficult as it first seems. Scholars are already accustomed to engaging simultaneously with multiple viewpoints; this is, after all, the basis of argumentation. We are capable of assessing different kinds of evidence and readily commit to transparency—that is, being forthcoming about how our studies are framed and conclusions derived. Many scholars willingly admit to the provisionality of their findings, and the inevitability that today’s knowledges will be superseded by subsequent discoveries and reinterpretations. Remarkably, we almost always acknowledge the utility of transdisciplinary work, as if the potential of such engagement is self-evident. Given these widespread, seemingly propitious circumstances, what could stand in the way of successful collaborative practice?

Two common hurdles blocking diversity in academic discourse are exceptionalism and exclusivity. The former refers to an assertion that one’s own practice is axiomatically superior because one’s own field or discipline somehow furnishes more fundamental or analytically more powerful insights than all others; and the latter actively elevates my claim for special privilege by diminishing yours. One such expression of privilege—intra-, rather than inter-disciplinary, in this case—is the current spat in physics. It concerns the apparent willingness of many physicists to set aside the requirement for experimental confirmation of a theory, largely on the grounds that empirical verification (or falsification) of today’s ambitious “blue-sky” theorizing is impossible. In a Nature article defending “the integrity of physics,” Ellis and Silk argue against weakening the “testability requirement for fundamental physics,” because this would represent a break with “centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical.” While not prohibiting the practice of imaginative, evidence-independent inquiry, they warn that legitimacy of the scientific method is at stake, insisting that the “imprimatur of science should be awarded only to a theory that is testable.” The merit of this argument is not at issue here; far more germane is the manner in which their exceptionalism and exclusivity are used to bludgeon peers who search for new ways of seeing.


Collage by Ettore Santi.

These days, the assertions that there is no such thing as a single method or world-view and that there is no Grand Theory of Everything are neither original nor especially provocative intellectual stances. All theories are partial, even though many may possess a topical home domain, which their practitioners claim renders some special insight. British philosopher Isaiah Berlin long ago pointed out that human conflicts over differing values are real and unavoidable, and have little or no potential for satisfactory reconciliation. In the face of such radical incommensurabilities, Berlin concluded that we had better focus on learning how to live with them and how to choose between irreconcilable value systems, rather than construct intellectual conceits and imagined worlds where reconciliation may be feasible. California’s intellectual culture is favorable to this.

Beyond the academy, opposition to transdisciplinarity can be traced to the current political climate associated with neoliberal austerity and its seemingly universal mandate to “Do More With Less.” Facing intrusive performance measures, diminished support for public universities, increased emphasis on grant-getting, and proof of relevance in teaching and research, academicians of all stripes are circling their disciplinary wagons as a prelude to launching fierce counteroffenses against any and all exogenous attacks. In defense of their solipsistic worlds, scholars have invented an extraordinary vocabulary for passing judgment, and one can only marvel at the variety and nuance that we have invented to credit or discredit our peers. It’s up to practitioners of the hybrid humanities, together with their allies in the digital humanities, geohumanities, and elsewhere to reveal the gains made through their transdisciplinary collaborations. In short, they need to demonstrate the superior outcomes of collaboration.

To give two indications: classical social theory is founded in a distinction between structure and agency, or between the enduring, deep-seated practices and institutions that undergird society (such as markets, law) and the everyday voluntaristic behavior of individuals. In the past, despite the best intentions, the cleavage between structure and agency seems to have done more to separate disciplinary camps than to act as a fulcrum for articulating the connections between the two. Our experience has been that urban humanities produce superior understandings of the structure/agency connection by its self-conscious, simultaneous engagement with social theory, human experience, and social action. In addition, humanities students hitherto steeped in the “lone scholar” ethos have blossomed intellectually and creatively in response to the collective experience of the studio setting, direct community engagement, and immersion in the “maker” culture of real-world environmental design.

This is only a beginning, and much work and persuasion remain to be done. The greatest imminent challenge facing the emerging urban humanities is how it can be absorbed into the institutional setting of the university without becoming just one more programmatic emphasis in a cross-disciplinary curriculum, or even a new subdiscipline in its own right. Fortunately, examples abound of how to proceed effectively without capitulating to institutional rigor mortis. They include myriad forms of creative commons abundant in the tech world, and the blaze of experimental learning settings spreading like wildfire across campuses. It is no coincidence that many of these teaching and research start-ups include the appellation Design in their titles and manifestos.

Centuries ago the great Montaigne practiced distancing himself from his writing in order to find perspective and generate new experience. These days, perspective and innovation are more readily realized through the surprising transdisciplinary collaborations of the kind envisaged in the urban humanities.

Roger Connah, How Architecture Got Its Hump (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), xv-xvi.

Michael Dear, J. Ketchum, S. Luria and D. Richardson, eds., Geohumanities: Art, History & Text at the Edge of Place (New York: Routledge, 2011), 312.

See Michael Roth, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

Michel de Montaigne, Essays, Donald Frame, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), 818.

George Ellis and Joe Silk, “Defend the Integrity of Physics,” Nature 516 18.25 (December 2014): 321–322.

Ibid., 323.

John Gray, “The Case for Decency,” New York Review of Books, 13 July 2006, 20–22.

Anthony J. Cascardi is dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, and professor of comparative literature, rhetoric, and Spanish. He is former director of the Townsend Center for the Humanities and of the Arts Research Center.

Michael Dear is professor emeritus of city and regional planning in the University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design. His most recent book is Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the US-Mexico Divide.


Photograph by Susan Moffat.


Vol. 6, No. 3, Fall 2016



Read the latest from Boom California, Volume 6, Number 3, Fall 2016.  All articles from this issue are free and open to read.


From the Editor’s Desktop
Jason S. Sexton

The Boom List
What to do, see, read, and hear this fall in California
Boom Staff

What Are the Urban Humanities?
Anthony Cascardi, Michael Dear

Urban Humanities and the Creative Practitioner
A manifesto
Dana Cuff, Jennifer Wolch

A Boom Interview
In conversation with Jonathan Crisman and Jason S. Sexton
Karen Tei Yamashita

Practicing the Future
Exercises in immanent speculation
Jonathan Crisman

The 43
Remembering Ayotzinapa
Maricela Becerra, Lucy Seena K. Lin, Gus Wendel

Monumental Hydraulics
Diego Rivera’s Lerma Waterworks and the water temples of San Francisco
Rafael Tiffany, Susan Moffat

Relocating Romare Bearden’s Berkeley
Capturing Berkeley’s colorful diversity
Lauren Kroiz

A Boom Interview
In conversation with Jennifer Wolch and Dana Cuff
Mike Davis

The Battle of the Bulb
Nature, culture and art at a San Francisco Bay landfill
Susan Moffat

Waves of Data
Illuminating pathways with San Leandro Lights
Greg Niemeyer

Hanging Out with Cyclists
Noam Shoked

Seeking Literary Justice

La Caja Mágica in Boyle Heights
Maricela Becerra, Cat Callaghan, Will Davis, Grace Ko, Benjamin Kolder, Alejandro Ramirez Mendez

Neither Here Nor There
Engaging Mexico City and Los Angeles
Dana Cuff, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

Learning the City
Developing new networks of understanding

Jonathan Banfill, Angélica Becerra, Jeannette Mundy

The Inside-Out Museum/The Inside-Out University
A Conversation
Walter Hood, Shannon Jackson

Urban Humanities Pedagogy

The classroom, education, and New Humanities
Jonathan Banfill, Todd Presner, Maite Zubiaurre


Yosemite By Any Name Is Still the People’s Park

by Marc Norton

A critical appreciation

They may change the names, but they can’t take Yosemite from us.

Or can they?

I’ve come back to Yosemite regularly since I was a young California kid in the 1950s. Yosemite never disappoints, as one of my friends says, though it is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive for some of us to experience Yosemite.

I’ve camped in many of the park’s campgrounds, stayed in Camp Curry’s tent cabins, played cards in the Ahwahnee Hotel lobby, spent New Year’s Eve in a cheap room in the Wawona Hotel, and nearly frozen to death in a camper in the parking lot of Yosemite Lodge.

All those names have been changed and, still, Yosemite endures. But how long will the Yosemite experience be accessible for an average Californian, visiting on the cheap what seemed our park but seems increasingly less so now, even as the valley is crowded for another high season in the Sierra?

Photograph by Flickr user mjmonty.

Photograph by Flickr user mjmonty.

The problem with names in Yosemite did not start with the Delaware North corporation and their now infamous trademark claims. It started when the valley’s indigenous people were pushed out and the profiteers moved in.

In 1851, a group of white militiamen calling themselves the Mariposa Battalion, led by the aptly named James D. Savage, invaded what is now known as Yosemite Valley. They came on a mission of conquest, aiming to either remove the local natives or exterminate them in order to make the surrounding territory safe for miners, settlers, and profiteers.

The militiamen mostly focused on rounding up Indians and burning their homes and caches of food. But a few militiamen were impressed with the scenic wonders of the valley and took the time to name them. The first thing they had to name was the valley itself. The Indians called the valley Ahwahnee—at least that is how it was rendered in English. Ahwahnee has been variously translated as “Deep Grassy Valley” or as “Place of the Big Mouth.” But the invaders wanted to treat the place as their own, so they renamed it Yosemite. The etymology of the name remains in dispute, but it has stuck.

Many years later in 1927, when a certain majestic hotel was named the Ahwahnee, it was without any payment to the people who named the valley. It took a certain corporate entity named Delaware North to make a monetary claim to the original name of the valley nearly a century later.

At one point in the war waged by the Mariposa Battalion, an encampment of Indians was found on a lake northeast of the valley, not far from what is now known as Tuolumne Meadows. The militiamen told Chief Tenaya, the leader of the group, that they were going to name the lake in his honor. Tenaya protested that the lake already had a name. “We call it Pyweack,” he is reported to have said, as he pointed to a group of nearby glistening peaks and told the militiamen that the name meant the lake of shining rocks. The militiamen had other shiny rocks in mind, particularly gold. They disregarded Tenaya’s claim to name the lake.

Nobody ever found gold in Yosemite Valley, not in the ground anyway. But it did not take long for profiteers to realize that there was money to be made from tourists here. Long before there were any roads, even wagon roads, there were gutsy tourists ready to take a long and difficult saddle ride to see the old haunts of Tenaya’s people—and they had money to spend.

One of the first hotels to be set up, in 1858, was called the Upper Hotel, built near Yosemite Falls. In 1864, the Upper Hotel was taken over by James Mason Hutchings and renamed Hutchings House.

The ensuing struggle over Hutchings House was the beginning of the legal battles over property and names in Yosemite.

Neither Hutchings, nor those who preceded him, nor any of the other hoteliers in Yosemite Valley ever paid for the land they appropriated. In the spirit of the day, the land was there for the taking by homesteaders. It wasn’t until 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act, that ownership of the land became an issue. The Yosemite Grant Act set aside Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to be managed by the state of California “for public use, resort, and recreation… inalienable for all time,” although “leases not exceeding ten years may be granted for portions of said premises.”

Hutchings and other squatters in the valley took umbrage at the idea that they did not own the land on which they operated. They mounted a legal challenge to the new state of affairs, a case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. In 1872, the court ruled that Hutchings and his allies had no valid claims to the land.

Robert Binnewies, a former park superintendent at Yosemite who recently wrote a book entitled Your Yosemite: A Threatened Public Treasure, states:

“[While] Hutchings was reduced from presiding as presumptive landowner of… some of the most prized scenic real estate on earth to becoming a tenant functioning under permit at the pleasure of the [State] Board of Park Commissioners… this stalwart trailblazer was not left empty handed. He was compensated by the State of California for the structures and bridges he had constructed, receiving $24,000 [a princely sum in those days] and the right to continue to operate his hotel as a public benefit, a decision that set the stage for concessionaire services in national parks that continues to this day.”

Photograph by Christina B Castro, via Flickr.

Photograph by Christina B Castro, via Flickr.

That was no small precedent. It established the right of private, profit-seeking concessionaires to operate in national parks. It ultimately brought Delaware North to Yosemite. It also laid the foundation for the current dispute between Delaware North, the park’s new concessionaire Aramark, and the National Park Service over naming rights in the park.

Binnewies’s book is full of insights into the history of Yosemite, particularly commercial development in the park. Binnewies, who was superintendent between 1979 and 1986, describes Yosemite Valley as “the seat of the largest commercial operation in any national park, anywhere in the world.” He writes that there is “a constant push by commercial vendors for more profit centers” and “a constant resistance by park administrators and environmental advocates to further development.”

Ed Hardy, head of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, is the chief villain in Binnewies’s story. “Hardy’s responsibility was to maximize profits for his corporate employer,” writes Binnewies, “while mine was to maximize preservation for my public employer; the scale on which our conflicting agendas rested was unsteady.”

Mixing his metaphors, Binnewies later writes, “Hardy and I were in the same canoe but attempting to paddle in opposite directions, making it difficult to avoid capsizing.”

Hardy had come to Yosemite several years before Binnewies when the Music Corporation of America bought the Curry Company in 1973. MCA was a holding company that was involved not only in the music recording industry, but also in film by virtue of its ownership of Universal Pictures. MCA had additional holdings in television, book publishing, and more.

As Binnewies described it, the Curry Company was now managed “from afar, sometimes by executives who never had or would visit Yosemite.” One of Hardy’s first moves was to propose an aerial tramway from YosemiteValley to Glacier Point, “allowing customers to be dramatically levitated through 3,000 feet of airspace amidst breathtaking scenery,” writes Binnewies. According to Hardy, this would be a means of providing alternative transportation that would relieve visitors from their dependence on automobiles. The tramway also would have transported guests to a rebuilt Glacier Point Hotel, which had burned down in 1969.

Neither of these proposals ever got significant traction, but MCA had more plans. Their next “gambit to cash in on Yosemite” was a television series entitled Sierra, featuring “crime-busting Yosemite Rangers,” Binnewies writes. The production crew, “not liking the natural color of some rocks in a scene shot in Yosemite, decided to paint them.” Mercifully, the show lasted only three months, so the damage was limited.

The funniest story Binnewies tells about his time in Yosemite is about a visit by James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 1983. When visiting Yosemite in 1982. “Watt made clear that he always wanted me by his side when photos were taken,” Binnewies writes. “He knew of the good image that park rangers had nationwide and wanted to be so associated, but only for the photo opportunities.” When Binnewies tried to talk to Watt about development in the valley, “Watt quickly cut me off by saying ‘the more hotels, the better—fill up the whole valley.’”

The Curry Company didn’t just want to fill the valley with hotel rooms. It wanted wilderness areas drawn so that the rim of the valley would also be open to development. Imagine standing in Yosemite Valley today and looking up at hotels and restaurants on the rim. The Curry Company also wanted to expand the area on which the High Sierra Camps in the Yosemite backcountry stand, from about two acres to thirty acres each, “allowing the tiny camps to ultimately morph into alpine villages of a sort.”

All these plans were defeated eventually, and Binnewies tells the tale well, including the decisive interventions of the late, great Congressman Philip Burton. In the end, however, this reader was left wondering about the stories Binnewies didn’t tell, the names left unnamed.


Photograph by Ray Krebs, via Flickr.

Another author who has written a lot about Yosemite, historian Alfred Runte, complains about how in 1983, near the end of Binnewies’s time in Yosemite:

“A spacious lounge at Yosemite Lodge was gutted, subdivided, and wholly replaced by a $262,000 bar, conference meeting rooms, and lodge store annex… Park Superintendent Robert Binnewies further applauded its brightness and spaciousness, noting that for once problem drinkers would be ‘forced into the light.’ The old location, he explained, was very cramped and too dark, making it difficult for park rangers to monitor everyone’s behavior.”

I remember that lounge the way it used to be—a space where visitors could warm themselves by a fire without having to buy anything—and what it became: one more “profit center,” as Binnewies describes it in his book.

Binnewies eventually capsized himself. In 1986, he was transferred out of Yosemite to a new post in the park service when it was revealed that he had secretly recorded a conversation with Chuck Cushman, a property owner in Wawona, who went on to found the American Land Rights Association, a national organization dedicated to “protecting private property rights” inside national parks and on other federal lands.

Binnewies eventually left the park service but remains passionate about Yosemite. Today, he serves on the advisory board of Restore Hetch Hetchy, a group working to remove a dam and reservoir that filled a valley in the park said to be the equal of Yosemite Valley before it was destroyed to provide water storage for San Francisco.

In his book, Binnewies relates the events that brought Delaware North to Yosemite after he left.

In 1990, a Japanese company, Matsushita Electric Industrial Company, bought MCA. Matsushita, now known as Panasonic, is one of the largest consumer electronics firms in the world. This created a furious, chauvinistic uproar about Yosemite concessions being managed by a foreign company. Matsushita agreed to sell the Curry Company, including about 800 buildings, to the nonprofit National Park Foundation for $49.5 million.

The deal transferred all Curry Company assets to the National Park Service. This meant that ownership of all the hotels, restaurants, and associated concessions in the park became public property. This could and should have been an opportunity for the National Park Service to take direct control of almost all of the commercial activities in Yosemite National Park. Why not run Yosemite accommodations for the benefit of visitors and the public at large, instead of the benefit of a handful of corporate profiteers?

Instead, a “nonprofit idea was sparked to life,” Binnewies writes. Conceding that there should be competition among nongovernmental entities for the right to run Yosemite’s accommodations, an impressive group of movers and shakers put together a bid for a concession contract to be managed by a new nonprofit called the Yosemite Restoration Trust Services Corporation.

The National Park Service under President George H.W. Bush ruled that the Yosemite Restoration Trust Services Corporation was “not qualified” for the contract, Binnewies writes, “supposedly due to a lack of sufficient cash in the bank and no prior resort-management experience.” The Bush administration “was not wresting the [Curry Company] contract from Matsushita in order to convert National Park Service concession activities to not-for-profit status… [The administration] was simply eager to pass along those activities at Yosemite to the next private vendor and the next group of shareholders.”

Delaware North won the contract.

The roots of today’s fight over Delaware North’s claim to own the trademark rights to Yosemite place names—including the Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite Lodge, Curry Village, the Wawona Hotel, Badger Pass, and even Yosemite National Park itself—lie in the fine print of that contract.

But a dispute over names, as revealing and irksome as it may be, is only a sideshow to the real issue involved in the commercialization of Yosemite. The real issue is why our national parks are used as profit centers for private corporations in the first place.

In the words of Alfred Runte, the “fundamental flaw” in how Yosemite is run is “the privatization—for profit—of the sale of food, lodging, supplies, and transportation to incoming visitors.”

In March 2015, Derrick Crandall, a spokesman for the National Parks Hospitality Association, an organization that represents concessionaires, told the online National Parks Traveler that there is “an opportunity to enhance the ability of visitors to enjoy the park experience.”

How? The one concrete example Crandall gave was this: “…when you look at Yosemite Valley, and you have 1,500 rooms [including tent cabins]… I’m not afraid to say at some point we should look at how we upgrade those rooms so that 1,500 rooms have 1,500 bathrooms.”

Crandall’s math is a little suspect. According to the National Park Service, there are only 1,053 “lodging units” in Yosemite Valley, plus 640 campsites, not Crandall’s 1,500 rooms.

But you get the idea. It is not more bathrooms that Crandall and his constituents want. It is more hotel rooms. They don’t care about tent cabins, bathrooms, or visitors who may not be able to pay hotel rates. What they really want are more customers with more money to spend.

Photograph by Flickr user Jasperdo.

Photograph by Flickr user Jasperdo.

Crandall also testified before a House subcommittee last year that the National Park Service should allow “dynamic pricing of services”—that is, higher charges for visitors at times of higher demand—in order to “increase franchise fees to the NPS by 50 percent within three years” and, not coincidentally, provide bigger profits for concessionaires.

Chris Belland, CEO of Historic Tours of America, told the same House subcommittee, “Recreation and tourism are a trillion dollar industry, and national parks are widely regarded as a top asset of this industry.”

Photograph by Flickr user Chris D 2006.

Photograph by Flickr user Chris D 2006.

Just how and when did our national parks become an asset of industry?

The concessionaires are not the only ones who have dollar signs in mind. The National Park Service developed a plan to tear down the 245 rooms at Yosemite Lodge and replace them with 440 units in four new three-story structures, plus a new parking lot for 395 more cars. The same plan called for all of the tent-cabins in Curry Village to be replaced with permanent lodging. This plan was called Alternative 6 in the Merced River Plan, adopted in 2014.

The park service created Alternative 6 for the Merced River Plan and then rejected it in favor of Alternative 5, which calls for replacing fifty-two tent cabins in Curry Village with new hard-sided “cabin/hotel rooms” in two-story structures. This plan has gotten little publicity, but it could change Curry Village much more than renaming it “Half Dome Village.”

John Muir once wrote:

“Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded. Thus the Yosemite Park, the beauty, glory of California and the nation, Nature’s own mountain wonderland, has been attacked by spoilers ever since it was established, and this strife, I suppose, must go on as part of the eternal battle between right and wrong.”

And, yet, even in 1880, a visitor to Yosemite named Lieutenant Colonel William Francis Butler could observe:

“They have written much about it; they have painted and photographed it many times. They have made roads and bridle-paths to it, built hotels and drinking saloons in it, brought the cosmopolite cockney to it, excursioned to it, picnicked in it, scraped names upon its rocks, levied tolls by its waterfalls, sung Hail! Columbia beneath the shadows of its precipices, swallowed smashes and slings under its pine-trees; outraged, desecrated, and profaned it, but still it stands an unmatched monument hewn by ice and fire from the very earth itself.”

Yosemite never disappoints—by any name. Be sure to visit while you still can.

Photograph by Flickr user TVZ Design.

Photograph by Flickr user TVZ Design.


Marc Norton is a union member, political activist, organizer, and writer in San Francisco. His website is http://www.MarcNorton.us.


Let There Be a Firmament in the Midst of the Waters

by Brock Winstead

Treasure Island, then, now, and again

This is an excerpt from Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1. 

At its lowest points, the levee ringing the former naval station of Treasure Island clears the lapping brackish waters of San Francisco Bay by about four feet during the highest tides.1 According to current sea-level-rise projections, the bay could overtop the levee sometime this century. The return of Treasure Island to the bay whence it came would start with a few exuberant splashes during storms and extreme high tides, then more routine flooding at very high tides, and then flooding every day, twice a day, beginning a slow conversion of the island to tidal wetlands, and finally history.

Of course, that will happen only if the levee isn’t built higher or if Treasure Island doesn’t rise up to match the encroaching waters. That’s exactly what’s planned as part of a long-awaited redevelopment on the island, set to get underway later this year. Solving the problem by raising the levee alone would wall off the island from its spectacular views of downtown San Francisco, the East Bay, and the Golden Gate, which planners deemed unacceptable (and future residents would likely agree). Instead, they’ve assembled a mix of mitigation measures. They’ll increase levee heights a few feet in some places and truck in fill to raise the elevation of the developed parts of the island. They’ll build a robust new storm-drain system and require that the base floors of all new buildings and transportation infrastructure sit three-and-a-half feet above the projected 100-year water level. They acknowledge that even in the near term, during certain high-water events like storms, some of the open spaces may develop temporary ponds—a preview of coming attractions, perhaps.

Sea level rise is something developers are now required to consider when planning new projects along the shore of San Francisco Bay. But it wasn’t on the minds of the people who began filling in a stretch of shoals in the center of the bay to create Treasure Island in 1936. They had no idea that a warming planet and rising waters would one day threaten the mile-long chamfered rectangle they were “reclaiming.” They were focused instead on a much more foreseeable challenge: building Treasure Island so that it could host a World’s Fair, the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939.


Site map of the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island. Click here to view larger map.

Into the Void Pacific, by University of California, Berkeley associate professor of architecture Andrew M. Shanken, undertakes a detailed examination of the politics and processes of design that produced the layout, monuments, and buildings of the 1939 fair, and how those buildings were executed and received. Within his design history, Shanken considers the fair as an expression of identity and ambition, a projection of power—America’s, California’s, and San Francisco’s power—into a new Pacific world order.

Shanken’s book is also about how we try to build for a future that we think is coming, and how we frequently get it wrong.

Treasure Island and the new bridges, looking west.

Treasure Island and the new bridges, looking west. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room.

The 1939 fair was, as Shanken points out, a “pretext” to accelerate the creation of Treasure Island itself, where San Francisco planned to build a new major airport after the exposition’s end. By the early 1930s, civic leaders looking for the next engine of development turned their gazes skyward. They saw a future in which airborne transportation would determine a city’s fortunes, and they set about building the infrastructure necessary to seize it for San Francisco’s benefit. Adjacent to the natural Yerba Buena Island, where the two spans of a newly proposed Bay Bridge would meet, Treasure Island was thought to be an ideal place for a new airport, providing easy access to San Francisco and Oakland. Build the bridge, and a new island airport begins to seem practical. Propose a fair to celebrate the new bridge. Use the fair to speed up the creation of the island for the airport. It helped that federal funding through the Works Progress Administration was available for this audacious building spree.

Shanken argues that the bridge-fair-airport scheme was San Francisco’s gambit in a competition for West Coast economic dominance. San Francisco saw itself in a race with other cities, in particular Los Angeles, but its growth was constrained by its peninsular geography. The Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, both built in the 1930s, were attempts to escape those confines, and they helped the city expand its influence over the wider region. Its state-spanning and region-serving water system, its railroad connections, and its then-robust seaport had also been critical to San Francisco’s growth.

Like the bridge and the island airport, the 1939 fair was a tool for expressing and, city leaders hoped, realizing San Francisco’s goals for the future its elected and business elite saw coming. Shanken explains that, with the fair, San Francisco was willing itself to become “the hub of what civic leaders imagined as an emerging Pacific civilization that would supplant the Atlantic world.” That no such “Pacific civilization” existed seemed not to bother the fair’s designers; they would create one. They would “transplant and synthesize” elements of the distinct cultures ringing the great ocean and make California “the melting pot of the Pacific.”

Shanken attempts to make sense of the Golden Gate International Exposition’s muddled program and ideology. The design of the fair’s buildings and their contents, he writes, aimed to position the city as the center of a vast western region that extended across the Pacific. The City’s regional consciousness had imperial ambitions. The rhetoric of the GGIE tapped into this idea, extending the reach of imperial San Francisco to the Pacific in a moment when air transportation promised to shrink the oceans and make such a plan possible. The immense symbolic power expressed by the China Clipper landing at Treasure Island brought these associations into plain view. The name of the island itself echoed the sentiment. And so would the architecture become an accomplice of this fantasy.

Into the Void Pacific is rich with drawings, photographs, and passages from documents and correspondence by the fair’s designers, visitors, and critics that document this fantasy-abetting architectural enterprise. Shanken re-creates the look and experience of the fair as it was at the time—which is helpful, since almost none of its buildings are standing today. Visiting Treasure Island now, it is almost impossible to picture the Golden Gate International Exposition as it stood in 1939 and 1940, because it left so few traces on the ground.

Even before the fair opened in February 1939, its fever dream of a unified “Pacific civilization” was being undermined by reality. Japan, which had occupied Manchuria since 1932, launched a full-scale invasion of China in 1937. (Reflecting its own grand Pacific ambitions, Japan set up an ornate, 50,000-square-foot pavilion at the fair—the largest of any foreign country. China had no official participation.) By the fair’s end on 29 September 1940, Japan had taken control of French Indochina and signed the Tripartite Pact with Italy and Germany, creating what would be called the “Axis” powers. There was no Pacific world in contrast with an Atlantic world, as the fair had offered. There was simply one world, and it was at war.

Detail of construction of the “nave” of the Federal Building. From the Visual Resources Center, University of California, Berkeley.


When the fair ended, the United States was still more than a year from formally joining that war, but the momentum of global events was clear. In early 1941, the Navy leased Treasure Island from San Francisco and opened a receiving center there, and in the spring of 1942 it acquired the island from the city outright (though not without protest from San Francisco over the low price paid).2 As it transformed the island from playground to training ground, the Navy demolished or paved over most of the exposition’s buildings, monuments, and formal courtyards.

Today, only four original buildings remain. They include two large hangars and a semicircular administration building, aligned on the island’s southern edge, which had been designed to serve the airport that never was. (The administration building is even topped with a small control tower in anticipation of its intended use.) The fourth, a model home from the fair called the “California Home of the West,” has been altered significantly and now houses a restaurant and banquet space called the Oasis Café.3

The rest of Treasure Island is covered with a hodge-podge of open spaces and structures built during its use as a naval station from 1942 to 1997: warehouses, classroom buildings, offices, apartments, and other buildings in various states of occupancy, disrepair, or outright abandonment. About 2,000 people live in the apartments today. There’s plenty of parking, though some lots are chained off with regularly spaced red, white, and blue shields bearing the words “US GOVT PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING.” The word “NO” is the largest element. Other parts of the island are closed to entry with a different kind of sign: yellow rectangles warning of radioactive contamination—another legacy of the Navy years, though not as tangible as the buildings.

This utilitarian, decrepit, partly toxic landscape is a far cry from the spectacle that the fair must have presented, and that is captured in the photographs and diagrams of Into the Void Pacific. Shanken’s book can help us with the difficult trick of seeing Treasure Island’s past. But it’s harder to see its future.

The plans for Treasure Island’s redevelopment call for razing most of the structures on the island and replacing them with, among other elements, up to 8,000 housing units, 140,000 square feet of commercial space, 100,000 square feet of offices, three hotels, 300 acres of open space, and a new ferry terminal.4 Demolition of some existing structures has begun, but the full project is expected to take about twenty years to complete. (Given the nature of California planning and environmental laws, this may well prove optimistic.) The plans approved to date give a rough idea of what will be built where, but later phases will add details to this new small city in the middle of the bay. Right now, it’s a gauzy rendering.

Part of the difficulty of imagining the past and the future of Treasure Island may have to do with the island’s fundamental impermanence. Buildings burn, fall apart, are demolished and replaced. Land, though—we’re not used to land going away. Perhaps we should work to accustom ourselves to this idea, but for now, our senses struggle to accommodate it.


Painting of the Tower of the Sun, Golden Gate International Exposition, by Chesley Bonestell. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Heather Fowler.


Thanks to Burrito Justice for his map of the Treasure Island fair site.

1. Moffatt & Nichol Engineers, “Treasure Island Development Project Coastal Flooding Study,” April 2009, http://sftreasureisland.org/sites/sftreasureisland.org/files/migrated/ftp/devdocs/Tsunami,%20Seismic,%20SLR%20Detail-%20File%20110291%202%20of%202.pdf.

2. “Treasure Isle Goes to Navy,” San Francisco News, 17 April 1942,

3. “A House That Many Architects Have Dreamed of Building,” Architect and Engineer (June 1939): 57.

4. The Treasure Island redevelopment plans approved thus far are available at http://sftreasureisland.org/development-project.

5. For more on this, read “The Man Who Helped Save the Bay by Trying to Destroy It” by Charles Wollenberg for Boom: http://www.boomcalifornia.com/2015/04/the-man-who-helped-save-san-francisco-bay-by-trying-to-destroy-it/.

6. J.M Ferrito, “Ground Motion Amplification and Seismic Liquefaction: A Study of Treasure Island and the Loma Prieta Earthquake,” Naval Civil Engineering Laboratory (June 1992), http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a253945.pdf.


Imperial Landscapes

by Noé Montes

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

Editor’s note: Photographer Noé Montes knows the Imperial Valley of California as few do. His long relationship with the land began in childhood, first taking it in through the car window as his family looked for work in the fields of the vast valley bordering Mexico south of the Salton Sea. In his twenties, Montes crisscrossed the valley when he worked as a farm equipment repair technician.

Though possessed by a desire to photograph the Imperial Valley since he first learned to use a camera, Montes hadn’t acted on that desire until recently. Last year, with a journalism fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, he began a project to document the valley’s landscapes and people. He continued that work in this photo essay for Boom.

Montes sees the valley’s spare environment as not just aesthetically compelling, but also saturated with meaning—meaning that has changed over time, and that continues to change as California agricultural changes.

“I thought about the pictures I would make here for many, many years,” he says. “I am, of course, seeing the same things that have always been there, but these things are now imbued with much more history and meaning. They speak to me now of systemic, historic, abuse of power.”

The Imperial Valley “is very rich in resources, but the people who live there are almost all very poor,” Montes says. “This needs to change.”

Photograph by Flickr user Jason Pier in DC.

The Code of the Desert

by Geoff Nicholson

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

In one of those bits of LA synchronicity that no longer surprise me much, I happened to talk to Ed Ruscha at a party in John Lautner’s “Chemosphere” the day after I’d watched the 1972 documentary Rayner Banham Loves Los Angeles. Ruscha appears in the film, discussing the aesthetics of the gas station. In our conversation, Ruscha reminded me—not that I needed much reminding—of Banham’s assertion that people in the desert are very respectful of things that belong there and have a tendency to shoot things that don’t.

The relevant passage appears in Travels in America Deserta, where Banham writes: “Whatever reasons Americans may pretend for taking a gun out into the desert, most of them are going to fire at road signs, water tanks, memorial plaques, wind pumps or old beer cans.…Even if it is no more that than a symptom of mindless vandalism, this mania for shooting at human artifacts is not quite senseless: the identifiable humanness of their origins gives these objects a different status from everything else in view. The works of man inevitably attract the attention of mankind.”

I would add a couple of things. First, certain items are taken into the desert specifically so that they can be shot at: those beer cans, of course, and various domestic appliances, televisions, and computer screens, all the way up to cars and trucks. I’d also say that I’ve seen quite a few cacti and Joshua trees that have been on the receiving end of “the attention of mankind.”

But in general terms, I think Banham was on to something. Most of us have our own, very specific idea of what does and doesn’t “belong” in the desert. And if you see something you think shouldn’t be there, then sure, why not shoot it? When it comes to architecture, in the broadest sense, to desert structures, whether domestic or commercial, or industrial or military, the question of “belonging” becomes far more complicated. An open-pit borax mine is clearly a blot on the landscape, in my view, but then, if you ask me, so is a solar farm.

We might not want to shoot out the windows of that James Bond villain house that somebody’s built on the top of an otherwise untouched desert outcrop—all villains live in modern houses, as singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane observes—but in some cases, we definitely wish somebody would take a bulldozer to it.

It’s now the best part of thirty years since I first stepped foot in the California desert, as one more Englishman living out his own, still no doubt rather derivative, desert fantasy. To say that I immediately fell in love with the desert isn’t quite accurate, since in many ways I was already in love with it, or with an idea of it, long before I ever arrived.

Photograph by Flickr user Jason Pier in DC.

Like most Europeans, and indeed a great many Americans, I first knew the desert from photographs, movies, and literature. I’d done my time looking at the desert photographs of Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, watching Vanishing Point and Baghdad Café, and even watching Roadrunner cartoons. I’d read Travels in America Deserta and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And in due course I traveled to Barstow solely because of that opening:We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Inevitably, some of these depictions of the desert were a lot more “accurate” and “authentic” than others, though the desert of the real made them all suspect, including my own firsthand observations.

I was drawn to the forms of the territory, the beauty and the emptiness of the desert itself, but I was always far more moved by a landscape that contained some human element, an intersection of the natural and the manmade: a road, a prospector’s cabin, an isolated motel, a gas station, a store that might or might not still be in business.

I could see there was a contradiction here. In one sense, you might think “naturally,” I wanted the desert to be pristine, uninhabited, untouched by human presence. But how could it be if I was seeing it through the lens of images somebody else had made of it, reading descriptions by people who had been there before me? The human presence was inevitable and was, in fact, part of my attraction to it, but it also felt like a kind of desecration. The paradox is one I have never quite been able to escape.

My first desert trip was remarkably free-form and aimless. It involved a lot of driving, a lot of walking, and a considerable amount of confusion. A lot of the time I didn’t know what I was looking for, and I usually didn’t know what I had found. In this state, I came across the strange, chunky, elemental, abandoned cabins strewn around Wonder Valley, east and north of Joshua Tree. I now know that they exist in other parts of the Mojave, too.

There was, and remains, something both improbable and archetypal about those cabins, their strangely perfect, geometrical proportions, sometimes with muted, dusty pink, stucco walls that stand out against the pale yellow sand, sometimes not much more than wooden skeletons. They looked utterly out of place in one sense; but given the patina of time and neglect, they also fit right in. I had the sense that some careless, god-sized giant had been using the Mojave as his own personal model railroad layout, and these were the miniature buildings used to add scale and detail. There was also, if I’m honest about it, something a little scary about them.

The majority of those cabins were in quiet ruin when I first saw them, and they looked as though they’d been that way for a good long time. I had no idea who had, or ever could have, lived in these cabins, but I imagined some grizzled, snaggle-toothed, half-crazed, desert rat. Not exactly.

In 1938 Congress passed the Small-Tract Homestead Act, giving away five-acre parcels of land to those who agreed to build a small, habitable structure within two years. The scheme didn’t really take off until after World War II; but once that was out of the way, there was a minor building boom in the Mojave. People like things that are free. Some built their own cabins from scratch. But local contractors also came up with schemes for ready-designed buildings that fit the government guidelines.

Homesteading had been used historically to distribute land to farmers, but clearly there was no farming to be done here. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything to be done, and few reasons at all for many people to want to live here full-time. Consequently, many of the new owners, rather than grizzled desert rats, tended to be Bohemian Angelinos who wanted vacation homes conveniently located a couple of hours from the city. Most people, however, evidently didn’t find them as convenient as all that, hence the abandonment.

Today, many cabins remain, sometimes in a state of gorgeous ruin, and are occasionally used for art projects and activities of one kind and another. Poking around in them, as I sometimes do, I often see evidence that somebody has crashed or squatted there in recent times, but these days even the most rugged individualists tend to want something a bit more substantial, a shipping container, a trailer, a boxcar, a prefabricated metal building, complete with solar power and swamp cooler. And who can blame them?

Photograph by Flickr user Jason Pier in DC.

Occasionally, people complain that the homesteader cabins are cluttering up the desert and should be demolished and cleared away, the desert made clean and spotless again. It’s easy enough to see their point and easy, too, to feel a genuine ambivalence. Sure, in one sense they’re utterly out of place, but they look so good, so picturesque. Fortunately, inertia plays a big part in desert life. Bulldozers seem plentiful, but the urge to remove the cabins doesn’t seem all that pressing. One way or another, they endure.

Thirty years ago, when I first saw those cabins, I was sure I wanted to own one of them—though since I was then living some five-and-a-half-thousand miles away in London, it seemed the most improbable of dreams. Today, I now live about a hundred and fifty miles away, and although the dream hasn’t died, and I’ve thought hard about it, and looked at a lot of cabins and quasi-ruins along with their attendant five-acre patches of desert, with a sincere view to buying one, it still hasn’t come to fruition. Did I mention desert inertia?

One of the more serious drawbacks to owning a five acre spread, is that five acres really doesn’t count for much in the wide open spaces of the Mojave Desert. Solitude and isolation are so much harder to come by than you might at first imagine. If you really want to separate yourself from humanity, you need a good couple of hundred acres. If you own a five-acre patch and your immediate neighbor likes to hammer sheet metal and breed pit bulls, you’re going to know all about it.

Consider, as a case study, the Black Desert House in Yucca Valley, attributed to Marc Atlan Design, with Oller and Pejic, architects, a blocky low-slung construction, its matt exterior as dark as a stealth fighter. Consider the wording on the website designed to sell it: “Beyond shelter, Black Desert House is an artistic counter-point to a landscape born of fire, and sculpted over the last 100 million years. Conceived to read as a shadow cast within great piles of monzogranite boulders, the residence offers the quintessential desert experience: immersion into the timelessness of the vast desert panorama.”

But then the clincher—the killer—that it’s “sited at a cooler elevation of over 4,000 feet on 2.5 acres.” Two and half acres? Dude. That’s nothing. Absolutely nothing. You’re likely to have squads of ATVs running around your boundaries. More than that, you can be sure that at least some of your neighbors are going to be looking in your direction and thinking that this black, million-dollar bunker really doesn’t belong there. Of course, you can also be sure that whoever eventually buys the house isn’t going to care much about what the neighbors think.

When it comes to the presence of art in the desert, there’s a whole different set of issues about belonging. Spray painting faces or skulls onto native rocks we can all agree is just plain bad and wrong. But what about simpler interventions, like spray painting a face on a shack that’s already in ruins? What about land art? Say, rocks arranged into spirals or circles or cairns? There’s actually something deeply moving about walking through the wilderness and coming across an arrangement of rocks or sand, knowing that someone’s been there and taken the time and trouble to signal something for the next passerby. Even if you don’t know what it means, and you don’t particularly like this kind of intervention, it doesn’t seem the greatest of sins. Nature will eventually reassert itself.

But how about a ten-acre plot strewn with massive sculptures made from various kinds of domestic and industrial detritus? I’m thinking of the Noah Purifoy sculpture park in Joshua Tree. Part of the land was a gift from Ed Ruscha. The works are frequently ramshackle constructions that often resemble buildings of one kind or another: a theater, a hangar, a bunker, a bridge. Nothing there is strictly speaking “natural,” very little comes from the desert itself, but the works nevertheless do fit quite well. Much of it looks as though it’s falling apart. Purifoy famously insisted, “I do assemblage. I don’t do maintenance.” Some of the locals are no doubt less than entranced by Purifoy’s works. But the attitude I’ve observed in the neighbors who live in the more conventional nearby houses is that they can live pretty happily with the art. It’s the art-loving visitors they have trouble with.

One of the works that best shows Purifoy’s gifts of assembly alongside his sense of humor and irony is a large “architectural” piece titled “Ode to Frank Gehry.” As far as I know, Gehry has never built in the California desert. Purifoy’s work offered to correct this with an assemblage of white corrugated metal, struts, and a skim of concrete that certainly looks as “deconstructed” as any of Gehry’s work.

Purifoy recently had a major exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and I was afraid that a gallery setting wouldn’t show his work to its best advantage. A patina of desert dust and grime seems to be a necessary part of the work. I think you could argue that a certain amount of over-restoration had gone on. Some of the work looked a little too spruced up, but all in all the show was a triumph. Not least of its attractions, “Ode to Frank Gehry” had, by some transportational magic, been temporarily relocated to the museum’s main courtyard. Did it look out of place there? Why, yes, it did. But it also looked great. You can take the art out of the desert, but you can’t quite take the desert out of the art.

If you were in search of a different structure that looks much like an ode to Gehry, though one built in 1958, several years before Gehry established his first architectural practice in Los Angeles, you could do worse than go to the Salton Sea and take a look at Albert Frey’s North Shore Yacht Club. Here, too, you’ll see corrugated metal and big, basic, curved geometric shapes, though here the overall effect is nautical moderne, complete with faux portholes. It was a wreck when I first saw it and still had a sign out front announcing the Aces and Spades club. But now it’s been restored to become what is surely one of the world’s very coolest-looking community centers.

Frey, born in Switzerland and a follower of Le Corbusier, first arrived in the American desert, specifically Palm Springs, in 1934 and five years later moved there permanently. He stayed for sixty years and became one of Palm Springs’s preeminent modernist architects. And who’s to say he couldn’t have been successful in a different city? But he thrived on both the environment and the freedom he was allowed here. When the planners at Palm Springs City Hall looked at the design he’d drawn up for his second residence here, a house built directly into the rock, they concluded that it was crazy, but they didn’t try to stop him.

Palm Springs isn’t such a bad place to be crazy. It was, and in certain respects remains, a fun city, a recreational oasis where people go to play away from prying eyes. The fact that historically many of these players have been movie types with an easy-come, easy-go attitude toward money has only increased the tendency for architectural experimentation. Bob Hope hardly seemed part of any avant-garde, but he lived happily in a house designed by John Lautner that had the feel of being inside the crater of volcano.

Photograph by Robert Gourley, via Flickr.

Even the banks in Palm Springs look ironic. Whereas in much of the world people want their financial institutions to be housed in buildings of classical solidity, in Palm Springs one of the most exciting buildings I know is the Bank of America. Sweeping white concrete and blue mosaic, it claims to be inspired by Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel. It was built by Victor Gruen Associates.

Baker is, in many ways, the anti–Palm Springs, a rough, poor, but likeable desert town, 150 miles or so from LA, just off Interstate 15, with a population of about 700, a place to stop for gas or lunch. When I first went there twenty years back, it seemed to be striving even as it struggled, and it was home to the world’s largest thermometer, 134 feet tall, a genuinely impressive, if nevertheless absurd, structure. It was there to draw trade and attention to the Bun Boy diner and motel. In the gift shop, you could buy a detailed model of the building that housed a thermometer. I bought one.

Diner and motel are currently closed, though the thermometer remains and still works, at least some of the time. The Bun Boy used to be one of a handful of perfectly decent motels in town. Some are still standing but closed; others have vanished off the face of the earth. Just one remains in business: the Wills Fargo, a classic, old-style establishment, with a white arcaded frontage that looks OK from a distance. It gets some amusingly terrible online reviews: “The spider webs were nice in the glow of the sunlight coming through the ceiling,” writes a Trip Advisor member.

The place I used to stay in Baker, and one of the last to close, was Arne’s Royal Hawaiian. It wasn’t the Ritz, but the rooms were big and clean, with shag carpet that came part way up the walls, and some fixtures and fittings you could regard as mid-century if you put your mind to it.

The Polynesian theme was pretty much restricted to the motel sign, a few palm trees, and the building that housed the office, which had a wonderful curving pointed roof, clad inside with two big waves of wood paneling. Otherwise, there was an older section built of cinder blocks, with rooms the size and shape of prison cells. Behind that was a more modern two-story structure where I, and I suspect everybody else, actually stayed.

For a good while after it closed down, Arne’s remained more or less intact, but that’s changed. When I stopped in Baker recently it seemed that every piece of glass in the place had been smashed, doors broken down, and the whole place thoroughly vandalized, including the empty JG Ballard–style swimming pool out back, although the paneled ceiling was still there, looking great, waiting either for architectural salvagers or more determined vandals.

But not everything in Baker is in decline. There’s at least one optimist in town: Luis Ramallo, the owner of the Alien Jerky Store, which also specializes in hot sauce, candy, and space-age souvenirs. It’s been there for a little over a decade and business seems to be thriving. There used to be a very homemade-looking space alien and flying saucer on the roof. There’s now a full-size UFO parked outside, along with a row of movie-prop-quality aliens holding up metallic sunshades.

There are also several billboards showing plans for the future: blueprints, architectural renderings and artists’ impressions of the high-end, thirty-one-room “mothership-shaped” UFO hotel that Ramallo plans to build behind his store. It’ll be like staying in a space station, with a flight deck, sleeping chambers, and animatronic aliens. An alien-themed shopping mall, futuristic restaurants, and a “space-themed spa” are also in the works.

I have no idea whether Ramallo can really pull any of this off, but I really want him to. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors was certainly happy enough to give the project the go-ahead. And really, who could object? Sure, a UFO hotel in the middle of, say, Brentwood might be a problem, but Baker is in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the desert. Who’s going to complain? And if it fails, well, it’s going to leave a set of fantastic, futuristic desert ruins, although you might not want to be living in the house next door.

Inspired, or perhaps simply carried away, I again start thinking about owning some little desert shack, by no means a piece of architecture, just some basic shelter with its own patch of land. It was easy enough to find one online that seemed to fit the bill. “Rustic 400 Sq. Ft. Cabin on 5 acres, close to 29 Palms in beautiful Wonder Valley. Bring your tools and imagination!” It was a very simple, perhaps even archetypal, design: a door in the middle, a window either side, holes in the roof, but the walls intact, though looking a little bullet-scarred. The price was about the same as a well-used Jeep.

The realtor’s ad showed it to be the last property at the end of a dirt road, which had its appeal—nobody driving past your front door. And so I made a little desert field trip to go look at the cabin. After a drive along increasingly rutted and sandy roads, I spotted the place in the distance, and I could also see another house on the road, a sprawling, tattered, but apparently inhabited thing, with collapsed outbuildings, a number of wrecked cars, and a sea of detritus surrounding it: building materials, pipes, scrap metal, chunks of wood, oil cans, domestic appliances. A Noah Purifoy might have taken this junk and made any number of fine sculptures from it. But the inhabitant of the house had no such plans, unless he was creating an installation on entropy and chaos theory.

I could also see that the junk was strewn on both sides of the dirt road, and it’s certainly not unknown for desert plots to have a road running through them. However, when I got really close, I could see that some of this junk was lying in the road itself; it had, in fact, been deliberately put there and arranged to form a barrier. Lengths of tire-shredding metal ran from one side of the road to the other. And there was an expanse of old lumber that looked like it might be concealing a giant hole for the unwary driver to fall into. It would have been possible to get around these obstacles and drive or walk across the open desert to the cabin, but by then I was deterred. However wonderful the cabin was, would I really want to have neighbors who were trying to block my way and shred my tires? Generally, perhaps especially in the desert, good fences make good neighbors. But roadblocks are a different matter.

Photograph by John Loo, via Flickr.



Re-Coding Planning

by Mark Hogan

Art by Casey Reas

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

In California, the code that governs how individual towns and cities develop sprawls across an entire shelf of thick three-ring binders in many planning offices, architectural firms, and building companies. These codes started out much smaller, of course, but over the past 125 years they have slowly grown longer and more complicated as regulators sought to address a seemingly endless number of questions and conditions pertaining to building California.

Sometimes new code is directly at odds with older code, but the older code stays on the books. We have regulations to encourage density and others favoring suburbanization. We have codes favoring public transit and other mandating acres of parking. These goals are contradictory and impossible to achieve at the same time in the same place; each bit of code can be used to stop another from doing its work. So nothing happens.

Computer code can have the same problem, too. New functionality requires new lines of code. And you can keep adding new code to the old until eventually you have what programmers artfully call a “hairball”—a tangle of code, full of bugs, kluges, and workarounds, so inefficient that it slows down the whole program or breaks it altogether. At that point, you face a choice: do you go in and try to kill the bugs and write more kluges and workarounds? Or do you start over and write new code?

We’re at that point with building and development codes in California. We need new code for the twenty-first century. Can we get it by tinkering with our existing code? Or should we rewrite our codes from the ground up?

The hairball of building and planning codes, at multiple levels of government, makes it difficult—and extremely expensive—to address two urgent and related crises facing California today: an urban housing shortage and climate change. The Bay Area and Southern California dominate lists of the most expensive metropolitan regions in the country. Greedy developers, young gentrifiers moving into low-income neighborhoods, and NIMBY groups are frequently blamed for skyrocketing housing costs; but in reality, each is merely a symptom of a deeper problem. We need to recognize that the entire system of regulating housing development is broken. To create affordable cities, responsive to a changing climate and prudent with limited natural resources, we may need to rewrite the rules from scratch with a new set of goals in mind.

Process 15 (A) by Casey Reas.

Most of the rules and regulations governing how and where and what housing gets built were first written in an era when land was cheap. California’s cities were expanding outward, and developers built detached homes while the state connected these new neighborhoods with new freeways. City planners began trying to rein in sprawl beginning in the 1970s, and an increased interest in urban living in recent years has changed what urban Californians look for in housing. California’s codes have not caught up with these larger changes.

Building and planning codes have their roots in the Progressive-era reform movement that sought to promote health and safety through higher-quality housing than the tenements that had been built in fast-growing industrial cities. Light and air were seen as cures to the ills that plagued dirty and heavily polluted late-nineteenth-century American cities, and many early reformers were legitimately concerned about the living conditions of lower income residents. But reformers’ intentions were not always benign. Nativist sentiment, racism, and classism also figured heavily in the reform movement, and upper-class reformers “saw new ethnic, religious, and political subcultures as threatening to hard-won changes in polite family life.”1

As the movement to regulate construction and land use coalesced, many of the well-intentioned early reformers who sought to improve the conditions of working people were pushed to the sidelines as the drive for zoning became more about excluding people, namely immigrants and African Americans.2 California cities had long used police powers to prevent Chinese laundries from setting up outside of Chinese neighborhoods, but Baltimore was the first city to write racial exclusion into a zoning ordinance when, in 1910, city leaders passed a law limiting where black residents could live to a list of specified neighborhoods.3 Racial zoning became common across much of the South. In 1917, the Supreme Court ruled that this interfered with property rights in Buchanan v. Warley, but municipalities continued to pass race-based zoning laws decades into the twentieth century. Even where racial exclusion was not codified by a city, deed restrictions in large subdivisions were commonly used to keep minorities out of certain areas. Reverberations from these baldly racist and segregationist practices are still felt today.

San Francisco began writing building codes as early as the late 1800s; but rather than legitimately regulating construction, these codes were often more concerned with collecting fees and harassing Chinese immigrants. The earthquake of 1906 and a backlash against what was seen as corruption during the rebuilding process prompted new, more stringent building codes between 1908 and 1909, however San Franciscans showed little interest in implementing zoning at this time.4 In 1908, Los Angeles was first to enact a citywide zoning ordinance that covered uses, principally protecting residential areas from industrial development. But implementation of zoning was focused on preserving high-value neighborhoods, promoting higher property values in middle-income areas, and promoting industrial uses in poor areas. In Berkeley, rather than protecting residents from pollution from nearby industrial activity, zoning codes were written to protect factory owners from lawsuits by low-income neighbors.5

When developers realized that property owners only had control over their own land, and developers could lobby the government to regulate land uses in the surrounding area, they became the biggest proponents of new codes. Broker-subdividers who were building large tracts of housing in the first decades of the twentieth century took the role of “community builders” by lobbying for land-use planning.6 In 1916, Berkeley became the first city in the country to zone specifically for single-family housing as one of only five different kinds of residential use districts, ranging from single-family to apartments. The earlier code in Los Angeles had simply zoned areas as residential or not.7

San Francisco came around to writing zoning codes—as opposed to building codes—after great urging by the Commonwealth Club. The club undertook surveys to document the need for zoning, lumping apartment houses in with lumber mills and stables on the list of undesirable intrusions in residential districts.8 Legislation enabling zoning was passed in 1917, but it took years of studies before the first zoning ordinance and maps were created in 1921. Because San Francisco was much more densely developed than Los Angeles or Berkeley, the implementation of zoning faced more resistance from the real estate industry than in other cities that had enacted zoning regulations. The eastern half of San Francisco was already built out, and there was fear amongst developers, business owners, and architects that a zoning code would stifle further development. The Real Estate Board won at least one battle, ensuring that the Zoning Code of 1921 didn’t include height limits, only restrictions on use.9 But portions of the western side of San Francisco that had not yet been developed got the city’s first detailed zoning restrictions. Areas were zoned into “first residential districts,” mandating single-family homes. Mixing commercial and industrial uses in residential districts was prohibited, with commercial businesses limited only to major thoroughfares where streetcars ran. Hotels and rooming houses were prohibited.

Zoning promoted neighborhood homogeneity that had not existed in cities prior to its creation. While people had legitimate concerns at the turn of the century about dangerous heavy industrial uses being built next to residences, the large tracts of single-family homes that were encouraged by the new code were designed to exclude large segments of the population. Zoning provided a government-backed mechanism to spatially segregate people by income and consequently by race.

Process 11 (A) by Casey Reas.

In Lakewood, the quintessential postwar Southern California suburb depicted in D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land, three Jewish developers purchased land that held the stipulation put in place by the previous development company that lots could not be sold to Jews, Mexicans, or black people. The Supreme Court didn’t ban racial restrictions in property ownership until 1948, and citizens could and did continue to sue to enforce racial covenants until the court banned that practice in 1953.10

Zoning also laid the groundwork for discrimination by other means. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s widely debated essay “The Case for Reparations” was based, in part, on the fact that banks replicated race-based zoning by drawing red lines around black neighborhoods on property maps and refused to lend to prospective homeowners there. This process, called redlining, prevented black Americans from buying homes during the postwar boom and locked them out of the legitimate credit market. While Coates’s essay uses Chicago as a case study, property maps were created of cities nationwide that forbade lending in black neighborhoods, putting residents at the mercy of an extortionist lending system with no regulations.11 In most cities, including San Francisco, the FHA maps showed “A” districts (meaning those areas most desirable for lending) aligned with the areas that had been recently zoned for single-family housing.

In addition to zoning codes that regulated how property could be used, planning codes also regulated the forms buildings can take through prescriptions on height, bulk, lot coverage, shadows, floor area ratio (the total square footage of a building divided by the size of the lot is on), and a wide variety of other measures implemented to achieve the planners’ desired effect. Over the course of the twentieth century, zoning and planning codes were used to control the setbacks on all sides of buildings, the amount of a lot that could be covered, parking minimums, and maximum floor area. Design guidelines were written in many places that dictate such details as building materials and design styles. Taken all together, these regulations have a profound effect on what gets built. The Empire State Building, for instance, was designed via an economic feasibility study for a speculative office building which took costs and potential rental income into consideration, in addition to how far from the street the building had to be set back from the street, as required by New York’s 1916 zoning code. Only then was the architect hired.12

Even across individual states, the regulatory environment differs between municipalities. Local building code amendments then overlay state building codes, meaning that every jurisdiction has a slightly different set of rules. The city of San Francisco’s zoning map shows sixty-five different use districts to regulate land use in a city of less than fifty square miles, and neighboring Oakland and Daly City each have their own separate lists of zoning designations.

Once federal regulations, design guidelines, building safety and energy efficiency requirements, historic preservation zones, and infrastructure considerations are brought into the mix, California’s city planners are left to navigate not only a Byzantine but an often contradictory set of rules. A city planning department may want buildings to have stoops and require them in design guidelines, but accessibility regulations in building codes require wheelchair accessibility. Fire departments advocate for wide streets in order to maneuver and park large vehicles during an emergency, but urban design guidelines often require narrower streets and curb bulb-outs to increase safety by lowering traffic speeds. Some of California’s own largest policy initiatives are at odds with each other. The state will require net-zero housing by 2020 and net-zero commercial buildings by 2030, meaning these buildings will use the same amount of energy as they generate. This is fairly easy to do in the suburbs, where more land is available for on-site energy generation. But it is nearly impossible to accomplish in cities at the scale required. At the same time, SB 375, the state’s Sustainable Communities Act, encourages better coordination between land use planning and transportation in order to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as part of the state’s initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is nearly impossible to do both of these things at the same time. Reducing VMT requires density, but density is nearly impossible to achieve while constructing net-zero buildings, unless transportation emissions for the site are taken into account when measuring the environmental impact of a new building.

Even where layers of code aren’t in conflict with one another, they can be in conflict with neighborhood groups. In California, which allows for a great deal of citizen participation in the planning process, it is not uncommon for neighbors to object to projects that will introduce rental apartments or taller buildings even where they are allowed in the existing code. For instance, the state enacted legislation decades ago to specifically allow for secondary units (also known as in-law units or granny flats) statewide, yet few local jurisdictions have followed through and allowed the new housing because of resistance from homeowners. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed local legislation in the 1980s explaining why the city’s single-family housing was a scarce resource that needed to be preserved, despite it making up the majority of the residentially zoned parcels in the city. To this day, San Francisco does not allow in-law units in single-family districts.

Process 7 (A) by Casey Reas.

Early zoning codes locked many areas into much lower densities than would have developed if previous patterns of growth had taken their course. The densest, most urban parts of San Francisco (and those most frequented by tourists and film crews) are those that were rebuilt following the earthquake of 1906. Farther afield, the southern and western portions of the city built after the zoning code of 1921 are essentially suburban in density and character. This was not organic growth but development as prescribed by city planners and homebuilders. In Groth’s words, “Zoning thus made uniform land use and desired densities as enforceable as the requirements for interior plumbing.”13

If we switch from looking at planning regulations that govern where and what we build, and instead look at the building codes that were created to govern safety, we see a similar pattern of regulations that over time have come to strongly favor suburban development with little regard for their impact on the cost and feasibility of building higher density housing in cities. Architect Tom Steidl compared high-rise residential buildings in Los Angeles and Vancouver, specifically looking at factors that allowed buildings in Vancouver to be much more slender, even when they contained a similar number of units. Buildings in both cities have to comply with stringent earthquake design standards, but he shows that fire safety-related mandates in Los Angeles create a building core—where elevators, stairs and trash chutes are located—twice as large as what is required in Vancouver.14 A larger core means less useable space, making a building less efficient and more expensive to build.

The differences in approach to fire safety are not the result of Canadians’ higher tolerance for risk or greater faith in their fire departments. It is because the best way to prevent deaths from buildings fires is through the use of sprinkler systems, not stairwells. Research has shown an 82 percent decrease in the fire death rate in buildings with these systems, which is why they are installed in most new apartment buildings.15 Germany, a nation with half the fire death rate of the United States,16 allows a single stair in buildings up to 60 meters tall (about 200 feet), which allows for much more compact and efficient floorplans, and in turn means lower per square foot construction costs. But in the United States, multiple stair towers and the separation between them are still the foundation of the regulatory approach toward fire safety, despite the presence of sprinklers and other fire safety measures. Putting risk in perspective is important. There were over 32,000 motor vehicle related deaths and 12,000 gun deaths in the United States in 2013. That same year there were only 325 fire-related deaths in apartment buildings.17

The other largest regulatory factor influencing construction costs and feasibility, and the one communities have the greatest control over, concerns the mandatory parking requirements spelled out in local planning codes. Many of these codes still require two or more parking spaces for each residential unit. This both increases the cost of construction and reduces the number of units that can be built. On a typical site in Los Angeles, parking requirements reduce the number of homes that can be built by 13 percent, and underground parking adds $35,000 in construction costs per parking space.18

Urban sprawl has been widely condemned for its environmental impact, and limits on the distance people are willing to commute mean that outer-ring suburbs are desirable only to the point where commuting distances become too great. But, low-density suburban development is still the dominant form of housing production. By the end of 2014, nationwide construction of single-family homes reached levels not seen since 2008 before the Great Recession.19 In California, there is a slightly different story, as new building permits were nearly balanced between single-family homes and units in apartment buildings between 2011 and 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Much of this may be due to an excess inventory of single-family homes in the state, which needed be cleared in the wake of the downturn; so we will see only in the coming years whether or not this trend endures.

Sales prices for single-family homes can be as low as $60 to $70 per square foot in parts of the United States where labor is cheap and land costs are low—especially for high-volume builders who can rely on economies of scale. In California, national builder D.R. Horton is selling homes in Adelanto in San Bernardino County for under $100 per square foot. Roof trusses and preframed walls can be delivered and installed the same day. Designs are standardized and planning approval is typically efficient and predictable. Union labor is rarely used on single-family projects and construction staging (areas for storing materials and equipment) is not an issue. In the case of large developments, the same plans are used again and again, with minor modifications here and there for variety. An architect or engineer is not required to get a permit for a single-family home, and at the smaller scale, many building departments provide typical construction details for homebuilders to include in their drawing sets to speed the process along.

It is a different story when looking at dense urban housing. Building codes for any residential building larger than a duplex have been written in a way that penalizes this type of construction. In cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, the permitting process for a large apartment or condominium project can take years. Even adding a single additional apartment unit to an existing building can easily take eight months or more in city review time. The end result of our acres of code is a process that exacerbates our housing shortage, drives up the cost of housing, and stymies our own plans for building more sustainable cities. Each cycle of building codes generally brings more stringent sets of guidelines, the value of which is often debatable.

We could continue to tweak and tinker our way to building and zoning codes better fit for today’s purposes—but that is essentially what we have been doing for the past century. Or, we can acknowledge that addressing the twenty-first century challenges before us will not be possible with tools that are a century or more old. While California does have its own state building code, it is based on the International Building Code, which is followed by most jurisdictions in the United States. The national preference for suburban-style development means that there is little pressure for reform. If things are going to change, it will only happen at the state level.

Process 9 (A) by Casey Reas.

In Los Angeles, the tension between snarled code, angry neighborhood groups, and a city patching a badly broken process has come to a head. In 2014, the city launched Recode: LA, the first comprehensive reform of the 1946 zoning code, which was written for a city with abundant cheap land but still governs development in Los Angeles today. The original sixty-seven-page zoning code is now a jumble ten times the size, inconsistent not only with itself but with the city of nearly four million people grappling with insufficient housing, frustrating traffic, and local, state, and federal regulations, standards, and goals on energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and water usage. Almost every major development requires permission from the city to deviate from some aspect of the planning code, a process that adds time and expense for the developer, and frustration for residents who never know what someone might try to build in their neighborhood.

In frustration, some activists are proposing a ballot measure that would forbid any development requiring a variance for two years. This would exacerbate an already extreme housing shortage and do nothing to move Los Angeles closer to sustainability. At the same time, some San Franciscans have been fighting a proposed program that would provide a modest amount of additional density to developers in return for building more units of affordable housing. Flyers have circulated in city neighborhoods claiming that San Francisco’s sleepy, fog-draped Outer Sunset district would turn into Miami Beach if the plan were to pass. The housing shortage that plagues all of its large cities is a huge drag on California’s economy, and it is vital that all levels of government begin to address it as a priority on par with fire safety and protecting existing property owners’ home values. Urban areas can no longer rely on sprawling single-family car-oriented neighborhoods to address the pressing need for new housing, and our regulations need to allow for alternatives.

Adding more housing to existing communities doesn’t have to mean “Manhattanization,” as is often claimed. People who grew up watching Three’s Company (set in Santa Monica) or Melrose Place (set in West Hollywood) are familiar with the type of middle-density apartment living that is not being built in most of urban California today, where the majority of the residential land in our largest cities is still zoned for single-family homes or saddled with parking requirements that make increased density unfeasible. Even the popular family-oriented 1990s sitcom Full House, a show about an extended family living together in the heart of San Francisco, features Uncle Jesse and his wife Becky living in what would, in reality, be an illegal in-law apartment upstairs.

If only life could imitate art—or popular culture anyway! New housing in California has come to mean either auto-dependent sprawl or expensive high-density apartments and condos in the urban core, but to really make a difference we have to allow the kinds of middle-density development like the low-rise Melrose Place apartments or the Full House in-law unit in all of our communities. Disallowing this kind of gentle medium density in the name of preserving neighborhood character does a disservice to those who arrived here or were born too late to afford a single-family home within commuting distance of their jobs. It also fails to recognize that making communities more walkable and sustainable will improve neighborhood character over time, not diminish it.

We cannot give up and decide our communities are full, or simply rely on the thinking of the past century to guide our regulations. It’s time to stop tinkering. At the state and local level, we must recode California.

Process 10 (A) by Casey Reas.



The art accompanying this article comes from Casey Reas‘s Process series. As Reas explains, “each Process is a short text that defines a space to explore through multiple interpretations. A Process interpretation in software is a kinetic drawing machine with a beginning but no defined end. It proceeds one step at a time, and at each discrete step, every Element modifies itself according to its behaviors. The corresponding visual forms emerge as the Elements change; each adjustment adds to the previously drawn shapes.”

1. Paul Groth, Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 202.

2. Christopher Silver, “The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities,” Urban Planning and the African American Community: In the Shadows (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997), 23–42.

3. Ibid.

4. Groth, Living Downtown, 241.

5. Marc A. Weiss, “Urban Land Developers and the Origins of Zoning Laws: The Case of Berkeley,” Berkeley Planning Journal 3, no. 1 (1986): 11.

6. Weiss, “Urban Land Developers and the Origins of Zoning Laws,” 8.

7. Ibid., 17.

8. Marc A. Weiss, “The Real Estate Industry and the Politics of Zoning in San Francisco, 1914–1928,” Planning Perspectives 3, no. 3 (1988): 313.

9. Weiss, “The Real Estate Industry and the Politics of Zoning in San Francisco, 1914–1928,” 315.

10. Donald J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 73.

11. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.

12. See the chapter “Form Follows Finance” by Carol Willis in The Landscape of Modernity: New York City 1900–1940, David Ward and Oliver Zunz, eds. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) for a complete account.

13. Groth, Living Downtown, 248.

14. Tom Steidl, “High-Rise Codes & Housing Affordability in Los Angeles.” Let’s Go LA. https://letsgola.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/high-rise-codes-housing-affordability-in-los-angeles/. [Accessed: 23-Nov-2015].

15. John R. Hall, Jr., “US Experience with Sprinklers.” National Fire Protection Association, 2013. http://www.nfpa.org/research/reports-and-statistics/fire-safety-equipment/us-experience-with-sprinklers. [Accessed: 09-Jan-2016].

16. FEMA, “Fire Death Rate Trends: An International Perspective.” Topical Fire Report Series 12, no. 8 (2011).

17. Michael J. Karter, “Apartment Structure Fires,” Fire Loss in the United States 2013 (Sept. 2014). National Fire Protection Association.

18. Donald C. Shoup, “The High Cost of Minimum Parking Requirements,” Parking Issues and Policies 5 (2014): 88–90.

19. Erin Carlyle, “2014 Housing Starts Hit Highest Level Since 2007.” Forbes (2015). http://www.forbes.com/sites/erincarlyle/2015/01/21/2014-housing-starts-hit-strongest-finish-since-2007-as-single-family-construction-rises/. [Accessed: 09-Jan-2016].


The California Code

by Keith Schneider

An ecologically sensitive development model for a fuming world

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

Even toward the end of a blistering four-year drought in California, it was sometimes hard to tell much was amiss. Dirt-lined canals in northern California were filled to the brim with water destined to irrigate thousands of hectares of rice, sunflowers, peaches, corn, soybeans, and all manner of California’s agricultural cornucopia. Unlike in the southern reaches of the Central Valley, there were no signs of the empty spaces of brown dirt where tomato fields lay fallow, or where laser-leveled orchards had been ripped out under duress.

Quite the contrary, bullet-straight two-lane highways passed by new orchards under cultivation, the roots of each infant tree politely dressed in swirls of drip irrigation line and saluted by the short, red plastic stake of a single spray irrigator. More surprising were the throngs of sunburned bathers and Jet Ski operators enjoying the deep, cooling depths of two blue and bountiful manmade lakes that flank Highway 162, the primary route to climb the Sierra foothills to Oroville Dam, the source of all this water.

At the nadir of the drought last summer, the view from the dam’s spillway described a much different story than the full canals and recreational lakes. California’s second largest reservoir was less than half full. A bathtub ring of rock and soil 200 feet wide circled the lake like a light brown rebuke to the will of its essential purpose.

In many ways, Oroville Dam—the tallest dam in the United States—is a relic of twentieth-century California, a reminder of a time when we looked to enormous engineering projects to remake Earth for our benefit. The twenty-first century calls for a different approach, and California is responding.

More so than in any other state in the United States and nearly any region of the world, Californians have shown a capacity to recognize and reckon with deep drought, high heat, sea level rise, insect plagues, wildfire, and many more of our current, high-risk ecological realities. California is responding with targeted, sometimes statewide, but often smaller, local solutions to the problems facing every person on the planet. In this way, what we might call a California code is contributing to developing a new global operating system for the future.

Look at Oakland. Well before it became standard operating practice in progressive cities, Oakland established a state-of-the-art watershed protection program that released creeks from their concrete straitjackets and simultaneously cleaned up stormwater. That saved the cost and energy needed to operate pocket treatment plants and beautified the city. The city also converts biological waste to methane that fires turbines that generate most of the electricity for its wastewater treatment plant.

Or take Maxwell, where growers stopped fighting the requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act and started a Sacramento Valley project to install screens at the end of irrigation pipes that are helping to increase the river’s salmon runs. Or Modesto and Turlock, which are closing in on plans to pump treated wastewater to irrigate Central Valley farms and orchards in Patterson. Or the western side of the Klamath Mountains on the North Coast, where tribes and communities are working together on controlled burns to thin forests that are fueling monstrous wildfires.

Now here’s the requisite paragraph that admits that California is no Eden. Residents are all too aware of the crowded living conditions in a state that has twice as many people as it did in the mid-1970s. Some communities on the east side of the Central Valley don’t have running water. In Los Angeles County, a natural gas leak spewed tens of thousands of tons of methane into the atmosphere for months before it was stopped up. Residents everywhere recoil at real estate prices and the cost of living. Earthquakes are an ever-present hazard. Wildfires are a menace. The gulf between the rich elite and the struggling working class is as wide as it is in any state. In a time of immense grumpiness and cynicism, the list of complaints and criticisms is endless.

In any given year, Californians confront real emergencies—dangerous floods, wildfires, earthquakes, drought. The twenty-first century has added intense heat, sea level rise, and a plague of Sierra forest-killing beetles to the list. Perhaps because Californians exist in a perpetual state of precarity, they have been more willing than many to respond proactively to new environmental threats and challenges visible on the horizon.

A series of remarkably astute and aggressive measures approved by Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Sacramento has systematically formed a model for dealing with Earth’s new conditions, and it is proving to be effective. Among the most significant measures:

A 2002 statute to require sharp reductions in climate-changing emissions in vehicles, which account for 40 percent of greenhouse gases.

A 2005 executive order that mandates a 20 percent cut in climate emissions from all sources from 1990 levels by 2020, principally by encouraging the development of new buildings that are efficient enough and generate enough of their own power to achieve “net zero” energy use.

A 2006 statute that established market tools and new regulations to cut climate emissions 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050.

A 2011 statute requiring California’s utilities to generate 33 percent of their electricity by 2020 with renewable sources other than hydropower.

A 2014 statute that draws California groundwater supplies and use under state oversight in order to limit serious groundwater depletion, pollution, and land subsidence in the Central Valley.

Put all of these civic changes and programs together and the result is a state that has set out a new model for building its economy and sustaining quality of life. That model rests on a foundation of legal requirements and new operating practices fit for the time—drastically reducing climate emissions, increasing energy efficiency, requiring net zero energy use in new buildings, conserving water, electrifying transportation, preventing pollution, and pursuing cleaner energy production.

At the community and state levels, California has elevated ecological sensitivity as a powerful driver of economic progress. States of the Pacific Northwest, Vermont, Ontario, northern Europe, Costa Rica, Panama, Israel, and even Mongolia are among the select number of places that are pursuing something similar. Perhaps only Germany matches California for the comprehensiveness of its approach and the speed of the economic transition it has fostered.

Lake Merritt in Oakland, California. Photograph by Flickr user Hitchster.

But even for a skeptical reporter who’s been on the frontlines of fierce contests for resources globally for decades, and who’s encountered corruption and government mismanagement at epic scales, what’s occurring in California is truly an inspiration. And in a nation and a world that sometimes seems largely indifferent to the plight of our planet, it’s a huge relief. As I tell friends and colleagues, “thank goodness for California.” We might actually see a way forward here.

Living in a state formed from the rush for gold and nurtured by the bright sun, Californians have not always perceived their state as imperiled. In the twentieth century, when California had more moisture, fewer people, and seemingly unlimited moxie, Californians believed they could overpower and subdue the land. The prevailing economic model was based on consuming ever more water, energy, soil, and land to build big centralized projects—big power plants, big oilfields and mines, big transmission systems, big highway networks, big farms, big suburbs, big houses, big malls, big cities.

Managing enterprises of such scale called for spending enormous sums of money on supplies—energy, water, food—and on equipment—trucks, cars, factories, water pipes, power lines, air conditioners. Keeping order required massive hierarchical, vertically integrated institutions—governments, banks, industrial corporations, universities.

The enterprise worked well for a while because it fit market conditions. Energy and water were plentiful and cheap. Land was available and comparatively inexpensive for farms and for suburbs. Populations were smaller and more stable. Government treasuries were growing and so were working class salaries. Ample government, business, and personal wealth built the roads, water systems, transmission networks, and supply lines that kept the enterprise running.

The Oroville Dam, completed in 1968, and Lake Oroville behind it, are apt examples. Among the largest of the West’s dams, and capable also of generating nearly 800 megawatts of hydroelectric capacity, Oroville Dam fit the American twentieth century’s development strategy of building big, centralized, expensive, and durable economic infrastructure. The dam and its reservoir are fixtures in the state’s essential water-supply network, which collects freshwater from the north and distributes it through a network of rivers and canals to farms and cities throughout the state. California would not be California without its surface water collection, storage, and transport system.

Underlying so much of the economic and ecological turmoil unfolding in California and the rest of the world now is a slow collision between the operating systems of the resource-wasting, vertically managed twentieth century and the much more volatile ecological and economic conditions of the twenty-first century.

The old order, it’s clear, is undergoing a severe stress test. The Oroville Dam perfectly represents the twentieth-century conceit that Californians had dominion over California. A drought-depleted Lake Oroville—like many other reservoirs displaying their alarming bathtub rings—became an apt object lesson for California’s challenges in the twenty-first century.

California state is getting hotter. And it’s increasingly clear that California’s twentieth-century network of dams and canals don’t function the way they were intended unless Earth’s climate cooperates. And thanks to us, the climate is increasingly not aligned with that twentieth-century vision. The power of nature to unleash its fury and subdue mankind’s surprisingly flimsy transactional systems—canals, roads, transmission lines, airports, pipelines, seaports, food production, and distribution networks—becomes clearer with every passing year.

California sprang to action in its fourth year of deep drought because water management professionals and state leaders recognized that California’s water-scarce condition could be the new norm. They accepted the scientific consensus that it could get considerably worse. The way out of the trouble was to convince state residents of the need for collective action and to instill behavioral changes in homes and businesses that would diminish demand and provide a higher measure of safety.

California’s response to the drought is even more nationally and globally significant than that. What state and local leaders did to reduce the risks, and how state residents reacted, was a very public demonstration of government’s capacity to act with reason and intelligence to a short-term ecological emergency, with a long-term vision.

Perhaps that should not be surprising given California’s historical ability to set the national and global agenda in culture, technology, environmental restoration, and the like. It’s arguable, though, that what California is up to now in responding to global ecological disarray may be the most important contribution to human well-being that it’s ever made.

The reason is that Earth is fuming. Hurricanes have drowned two American cities. Mammoth wildfires burn hotter and hotter in fuel-stoked forests where fire was deliberately suppressed for a century out west. Toxic algae contaminates drinking water drawn from warmer and more polluted rivers and lakes all over the world.

An earthquake this year damaged fourteen hydropower dams in Nepal. In June 2013, a vicious flood that scientists linked to climate change killed thousands of people in Uttarakhand, India, and wrecked that Himalayan state’s hydropower sector. A tsunami in the Pacific Ocean in 2011 killed 16,000 people and shut down Japan’s seawater-cooled nuclear sector.

Deep droughts have been especially dangerous. Brazil’s largest city joined America’s largest state, and nearly all of Iran and South Africa in contending with serious water scarcity. A twelve-year dry spell in Australia’s food-producing Murray-Darling basin ended in 2010, but not before it caused the largest rice industry in the southern hemisphere to collapse. More than 1 million metric tons of rice vanished from world markets. Australia’s wheat growers, typically the world’s sixth largest exporters, managed to harvest just over half of the 20 million metric tons of grain they normally produced. Both harvest failures contributed to rising grain prices. And don’t forget that rising food prices helped to touch off the Arab Spring in 2010, while the civil war in Syria was fueled in part by four years of drought.

When world leaders gathered in Paris at the end of 2015 for the United Nations climate talks, they committed themselves—as representatives of nearly every country on the planet—to reducing climate-disrupting greenhouse gas emissions. But the actual work of reducing those emissions doesn’t begin with world leaders at climate summits, it begins with leadership in states, cities, and municipalities. In California, that work began decades ago.

California Aqueduct crossing the San Andreas Fault in Palmdale, California. Photograph by Michael R. Perry via Flickr.

Last year, San Diego announced it would generate all of its electricity with renewable energy by 2030.

The world’s largest solar photovoltaic and concentrated, solar-electric generating stations operate in the Mojave Desert in California.

Later this year, Sacramento will open a high-tech arena and public square in its redeveloping downtown without any new parking capacity. A smart decision to build a light-rail transit network thirty years ago made that possible.

Oakland’s transformation is particularly indicative. In energy efficiency, pollution control, and waste management, Oakland is setting national standards of policy design and performance, thanks to three programs that form the foundation of the city’s work. Then-mayor Jerry Brown put a plan in place in 2006 to cut Oakland’s production of solid waste to zero by 2020. Four years later, a 2010 green building code and standards required new home, office, retail, and recreation buildings to be much more energy efficient. In 2012, an “energy and climate action plan,” among the country’s most ambitious, set the goal to cut carbon emissions 36 percent by 2020.

Oakland, it turns out, was among the first cities in California to design and enforce energy-efficiency standards for new homes and buildings. With the help of StopWaste, a local organization, Oakland, in 2000, was one of the first cities in the country to adopt an ordinance requiring that 50 percent of construction and demolition waste be recycled. In 2005, Oakland was among the first cities in the country to adopt a green building ordinance for municipal projects. In 2006, the city encouraged new homes and offices to be green by creating incentives for green developers and in 2010 strengthened the program by requiring energy-efficient certification for large commercial projects, and for single-family and multifamily homes. Oakland was among the first cities in the country to adopt a green building ordinance for new homes and offices, and in 2010 strengthened the program by offering technical assistance to builders. A good bit of the city’s green building codes and programs were embraced in CalGreen, the state green building code.

Oroville Dam Viewpoint. Photograph by Wayne Hsieh, via Flickr.

In 2009, pressed by West Oakland’s Ella Baker Center and Van Jones, its charismatic Yale-educated founder and director, the city started to develop this plan, which was consistent with the 2006 state climate emissions-reduction statute. Governor Jerry Brown has since signed an executive order that puts the whole state on the path to reduce carbon emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

With city and state carbon-reduction limits in place, Oakland has set out to meet them. The city has audited its buildings, analyzed its fleet of vehicles, and reviewed its solid-waste infrastructure with the clear goal of being more efficient. A big downtown parking garage, for instance, has been rewired, relit with low-energy lighting and controls, and outfitted with electric-vehicle recharging stations. The retrofit, according to city figures, saves $55,000 in annual operating costs and 343,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity, equivalent to 111,000 kilograms (246,000 pounds) of CO2 emissions annually.

In the waste management arena, Oakland is similarly focused on reducing the generation of energy-wasting trash and recycling, both of which translate into carbon-emission reductions. Oakland’s aggressive “zero waste” recycling program is steadily reducing the amount of home, business, and construction waste destined for landfills. Every ton of corrugated cardboard that is recycled reduces carbon emissions by four tons. Recycling a ton of plastic saves about two tons of CO2 annually. The new requirements for green waste and recycling will save an average of 496,000 tons of CO2 annually in Oakland, according to city projections.

In many ways, caring for a city is not unlike parenting a child. It can take a generation of careful nurturing for the results to become apparent. Oakland’s growing tech sector, its rising property values, and its restored parks crowded with visitors are evidence of the city’s vitality. In the guts and bones that support the city, there is much more to do, though, to reach Oakland’s goal of 36 percent carbon reductions by 2020 or to achieve zero waste production. Heavy truck and passenger-vehicle traffic through the city still accounts for 40 percent of carbon emissions. The transition to electric vehicles is far off. The city counted just 1,700 homes powered with solar energy in 2014, a fraction of Oakland’s total residences.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the big electric utility, says it is on the way to meeting California’s requirement to generate 33 percent of its power with renewable fuels by 2020. But the utility still relies on natural gas for 27 percent of its generating capacity, according to company figures, and operates a 600-megawatt gas-fired electric-power generating station near Oakland. The generating station’s big claim to resource-efficiency is its low water consumption. The plant is air-cooled, which the utility reports uses 97 percent less water than older water-cooled power plants.

Still, by most measures of economic vitality, environmental quality, and civic energy, Oakland is doing well. Oakland was one of the twelve American cities selected to join world leaders as part of the Local Climate Leaders Circle at the United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris in December. Mayor Libby Schaaf and eleven other colleagues were in Paris to display the capacity of cities to limit emissions of greenhouse gases.

The effect of these and other measures is that residents of Oakland and other cities may be constructing a new kind of California dream that is cleaner, more resource efficient, less polluting, and more right-sized for its time. The city’s streets are lined with new housing and parks that boast clean natural streams that once were concrete-lined culverts. The city’s port, one of the country’s largest, provides electric power to arriving ships to end the use of polluting diesel generators while they are loading and unloading.

While these new indicators of progress gain momentum, many of the old indicators, such as job growth and business starts, provide a powerful counterpoint to old conventional wisdom that reducing climate emissions and pursuing energy development that avoids fossil fuels could cripple the economy. California’s unemployment rate, 5.8 percent in October 2015, is half what it was in 2010. The state has been adding 50,000 new jobs monthly. Business starts are way up.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of late-model cars and apparently content visitors arrive at the Oroville Dam to gauge the lake’s surface. The blue-green water and sable-colored tub ring are a tableau of instability, a sign of unyielding water scarcity and ecological risk. But the murmurs of concern and the long gazes don’t express fright. It’s California. The state has a plan. It’s working.


Image at top:  Irrigation ditch in Grass Valley, California. Photograph by Erin Johnson, via Flickr.


The Boom Interview: Veerabhadran Ramanathan

The Vatican’s Man in Paris Is a California Scientist

Editor’s note: Veerabhadran Ramanathan—everyone calls him “Ram”—was home for a few days over Thanksgiving. He was between a trip to the Vatican and the Paris climate summit when we caught up with him at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. His office is high up on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A long, curving swell broke gently on the beach far below. A sea breeze blew in through an open window. Ram spoke softly, deliberately, as if in the eye of a hurricane, a storm of historic proportions that has blown him around the world with an increasing sense of urgency. A climate scientist—he discovered that chloroflourcarbons (CFCs) used in refrigeration were greenhouse gases—Ram recently led an interdisciplinary group of fifty researchers and scholars from around the University of California who produced a report for the Paris climate summit entitled “Bending the Curve: Ten Scalable Solutions for Carbon Neutrality and Climate Stability.” The report was embraced by Governor Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano, who has pledged that the University of California will become carbon neutral by 2025. Ram is taking the report, which draws on lessons learned in California, to the Paris summit, as a member of Pope Francis’s delegation from the Holy See. Between preparations, emails, and phone calls with the governor’s office and the Vatican, Ram sat down to talk with Boom editor Jon Christensen, who was also senior editor on “Bending the Curve,” about climate change, science, and religion; the road to Paris; and what comes next.

Peer -photo-2014

Boom: How did an engineer end up on the Holy See’s delegation to the Paris climate summit?

Ramanathan: That’s a long story. And nobody has asked me that particular question, so let me reconstruct it.

I got my undergraduate degree in engineering in India. Then I worked a few years in the refrigeration industry. I didn’t know that six years from the time I left India, that work experience was going to have a huge impact on what I did and would be what eventually took me to the Vatican.

My job was to figure out why these refrigerants—later we came to know them as freons—were escaping so quickly from refrigeration units. In India, these units would come back within six months, and they had lost all their refrigerants.

At the time, I didn’t see the wisdom of what was happening there, so I hated my job and I hated engineering. I also didn’t have too much confidence that I was good for anything. I mainly went to small-town schools because my father was a traveling salesman, selling Goodyear tires. So my education to high school was primarily in the local regional language, Tamil. And then, in high school I moved to Bangalore. That was the city the British used for their military, so school was in English. And I quickly dropped from the top of the class to the bottom of the class. I didn’t know what they were talking about. But that had a profound impact on me, which still carries with me to this day. I stopped learning from others. I stopped listening to my teachers because I didn’t understand what they were saying, so I had to figure out things on my own.

I struggled through high school, and my grades weren’t good enough. So I couldn’t get into good engineering schools, and I went to a second-tier engineering school. I already knew engineering was not my calling. The two years in the refrigeration industry made it clear to me that I was not going to be an engineer. And it turned out I had a good break. The Indian Institute of Science admitted me to do a master’s degree. The primary reason I applied for the master’s degree is that I thought it would be a ticket to come to the U.S.

Because my father was a tire salesman, he used to bring home these beautiful brochures of Impala cars. They were selling Goodyear tires, and, of course, there were beautiful people, beautiful women in the cars. I was too young to notice the women, but I noticed the cars. So I got hooked. I thought, “I need to go to the U.S. and own one of these cars, and enjoy the good American life.” I think the story in my head was that milk and honey would be dropping out of the trees.

But, at the Indian Institute of Science, which was, for me, a ticket to the U.S., my grades were not good enough. So they didn’t put me through a degree program where you have to attend courses, because I was very bad at listening to others and spitting out information. That was what education in India was—just memorizing. So they asked me to go into the research track and build an interferometer, a high-precision optical instrument to study turbulence. The interferometer measures very accurate fluctuations in temperature. In retrospect, that’s an impossible project to do, but I took it. It took me three years, but we did build an interferometer, for the first time in India. And I learned what I am good at, which is research, and doing things which others give up as not possible. So, I finally had this confidence back in me.

So then I came to the U.S. to study engineering and get a job in a tire company. Goodyear was my ambition because my father worked there. But my adviser, the day I walked into his office, said he was tired of engineering. I liked him for that. I could relate to that. He switched to studying the atmospheres of Mars and Venus. So that’s where my work was—reconstructing the greenhouse effects on Mars and Venus, where they have pure carbon dioxide atmospheres

Boom: Did this mode of learning on your own, and having to do things yourself, continue through your graduate degrees and into your research on climate change?

Ramanathan: Yes, right through, because I still never believe anything I read or what others tell me unless I can try it out myself, either through a thought experiment or designing an experiment to do that.

When I finished my Ph.D., I couldn’t get a job studying planetary atmospheres, but NASA took me in their reentry physics section. They wanted me to build a model of the atmosphere. And since I’d worked on the carbon dioxide greenhouse effect, I started reading papers on that. There was a famous report from Swedish Academy of Science that said, in terms of man’s impact, carbon dioxide is the only thing you need to worry about—and, of course, I didn’t believe that. And this was 1974, and I saw this paper by Mario Molina and Sherman Rowland talking about CFCs causing damage to the ozone layer. And it was the CFCs that I was trying to prevent from escaping in my job in India.

Boom: From the refrigerators?

Ramanathan: Yes. I could immediately relate to that. I said, this must have a strong greenhouse effect. And, in fact, my former adviser, Bob Cess, said, “Oh, you are wasting your time. Carbon dioxide is obviously the greenhouse gas.” So I did that work, and, of course, it showed CFCs were 10,000 times more potent. The CFC work was a breakthrough. That paper got me into the climate field. Paul Crutzen read it—he’s a Nobel Laureate—Ralph Cicerone, who is the President of the National Academy of Sciences, read it. He was the one who reviewed it. So it got me from being an obscure guy from India into the mainstream of climate and atmospheric science.

Boom: Now you’re very much in the mainstream. You’re going to the Paris climate summit as part of the Holy See’s delegation. How did you begin to work with the Vatican and the Pope?

Ramanathan: In the 1990s, one thing led to another. I did a major field study in the Indian Ocean with six aircraft and two ships. There were over two hundred scientists from around the world—the U.S., Europe, and India. And we discovered this vast pollution cloud. I remember the last day. We used to fly mainly in the Arabian Sea because of the pollution coming from India over the Arabian Sea. But on the last flight, I wanted to go to the other side and fly over the Bay of Bengal. That’s where my hometown is on the east coast. And I saw it buried under this massive, thick pollution cloud. I think that did something to me. I said, “Now I cannot leave these billion people to deal with this. I have to do something.”

So this was on my mind when I turned sixty in 2004. I looked at my life’s work. There was a big celebration. Three Nobel laureates were here, and they were talking about my work. And I felt in my gut that all I’ve done is bring one piece of bad news after another about what’s happening to the planet. That celebration made me happy, but it really made me sad and depressed about how my life’s work was such a huge, you know, waste. I thought I should work on solutions.

About that time, I got an invitation from the new U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to come to the General Assembly and address a bunch of high school kids. That was the first meeting he organized—not world leaders but high school kids from around the world. He asked us to talk to them about the environment and climate change, so I talked about this brown cloud from India. And at that meeting a girl from Ethiopia came up to me and said, “Look, you made us cry, but tell me what you are doing?” I couldn’t tell her anything. I was just still carrying on my life. Not being able to answer her was a major thing for me.

And then within six months, I get this email from the Vatican, inviting me to join the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which was, of course, a huge honor. Paul Crutzen, whom I had met after the CFC work, was a member and he promoted me as a member. Four or five years into the academy, I proposed to organize a meeting myself. Our meetings were mainly on science, but this was about what we are doing to the environment and how do we become better stewards of the planet. We talked about larger issues. So it was at that meeting in 2011 that I realized, my goodness, this church could be used as an agent of change.

I teamed up with the social scientists—the Vatican has two academies, an Academy of Sciences and an Academy of Social Sciences—so that we could organize a meeting on sustainability. I came up with a title, “Sustainability of Nature.” And an economist from the Academy of Social Sciences added “Sustainability of Humanity.” We submitted this. And the church had somebody co-organize these conferences with us. They had Archbishop Roland Minnerath from France, and he added a third third title, “Our Responsibility.” So that’s how the church was slowly working with religion and was slowly changing me. I never thought about this before. But you cannot find a single scientific paper that says “our responsibility.” They all talk about sustainability, global warming, this and that, but not our responsibility.

We proposed that meeting in 2012, and the church reviewed it in 2013, after which the Pope has to agree to it. I briefed Pope Benedict. He was very supportive, but by the time we got to organizing it, he had stepped down, and then Pope Francis got really very supportive. He wrote the cover letter for the invitation, so we could get anybody we wanted. And we assembled the top thirty leaders from various disciplines in May 2014.

And I said, “I need to find out who’s responsible for this.” Looking at available data showed most of the pollution was coming from the top one billion. I then realized this is not a problem of population. It’s a problem of overconsumption. Population is a huge issue—I don’t want to discount it—for climate change. But the bottom three billion, their contribution is less than 5 percent. We have left behind 40 percent of the population. They don’t get enough energy. So I talked about that. That meeting, for me, was really a defining meeting. Our conclusion was that the solution to the problem of sustainability requires a fundamental change in our attitude towards each other and towards nature.

Normally at these meetings, we have a chance to talk to the Pope. But this pope had become a superhero. He was on the front pages. Time magazine was considering him for the “man of the year.” There was a huge demand on his time. So just three hours before we were to close the meeting a note was passed to me that Pope Francis would see you. We quickly closed the meeting and rushed to see him.

Photograph by Gabriella Marino/Vatican.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Pope Francis in 2014. Photograph by Gabriella Marino/Vatican.

Normally, we have an audience with the Pope in the most breathtaking hall in the Basilica. So we were waiting just outside the Basilica, and suddenly I see someone getting out of a small Fiat. It was Pope Francis, right in the parking lot in front of us. And I was told, “The Pope is very busy. You have three sentences to summarize this meeting to him.”

So I think the first one I told him was something like, “We are members of your Academy, we are here on your behalf, and we are all worried about climate change.”

Then the second sentence I told him was that most of the pollution comes from the wealthy one billion on the planet, whereas the poorest three billion are going to suffer the worst consequences. Of course, that would have come like music to his ears. That’s what the Pope was primarily thinking: the poor are going to suffer the worst. So then he asked me, in that picture where he’s looking at me, he asked what he can do about it. But I’m looking at Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the Chancellor of the Academy, because he translated what the Pope said.

Marcelo said, “The Holy Father wants to know what he can do about it.” So I told him, “You are so well-known. In your speeches, if you say people should be better stewards of the planet, that will be enough.” And that was it.

Ten days later he was with the Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the Orthodox Church, and they made a decision to work on climate change. So I thought, after meeting with him, “My God, we now have science and religion working together.” Now it has become accepted that climate change is a moral issue.

Boom: And that came out in the Pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, which I remember you saying, when we first met, had done more to communicate the importance of climate change and the importance of solving this problem for people and for the planet than scientists had done in decades.

Ramanathan: It’s not to put down what the scientists have done.

Boom: No, no.

Ramanathan: You need the science, but I would go beyond that. I think this Pope, in less than a year, has done more for climate change and more to stop this disastrous experiment we are doing than all the leaders I know. In my view, he has certainly had more impact than Al Gore on our thinking. Gore had a huge impact, but nothing like this Pope’s influence.

Boom: What is that core connection between religion and climate change?

Ramanathan: There’s a core connection, and there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The core connection is, first of all, what are scientists trying to tell us? That nature has limited capacity to deal with our pollution. We are past that capacity. That we have to take care of nature. But that’s what all religions say: protect nature. We call it Mother Earth. So there is a convergence with what religion says—all the religions. I think that’s the beauty of it. This issue can unite all the religions, unlike any other issue, right? We are divided by our skin color, we are divided by our language, and we are divided by our religion. But environment unites all of that. And there is also this tussle between science and religions, when you talk about evolution, when you talk about genomes, but not environment. So that’s the part I feel we can exploit or capture, to stop this disastrous experiment on climate.

The symbiotic relationship, now that I’ve gone on this path it is very clear to me, is that climate change is a moral issue, on many dimensions. You know, nature was given to us to protect. Okay, we can enjoy it, but not abuse it. The abusing part is only justifiable if nature has infinite capacity. Then we can cut all the trees we want. There will be more trees. We know that’s not the case. We know that’s not the case with air pollution. When you see that we are changing the color of the sky, it’s clear. We have a limit, so that’s a moral issue. The second moral issue is intra-generational morality—one billion people finishing up the carbon in the planet, not worrying about what it does to the others. And the third moral issue is that climate change lasts tens of thousands of years, so we are condemning generations unborn to our unsustainable ways.

As a scientist, I can’t talk about that. I wonder even if our political leaders can. But faith leaders can. That’s what we go to the church, our temples, for—morality and moral behavior. So that’s symbiotic. Science provides the evidence, and religion can pick it up.


The Dalai Lama accepts a framed image of a Sirsoe dalailamai, a deep-sea worm named after him in honor of his 80th birthday. He is photographed with Scripps geophysicist Walter Munk and climate and atmospheric scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan. Courtesy Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

The Dalai Lama accepts a framed image of a Sirsoe dalailamai, a deep-sea worm named after him in honor of his 80th birthday. He is photographed with Scripps geophysicist Walter Munk and climate and atmospheric scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan. Courtesy Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

Boom: And the Dalai Lama is involved as well?

Ramanathan: Yes. I was lucky to be involved with the Dalai Lama when he came here four years ago for a major public event. And then his eightieth birthday celebration was held in July 2015, and I was in the event with him. He talked about climate change. And he, of course, translated beautifully that the way to solve the problem is to have compassion without borders. If what we are doing is affecting somebody else or is affecting Greenland glaciers, we have to have compassion for that. So we have the Pope and we have the Dalai Lama.

Boom: That’s pretty good.

Ramanathan: It’s a great start.

Boom: Do you consider yourself a religious man?

Ramanathan: I would say I’m not an atheist. I’m like most people—I don’t know how to define myself. I’m certainly spiritual. And I honestly don’t know. The reason I hesitate to say I’m religious is that I find religions are dividing us. It’s supposed to unite us, right? Because if there is a God, there has to be only one God. We can’t have competition up there!

So, I’m thinking, why are we all fighting about this? It doesn’t matter what name we call that God, if you agree that God is monotheism. So that’s why I hesitate. I don’t know any more what religion means. Religion looks like it’s a source for killing each other or separating ourselves. It’s one more thing which divides us, whereas spirituality…. See, that’s the thing I think of Pope Francis as—as a moral leader for the world. I have to go back to Gandhi in India. He led a moral fight against the British and won that battle. No big armies could beat the British, but this guy, a topless Indian. I think of Pope Francis like that.

Boom: But a single man can’t solve climate change, right? Everybody has to do something. And how do you communicate that? So far, for many of us, climate change has seemed like this big, huge problem that’s out there. It’s a global problem. Governments need to deal with it. I can’t do anything about it. I’ve got other stuff to worry about.

Ramanathan: I agree with you. I’m not an expert in this field, but something like 45 percent of Americans don’t believe in climate change, or at least they don’t believe you have to do anything about it. That is a catastrophic failure of communication. It’s not a failure of those 45 percent. So then you ask, where have we failed? I don’t know, but listening to the Pope, and listening to what they did to the title of my meeting, “Our Responsibility,” I think we have not brought it to a personal level. We pointed to Exxon and Chevron as the villains.

I was looking for a villain for forty years. Then I found there are two worlds—my world and this bottom three billion world. When I lived in India, I used to go back and forth every five or six days. It was then that I found I was the villain I was looking for. I can’t blame Exxon. I made that choice, right?

So I’m wondering, if people realize they are responsible, whether they will be more amenable to change, because if you are responsible, you can change. And the other thing I’m thinking is that my driving an SUV here could make some villagers in Africa or India homeless, because global warming causes drought. And we know Americans, as a nation, are generous, right? You have earthquakes. You have disasters. American kids are sent there to help, and we send our money, and our clothes. So I’m wondering whether we can tap into that generosity of Americans, if we make it, “Hey, be careful. If you do something, your great-grandchildren, who we have not seen, are going to suffer for it, or somebody sitting in a small village in Kenya, or Rajasthan in India, they’re going to lose their homes because of us.”

I don’t know if that will work or not. I certainly like Pope Francis’s approach, making it our responsibility.

Boom: That’s interesting. It reminds me of the recent poll that showed that the great majority of Americans believe climate change is real, that it’s caused by people, and that they can’t do anything about it. So it’s the third part that we need to change.

Ramanathan: That we can do something about it. But the key first step is we feel responsible for it. I think that’s what the Pope did. See, he made you responsible for it, you and I.

Boom: What do we need to do to succeed in what you have called bending the curve of climate change?

Ramanathan: It’s a technology problem. But my feeling is, having worked with researchers from across the UC system on our report on the top ten solutions, that the technology is there, by and large, to get us halfway there. But I think the first thing it requires, is changing our attitude towards nature. We discussed this last week at the Vatican during a meeting on education for sustainability. We have to start teaching this, from kindergarten on.

We need to educate our kids right now. And the reason is, no matter what we do, we’re still going to face a two-degree warming that many of us think in itself would be quite disastrous. They have to face it, so we have to prepare. We have to prepare them with how to cope with it and how not to repeat our stupid mistakes. And everyone has to know that nature is limited. It has boundaries. That work has to be done immediately in our educational institutions.

I am sad to say, even outstanding universities like UC have not caught on. We don’t see the urgency. I admire what our president did, in pledging carbon neutrality by 2025, but I don’t see that in our education. If I was the chancellor, no undergraduate could graduate without taking one or two courses on the environment. It has to be like literature, part of a broad education. So that has to change.

And I think the second thing is we’ve got to work with the religions. Each one of us, we all go to our church, and I said I’m not religious, but I’m willing to go to church and temple for this. And the third is we have to educate our neighbors, our relatives. Those of us who know it’s a problem, it’s on us. We have to do that. It’s not enough to write our papers anymore. We have to write our papers. But I think people working on environment and climate change have a responsibility beyond writing papers.

This societal transformation, to me, would be the top of my agenda. The rest will follow.

Boom: What do you hope to accomplish in Paris?

Ramanathan: Well, you see, until about three or four days ago my role was more peripheral. I was going to be participating in side events. But I was told that I’m one of the official member delegates of the Holy See now, so I’ve been going back and forth on what exactly is my role. They send a science advisor to help them with their proposals and negotiations, so what I’m hoping, I don’t know if I have that authority, what I’d like to see happen is the Vatican, as a nation, push for a big part of climate financing to go to the bottom three billion, to give them clean energy access, for a number of reasons. They can bypass us and go to renewable energy because they don’t have the infrastructure. They don’t have huge coal-fired power plants to dismantle. They have nothing. So it’s easy to construct distributed power plants. I am going there with a mission, to raise consciousness of the three billion, to help them, and so they can become climate warriors for us.

Boom: And is that what you hope for the summit to accomplish as well?

Ramanathan: The summit first has to persuade the top one billion to de-carbonize. That has to come first, and then comes giving energy access to the more than three billion. It will be demoralizing without having some agreement, but I’m pretty hopeful it’s going to happen. If we have a piece of paper that everyone signed, that states that it is an important problem, we are causing it, and we are going to reduce it by so much, even if it is 10 percent, I’ll be happy. Because my own work suggests that in ten years the changes are going to be so large that the dissenters will go into the minority. There will be a huge cry for doing something about it. Then we have this piece of paper. If you said in the piece of paper 10 percent, just changing the 1 to 4 will be a lot easier than starting with a blank piece of papers. Let’s not get stuck on 10 percent or 80 percent. First, we need that paper, that protocol, saying that we are going to cut emissions.

Boom: That’s interesting because that’s what California has done, isn’t it? Starting with a number—10, 20, 30 percent—and then ratcheting it up every few years to ratchet down on carbon emissions. What do you see as the role of California in all of this?

Ramanathan: Huge. I think we show them how to do it, from technology, from policy, and governance. Those are the three key things. And hopefully, we can do that on education, too. On the education front, that’s what I’m trying to push. Let’s take our report and turn it into a textbook and then teach that course jointly on a minimum of five campuses. If we just enrolled, say, sixty students, about twelve from each campus, but use the best technology, to seamlessly go from one campus to another, each lecture taught by three lecturers from three different campuses. Hopefully, after a couple of years it will become a major online course, reaching tens of thousands, and the message is very simple. It’s a solvable problem. The technology is there. We now have religion working with us. So, let’s talk about that multidimensional aspect of the climate change.

Honestly, if you think a little bit, this climate change problem could impact our evolution, how, as a society, we work together to keep going forward. It will set the stage—if we can do it.


Governor Jerry Brown with Scripps Oceanography climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan at the UC Carbon Neutrality Summit.

Governor Jerry Brown with Scripps Oceanography climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan and UC San Diego Vice Chancellor of Research Sandra Brown at the UC Carbon Neutrality Summit.

Boom: I hear some echoes in what you are saying of the kinds of things that Jerry Brown is saying—that this is an existential crisis. How has he done in communicating and leading on this issue?

Ramanathan: He personally has had a huge impact on me.

Boom: How so?

Ramanathan: Well, he opened my eyes that we need to see the worst possible consequences, that you can’t be completely constrained by your science because your science is not complete. You don’t understand the system. Each of us understands one part. I understand the atmosphere. I don’t understand how it’s going to impact the oceans. He said, given the limitations of science, without compromising your scientific vigor, you need to think about the worst possible consequences, which is what is going to guide policy. That was number one, coming from him.

The second is, I saw him putting that into policy. He said, “I know there’s still some scientific debate going on, but I want to do everything I can to reduce that probability of worst disasters.” So, yeah, he’s now the right person for California. He’s going to put us on a path. I think Schwarzenegger started us on that—we should thank him for that—but this governor, I don’t think anyone I have met realizes the urgency of the situation as much as he does, with the possible exception of Pope Francis. I don’t think any world leaders do, because I’ve not heard them say as much. This man does. And that fact that he is in California, where people are willing to support it—if you have Jerry Brown sitting in the middle of Oklahoma, I don’t think it’s going to happen. But here we can use his support from the top to do a tremendous amount of bottom-up things and then propagate it to the rest of the planet.

Boom: What’s interesting to me about Jerry Brown, and the way that he’s talked about all of this, is that he has put the worst possible scenario in front of the people and said you have to face this. He’s called it an apocalypse. And I’ve always thought that an apocalyptic vision is disempowering. It’s demoralizing. You think if it’s going to be apocalypse, there’s nothing I can do about it. Let me go home and spend time with my family or whatever. He has changed my mind about that, with the caveat that if you talk about the apocalypse you’ve got to talk, at the same time, about what we can do to avoid it. So you put in front of people the worst case scenario, and then you say what we can do to make that not come true. And he’s done that by connecting it to the drought, which some people think is controversial, by connecting it to forest fires, which some people think is premature, because the scientific connections are not super robust. And then he’s said: And here’s what you can do about it. You can conserve water. You can reduce your emissions. We can all work together. So that, I think, is the genius of it, putting those two things together.

Ramanathan: Exactly. It doesn’t make it look hopeless because he has a solution at hand, how we can avoid that. And the environment has pushed him to this road, because he was left fighting the worst drought we have seen. I know some scientists who say, “Oh, we are not clear if this drought is due to climate change.” I look at them and say they have such a limited understanding of science because they think they are going to be able to take an event and say convincingly it’s due to this. We know they will never do that because nature is highly complex. What we can work with is probability and basic physics. Thermodynamics says if you have warming in a region like this, that will promote drought because you are evaporating water crazily from your lakes, from your rivers.

Boom: From the earth itself.

Ramanathan: Yeah. And you’re melting your snowpack. And then water is evaporating from the trees. They dry out. They become fuel. But they are looking for something else. I think what they are looking for is an unscientific rigor. It’s never going to happen. But climate change does cause droughts. I can’t say this particular drought was caused by climate change. What I will argue is that climate change made this drought worse. It would not have been as bad without warming. So Jerry Brown is able to sift through scientific advice. That’s his genius.

Boom: Here in California I understand we’ve cut particulates that cause smog by something like 90 percent.

Ramanathan: The black carbon.

Boom: Yes. And I know we still have air quality problems in the Central Valley and in Los Angeles. But I remember when I was a kid and would come out to visit my grandparents in Pasadena and you couldn’t see the San Gabriel Mountains from their house. Now that’s very rare here. But you can look at air quality monitors worldwide online now and see that there are many, many places in Asia and South Asia where the smog and the black carbon problem is horrendous. Is California’s experience relevant to the rest of the world?

Ramanathan: The air pollution issue is also multidimensional. It has public health consequences—four million deaths a year are related to air pollution. Some air pollutants cause global warming—black carbon, ozone, methane—and they destroy crops, too. So for many, many reasons, you need to get rid of them. And I think this is where the California experience is relevant to India and China. We are starting a program, with Governor Jerry Brown’s help, between India and California.

The general prejudice is, oh, you clean up air pollution and you’re going to destroy your economy. California is saying, no, not necessarily. We have the largest GDP in the U.S. That generates a huge number of jobs. Our population is growing. Our economy is growing. So what California did is a myth buster. For sure, cleaning air pollution costs. It’s not free. But the benefit you get is ten to thirty times more than the money you put into clean up. We have to get that message across. We are trying, but not succeeding so far. When I see that China’s actual coal consumption was 30 percent more than they admitted, I feel sad.

Boom: You researched air pollution in India, but growing up you also experienced it intimately with your grandmother cooking with firewood in the house and suffering some of the consequences. How has that shaped your work?

Ramanathan: At the time it was happening, when I was at my grandmother’s house and she used to cook, it didn’t have any impact on me. It didn’t register. What I did recall later was that after every cooking session, she would be coughing, a really nerve-wracking cough, for an hour or so. It’s not something I watched my watch to see how long it lasted, but it would go on forever. I never related that to the cooking smoke in the kitchen.

When I talked about the Indian Ocean experiment—that was where this brown cloud was discovered—it took one or two years of research to link that to cooking as the major source of pollution. Then I thought, this is a problem I can solve because we all figured out how to cook without producing smog, right? So this is an easy problem I can solve. And I can go back to that Ethiopian girl and tell her, “Yeah, I did something.”

So we started this project, but as a scientist I had to collect data. Remember, I don’t believe anything anybody said. I had to collect the data in the village to convince myself the smoke I am seeing outside is coming from the cooking. That took several years to really pin down. Now there’s no doubt that it’s coming from the firewood. And we are now distributing better stoves. But it’s a very complex problem. It was not as simple of a problem as I thought.

But anyway, I was last there early this year. Every time I go into the kitchen I would always see my grandmother there, so that memory got really implanted. But at the time she was doing it, I didn’t link her cough to this cooking.

Boom: How would you answer that Ethiopian girl today?

Ramanathan: Well, I have a long list of things. I would tell her first about what I did to my house. My house is completely solar. My car is an electric car.

That girl—for four years after—I mean, she had such a horrible impact on me. I started taking the bus. But I live on top of a hill, and the bus doesn’t go to the top of the hill. So I had to walk up. Then I had my second heart attack and I had stents, so I couldn’t walk up the hill. I begged my wife to drop me at the bus stop so I could get the bus.

Then I bought an electric car—it’s charged with solar—so at least I travel guilt-free. But it’s not the Impala. It’s a smart car.

I think of all the things I would say if somebody gave me one minute to talk about the things I’m really proud of. I would say it’s the work in the village to change the cooking fuels, and then my affiliation with the church, and seeing the power of science, religion, and policy working together to solve this problem. So I would now have a message of hope for that girl.