Land use in our society is generally an "either-or" proposition. Any given site is zoned for industry or housing or open space, but rarely more than one use at a time. And we compartmentalize one land use from another by drawing thick black lines on our land-use maps, often in a completely arbitrary way.
That thick black line has grown a little thinner on 471 acres of land, nearly half of which lie underwater, owned by Dow Chemical in the city of Pittsburg. In this waterfront spot of Contra Costa County, Dow undertook the creation of a nature preserve with several types of habitat, including 170 acres of tidal wetlands, on land that previously had been used as an illegal dumping site. Nowadays, the Dow preserve is not only a functional wildlife habitat, but it is also an outdoor classroom for middle and high school students who arrive by the busload to pull weeds and plant oak acorns. The general public is even allowed access to the site on certain days, which has effectively changed the former dump into public open space. The cost of this large-scale remediation project: a lot of time and sweat, but almost no cash.
Dow bought the land in 1989 to serve as a buffer between the community and Dow’s Pittsburg plant, which makes pesticides and anti-bacterial agents. The buffer had been farmland that flooded in 1989, after a barge breached a levy, and saltwater from the Delta.
For several years, Pittsburg officials had contemplated a housing and retail complex on the site. After Dow bought the site, however, the corporation joined the Wildlife Habitat Council, a non-profit group in Baltimore, Maryland, that encourages the restoration of habitat on corporate lands. Through the council’s Corporate Lands for Learning program, the council has "certified" nearly 400 corporate efforts to restore degraded lands.
Among the first people to get involved were about 30 Dow employees and ex-employees who volunteered their time and labor to remove garbage from the site. Another early volunteer was Steve Andrews, coordinator of the University of California, Berkeley, Environmental Teaching Program, which has an outreach program to educate school children on the local level. Dow itself contributed about $10,000 in incidental costs.
Andrews described the "core" group of Dow volunteers "as a bunch of "high-powered folks," some current employees and others Dow retirees who lent their efforts and what he called their "Type-A personalities" to the project. "They are out there every Friday, some 80 years old, working this ground, putting in acorns, laying PVC pipe (for irrigation), pulling weeds, planting oak trees and pine trees and wildflowers," Andrews said. One of the first steps was to remove 13 car bodies that lay abandoned in the marshy meadows. One of the most difficult on-going problems is the removal of invasive plants, particularly the water hyacinth, which tends to cover and choke off waterways, as well as attract heavy metals, particularly mercury. When Andrews and the Dow volunteers first arrived, the hyacinths were overgrown and flourishing. Some plants stood five feet tall. The removal method requires attaching a shredding mechanism to a boat, and feeding the offending plants into the metal teeth of the shredder.
Dow’s Pittsburg property has turned out to be a rich site for first-hand environmental studies, according to Andrews, because the meadows contain several distinct communities — tidal marsh, riparian fringe, bunch-grass savannah and upland habitat — and the transitional areas between them. "You should see how much the plant life has changed here in the past five years," he said. About 200 animal species live in the site, including coyote, beaver, fox, raccoon and skunk.
As an educator, Andrews sees great value in what he calls the "trans-generational" nature of teaching students about wildlife habitats on the Dow property, because the students have direct contact with Dow retirees who are devoting much of their time to restoring the land. Andrews said, "It gives these kids an important message, that ‘I need to be caring, I need to be more actively involved in the land and the way it is being managed.’"
What’s in the deal for Dow? Essentially, good public relations. The dedication of property for a wetlands preserve reflects the priority that Dow gives to education and environmental repair, said spokeswoman Sheryl Sturgis.
School children are not the only ones who can learn from the Dow preserve. Planners, corporations and the tenants of business parks could all examine their attitudes. While few companies have 500 acres of fallow land lying around, many industrial and office parks have plentiful acreage of expansion space that could have habitat value. Rather than limiting the open space components of a business park to unbuildable hillsides or waterways, we could seek to integrate habitat and open space more intimately into commercial campuses. One possible approach is to restrict landscaping choices to native species and plan the corporate development around habitat trails, so that an entire business park could have some habitat value in the aggregate.
Granted, this is a very large subject, but projects like the Dow preserve suggest that a more inclusive approach between commercial-industrial development and habitat restoration is feasible, and worth thinking about in a state that has destroyed much of its natural habitat within the last century and a half. Land can do more than one thing at a time. It can support both business and habitat. Maybe the time is approaching to rethink the notion of single-use planning.