OUR BETTER NATURE:

ENVIRONMENT AND THE MAKING OF SAN FRANCISCO

PHILIP J. DREYFUS  

 

A superlative history of the acts of imagination that have kept San Francisco greener than the rest.

— Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles

 

From Twin Peaks to Tahoe, sand dunes to subdivisions, San Francisco has etched its history on the landscape in swift and sharp strokes.  Environmental historian Philip Dreyfus provides a valuable addition to the literature on San Francisco while allowing us to judge for ourselves whether today's city in fact represents our better nature.

— Richard Walker, author of The Countryside in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

From the Author:

When most people think of cities, they think of them as the most un-natural environments imaginable.  They consider the city to be artificial while nature is to be found somewhere else, far from human habitation.  This gut reaction stems from the feeling that human beings are somehow outside of nature, that our relationship to the rest of the earth is one of “us” and “it.”  It is a feeling that carries a cost.  This book offers its readers an opportunity to think about how cities develop by reshaping nature, how urban life has influenced our thinking about nature in ironic ways, and how re-imagining our place and the place of our cities in nature is necessary for building a more environmentally equitable world.

 

 

 
Radio Interview - KPFA 94.1 FM, "Cover to Cover" with Denny Smithson (June 29, 2009)
From the Publisher:

Few cities are so dramatically identified with their environment as San Francisco—the landscape of hills, the expansive bay, the engulfing fog, and even the deadly fault line shifting below. Yet most residents think of the city itself as separate from the natural environment on which it depends. In Our Better Nature, Philip J. Dreyfus recounts the history of San Francisco from Indian village to world-class metropolis, focusing on the interactions between the city and the land and on the generations of people who have transformed them both. Dreyfus examines the ways that San Franciscans remade the landscape to fit their needs, and how their actions reflected and affected their ideas about nature, from the destruction of wetlands and forests to the creation of Golden Gate and Yosemite parks, the Sierra Club, and later, the birth of the modern environmental movement. Today, many San Franciscans seek to strengthen the ties between cities and nature by pursuing more sustainable and ecologically responsible ways of life. Consistent with that urge, Our Better Nature not only explores San Francisco’s past but also poses critical questions about its future. Dreyfus asks us to reassess our connection to the environment and to find ways to redefine ourselves and our cities within nature. Only with such an attitude will San Francisco retain the magic that has always charmed residents and visitors alike.

Reviews

Concise and thoughtful, often eloquent and always well argued, Our Better Nature illuminates the symbiosis of urban space and countryside, emphasizing that theirs is a dynamic interaction, not a static linkage. Especially for audiences previously unfamiliar with the intricate natural underpinnings of urban landscapes, whether undergraduate students or intrigued members of the general public, Dreyfus's work presents many opportunities to inform and provoke. It deserves a place on many bookshelves.

— Peter J. Blodgett in Environmental History, October 2010

This is environmental history in the mode of Fernand Braudel, urban history as practiced by Raymond Williams, and economic history inspired by Karl Marx.  In this story, the local is always in conversation with the global.  Commerce lies at the heart of human relationships, and geography matters....  Dreyfus’s greatest contribution is to go beyond the familiar story of environmental conquest.  Even as they remade nature into the city, San Franciscans of all social classes developed new ways of perceiving and valuing the nonhuman world.... This highly readable book is accessible to non-specialists and ideal for classroom use.  It is a welcome addition to the growing literature combining urban history and environmental history, particularly in the American West.

 

— Matthew Morse Booker in Pacific Historical Review, August 2010

 

An environmental mantra is to "design with nature." This volume examines the history of San Francisco and the "human effort to reorganize nature in ways that would produce the most desirable results—human comfort, wealth, and advancement." Overall, this is a fascinating look at human intervention in environmental rearrangement.

 

— Patricia Ann Owens in California History, June 2010

 

Despite the fact that the San Francisco Bay Area has been a center of the environmental movement, there has been no account of the environmental forces that have shaped the city until the publishing of Our Better Nature.  This lack has now been amply filled by Philip Dreyfus' superb analysis in this must-read book.  Dreyfus masterfully tackles such topics as the need for open spaces and for water...and brilliantly describes the issues and the processes by which these needs were met.  The focus on land management and urban growth shows how San Franciscans remade the landscape and how nature was "managed" in the city's growth and choices.

 

Charles Fracchia for Panorama, the Newsletter of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, January 2010

 

Author Philip J. Dreyfus has penned a fantastic new book, detailing the history of the urban growth of San Francisco and the delicate balancing act of managing its place in nature against the demands of an ever-growing population. Dreyfus weaves a fascinating narrative; from the city's earliest inhabitants, the Ohlone tribe, to the Spanish conquistadors; the Gold Rush of 1849 to the birth of the Sierra Club and the modern environmental movement, spearheaded by John Muir. From the battle over the use of Hetch Hetchy, the Bay Area's big quake of 1906, the early designs and planning of Golden Gate Park, to the freeway battle of 1959, one gets a new perspective on how one of the most compelling locations in California became the city we call San Francisco.  Dreyfus admittedly is a fan of words and his choice of the title Our Better Nature was no coincidence. His narrative history of our region begs us to ask the question about how we will steward this wondrous area in the years to come and balance the requirements of urban living, design and the environment. This region demands that of us and on a wider scale, so does our planet. We may not have all the answers yet, but Dreyfus' Our Better Nature is a great place to start. 

 

— E. “Doc” Smith for BeyondChron, June 2009