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Opening The Creek

September 16, 2009
by DS
Image source: Photograph Courtesy of Ecocity Builders

Back in the 1800s, Strawberry Creek ran through downtown Berkeley, where it was crossed by a bridge and a railroad trestle. The bridge and trestle are long gone, and the creek itself has been diverted into an underground culvert as it leaves the campus and meets Oxford Sttreet. Now some are hoping that the creek can return to downtown. If Center Street is going to become a pedestrian plaza between Shattuck and Oxford, they argue, why not have Strawberry Creek run down the middle?

A wonderful idea in theory, but as John King, the architecture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, has noted, the Strawberry Creek culvert runs down Allston Way, not Center Street. “What’s proposed is an artificial water feature,” he wrote in a column last spring. “No matter how clever the landscaping might be, there’d be an ersatz feel—not some symbolic, seductive fusion of city and Mother Earth.”

King’s column spurred a furious response from eco-city activist Richard Register, a longtime advocate of “daylighting” (exposing) the creek. “The course of the creek is not the essential,” he parried in his blog. “When a landslide shifts a creek a hundred yards to one side does it cease to be a creek? Absolutely not.” In contrast, he says, “When a creek is buried it ceases to be a creek in the essence of what a creek is.” Register’s nonprofit, Ecocity Builders, has hired landscape architect and Cal professor Walter Hood to develop a conceptual design that will dispel King’s “ersatz” allegation.

Matt Taecker, the principal planner for the downtown area plan, doesn’t think that ersatz is necessarily bad. The downtown plan favors a “water feature with a connection to Strawberry Creek”—a connection that he says could be purely symbolic. “You could teach people about creek ecology in a very dense and active part of downtown,” he says. “But whether you need to redirect the actual creek remains to be seen.”

From the November December 2007 New Media issue of California.

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