What is “environmental history?” The working definition is: “a branch of scholarship that focuses on studying the interaction between human culture and the environment over time.” By that measure, an environmental history of Golden Gate Park would logically start in 1870 at the inception of the park (which is definitely a product of human culture!) and explore environmental changes associated with the park over the past 140 years. Since, by 1870 the San Francisco peninsula had already witnessed considerable environmental change due to human presence, a truly thorough environmental history of the park (as a site) might begin with an analysis of what the area was like before the arrival of humans, or at least before the arrival of settlers of European descent. But the fact is, the history of the park proper has really only unfolded since 1870. And the park and the city of San Francisco have grown together. Which is why most historians have focused on the cultural aspects of the park’s history, i.e. on the people who have shaped it, on the park as a work of art, a cultural phenomenon, in the context of city politics, etc.
Yet framing the history of the park in terms of environmental history raises so many interesting questions that have not been addressed! Starting with the most basic: how have soil, water and air quality changed in and around the park? How have the topography and the hydrological patterns changed and what are the environmental consequences of those changes? How has the the composition of wildlife changed (both in the park itself and in the surrounding environment)? When did certain populations start to decline in and around the park (quail?) and what environmental changes precipitated those declines? Have new species appeared and thrived? When did the first english and cape ivy appear in the park and what were the major factors that contributed to their flourishing? When did the first signs of aging appear in the park’s urban forest (did those cypresses, pines and eucalyptus thrive normally, planted on sand dunes with only a thin layer of topsoil)?
It would be fascinating to chart the environmental history of Golden Gate Park over its first 150 years. Wouldn’t it be eye-opening to see a GIS map of the park over that time, with layers for topography, soils, water, vegetation, wildlife and cultural changes in and around the park . . . a visual inventory of environmental change over the past 150 years?! What important insights might be gained from such a history, lessons that could help us in planning for the park’s future in an era when we are increasingly concerned about environmental impacts!
But what a challenging project; so much of this history has been lost! What this exercise really shows is that we could be developing a baseline environmental inventory of the park right now, at this point in its environmental history, so we at least have the environmental picture of it today. Then we could base future planning on sound environmental data.