San Francisco’s environmental pioneers had one thing in common: They were all women

Celebrating the forces behind The City’s eco-identity on International Women’s Day

Before San Francisco had a citywide tree-planting program, there was Friedel Klussmann. Before City laws protected the rolling hilltops from overcrowding, there was Dorothy Erskine. Before there was a movement to defend San Francisco Bay from filling in with development, there were Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr, and Esther Gulick.

San Francisco has long been thought of as an environmental leader on the world stage, but behind this identity exists a long history of women who fought freeways, protected open spaces, and saved the Bay.

“There was this network of civically-minded ladies that provided the leadership that helped save the region,” said Amanda Brown-Stevens, executive director of Greenbelt Alliance, a Bay Area-based environmental nonprofit.

Given the times, she said, “these women weren’t going to go into leadership positions or even have jobs. And at the same time, they still had that civic energy….and didn’t necessarily have a lot of outlets for that.”

In celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, The Examiner is highlighting a few of those women who, despite many odds, made The City’s eco-identity possible.

Friedel Klussmann and Mr. A. O. Olson examine the Powell and Market Street Cable Car turntable in May 1949. (Courtesy SFMTA Photo Archive)

Friedel Klussmann and Mr. A. O. Olson examine the Powell and Market Street Cable Car turntable in May 1949. (Courtesy SFMTA Photo Archive)

For Friedel Klussmann, it started with cable cars. Or rather, it started with the threat of losing them.

Following World War II, many, including then-Mayor Roger Lapham, saw the future paved with asphalt and gas-powered automobiles. “Cable cars were already antiques at that time,” said Darcy Brown, executive director of San Francisco Beautiful, a nonprofit Klussman founded in 1947.

But Lapham’s plan to “junk the cable cars” was complicated by Klussmann, who formed a coalition to oppose the measure and began a public campaign to demonstrate that the value of San Francisco’s cable cars was greater than their operational cost.

“Friedel Klussman was just your average neighborhood lady,” said Brown. But, “she decided this was not a good idea. She was far more forward-thinking than the mayor.”

Ultimately, Klussamn’s actions forced a referendum on an amendment to the city charter, compelling the city to continue operating the lines. “Diesel buses did not prompt romance in the minds of riders, and there were no thrills to be found in chugging over a hill, belching exhaust fumes as it went,” the Cable Car museum wrote in commemoration of Klussman’s victory.

But her civic activism did not stop there. In the 1960s, her organization partnered with the Chamber of Commerce to jumpstart San Francisco’s first tree planting program and merged with the Chamber’s litter program to clean City streets and promote green space throughout the city.

Preservation of open space was also important to Dorothy Erskine, a lifelong resident of San Francisco who watched as the sand dunes and lupin bushes surrounding her home on Broadway and Divisadero gave way to housing as the City’s population boomed following the first World War.

“You saw the city begin to fill up with people,” she said during an oral interview with the San Francisco Public Library. “And after a certain point, the filling up process was anything but welcome. You wanted the open spaces. You wanted something left.”

In the late 1930s, Erskine and a cohort of women who attended the University of California Berkeley became engaged in urban planning and conserving the City’s dwindling open spaces.

Dorothy Erskine in an undated photo. (Courtesy the Greenbelt Alliance)

Dorothy Erskine in an undated photo. (Courtesy the Greenbelt Alliance)

At the time, the City did not have an official planning department, so Erskine, who felt that urban planning was crucial to solving some of the most pressing social problems, including the jerry-building of public housing in places like Chinatown, set out to create one.

“There was a real push at the time that modernizing meant developing everywhere,” said Brown-Stevens. “And I think women like Dorothy said hey, what part of what makes the Bay Area special is the natural landscape that surrounds us.”

Erskine, who also founded SPUR and The Greenbelt Alliance, is primarily credited for the passage of Proposition J in 1974, a charter amendment that allowed the City to set aside funds to buy its last remaining hilltops to preserve open spaces, which she felt were critical to balance out the skyrocketing development.

“It really was this moment of “‘we need to step up as citizens,’” said Brown-Stevens. “It was this idea that local people can stand up and make a difference by putting together and advocating for a different pattern of development. And that, I think, has been a huge legacy and is what is special about the Bay Area.”

But it wasn’t just San Francisco’s land that was filling up with people and development. It was also the Bay.

By the late 1950s, nearly a third of San Francisco Bay’s tidelands had already been diked off and filled, and plans to expand such landfills throughout the region were on the rise. Berkeley, for example, sought to double in size, proposing a plan to pave over nearly 2000 acres of Bay.

But an Oakland Tribune article outlining the plans galvanized Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr, and Esther Gulick – all wives of prominent UC Berkeley faculty members – into action. “It showed that the Bay could end up being nothing but a deepwater ship channel by the year 2020 because of the enormous amount of fill being planned,” Gulick said in a speech at UC Berkeley in 1988.

As soon as the trio began organizing, it quickly became apparent that there was scant interest in helping three women save the Bay. “It was totally a man’s world,” said David Lewis, executive director of Save The Bay, an environmental nonprofit. “There were almost no women elected officials. The leaders of the conservation organizations, which were national organizations focused on protecting wilderness, those leaders were all men.”

Lewis added that this was before this spirit of environmentalism permeated the Bay Area. “There were basically no environmental laws or regulations to prevent (fill) from happening, and there wasn’t even that much public awareness that it was happening,” he said.

To spread awareness, McLaughlin, Kerr, and Gulick began hosting gatherings in their homes that Erskine also attended. “They built a movement with phone calls and handwritten letters,” said Lewis.

Eventually, the movement gained steam. Membership to Save San Francisco Bay Association, now known as Save The Bay, skyrocketed along with public support. A study was commissioned to examine the impacts of such fill. A moratorium was placed on filling the Bay until the study could be completed.

This momentum eventually led to the passage of the McAteer-Petris Act in 1965, which established the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) as a temporary state agency, designated the Bay as a State-protected resource, and charged BCDC preserving the Bay from indiscriminate filling.

Today, BCDC is a permanent agency that protects and preserves the Bay. After decades of stewardship, the size of the Bay has increased significantly and hosts the nation’s largest urban wildlife refuge and thousands of acres of permanently protected wetlands, salt ponds, and managed marsh.

“These women were heroes, not only for what they did, but the environment in which they did it, which was not particularly welcoming to women,” said Lewis. “Women were the last people that anybody in the halls of power was expecting to listen to.”

Though it can be easy to take San Francisco’s tree-lined streets, scrubby hilltops and sprawling blue Bay for granted, let today be a reminder that you can thank a woman for that.

The dedication of Dorothy Erskine Park on February 24, 1979. From left: Mayor Dianne Feinstein; an unknown woman; Tom Malloy; Dorothy Erskine; and Ken Hoegger with microphone. (Photo by Greg Gaar, courtesy of Ken Hoegger and the Sunnyside History Project)

The dedication of Dorothy Erskine Park on February 24, 1979. From left: Mayor Dianne Feinstein; an unknown woman; Tom Malloy; Dorothy Erskine; and Ken Hoegger with microphone. (Photo by Greg Gaar, courtesy of Ken Hoegger and the Sunnyside History Project)

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