Last month, the Port of San Francisco released its Draft Waterfront Plan. (Courtesy photo)

Last month, the Port of San Francisco released its Draft Waterfront Plan. (Courtesy photo)

Researchers set out to map San Francisco’s past

Researchers plan to virtually re-construct the ecology and hydrology of San Francisco pre-European contact

The afternoon of July 31, 1846 — 173 years ago today — was almost “lifeless” in the quaint, little town we now call San Francisco. Edward Cleveland Kemble, the City’s first newspaper editor, recalled as he stood on Jackson Street watching a solitary ship sail into the Bay.

“The dense growth of dwarfed and wind-flattered shrubbery covering these hills extended down within 300 feet of the plaza, or about the line of Dupont [Grant] street” Kemble wrote in 1871. “This brush was the cover of coyotes and rabbits, wildcats, and sometimes larger game, and was inhabited by innumerable quail, whose answering calls on that memorable first sunset walk I can even now hear through the lapse of time.”

Today, the calls of quails have been replaced with the din of cars, sirens and innumerable conversations. We have built skyscrapers on the sand dunes and tidal marshes where Grizzly bears once roamed. The fragrant sea air that blew through those shrubs that afternoon now has a slightly different odor.

The City will never again look the way Kemble remembered it. But a team of researchers led by the nonprofit San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) are working to recreate it virtually. The project, dubbed Hidden Nature SF, launched last week at a kickoff event hosted by the Exploratorium. Researchers plan to construct the ecology and hydrology of San Francisco pre-European contact, and engage the public in their work.

But the research serves other purposes. The City, like much of the developed world, is struggling with numerous environmental challenges. The past may provide new solutions for addressing climate change and significant losses in biodiversity.

“The reason why we study the Battle of Gettysburg isn’t because we want to re-fight the battle,” Dr. Eric Sanderson of the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society, a partner on Hidden Nature SF, said at the event. “It’s so we can understand how it shaped today.”

The past has shaped San Francisco’s present before. The Presidio Trust, which is also partnering on Hidden Nature SF, has transformed the former military base into a vibrant and biologically diverse park by restoring historic features and species. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and Seep City author, Joel Pomerantz, have also developed historic watershed maps that can help inform sewer improvement projects.

Researchers with Hidden Nature SF will build on this past work, as well as annual bird counts, 19th-century maps and historic accounts. It’s a process similar to other efforts in Shanghai and Jerusalem. But instead of going back millennia, researchers only need to go back 250 years.

“Some shapes are still the same,” Robin Grossinger, a historical ecologist at SFEI, told me. “There are still places where the land escapes the concrete seal.”

Unearthing San Francisco’s historical ecology can help areas of The City most at risk of sea-level rise and flooding, such as the waterfront. As San Francisco’s port and downtown were developed, massive amounts of fill was added to the Bay. The shallow tidal waters Kemble may have recognized became the Embarcadero Seawall, Ferry Building, Exploratorium and much of San Francisco’s eastern downtown district.

While this work helped our city grow, it also has made the waterfront extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise, storms and other climate impacts. Already, the Northern Waterfront, Mission Creek and the areas around Islais Creek and Heron’s Head Park flood during King Tide events and storms. If it gets worse, floods could extend into parts of downtown San Francisco.

Last month, the Port of San Francisco released its Draft Waterfront Plan. It recognized these challenges and set goals for the future, such as building natural infrastructure into improvement projects and creating waterfront edges without concrete where appropriate. The information gathered through Hidden Nature SF can help and inform these efforts.

“We kind of messed up,” Grossinger said about the resilience of San Francisco’s waterfront. “But there are still components we can use to buffer and soften the intensities of storms.”

The City is constantly changing — clinging to the past won’t stop this inevitability. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore history. The quaint little town of Yerba Buena can help us build a safer and more secure City of San Francisco.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at

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