Public Comment

Commentary: Correcting the Record on Urban Development

By Doug Fielding
Friday June 30, 2006

EDITOR’S NOTE: This commentary appears only on our website. 


The Berkeley Daily Planet gave Joanne Kowalski quite a bit of space to put forth her theory on urban development. The tome started out with a quote from noted sociologist Herbert Gans essentially saying that development is for the people who live in the area now, not the future tenants. This was followed by the fact that primary reason people move is noise, heavy traffic, deteriorating infrastructure and crime in that order. She then extrapolates this to the construction of the land around Ashby BART and a lighted athletic field across from residential neighborhood. This would result in increases of all the above reasons to move and therefore longer term residents would relocate and the neighborhood would “become more transitory and crime to increase.” 

Unfortunately the theory is wrong and Herbert Gans would be rolling over in his grave to have his thinking associated with this specious reasoning. Crime statistics show a reduced rate of crime around athletic fields for the simple reason that most criminals are not interested in an audience. A playing field has people coming and going all the time so there are increased numbers of people who might be witness to their crime, hence the reduced crime rate. Also if the theory were correct the areas around San Pablo Park, Grove Street Park and James Kenney would have a residential turnover substantially higher than other areas of the city. This just isn’t the case. 

And the impact of an athletic field on a neighborhood as a noise and traffic generator is nothing compared to a hospital or a school. Would Herbert Gans oppose the construction of these noise and traffic generating facilities? Alta Bates is located in the Elmwood, one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city and even the Bateman neighborhood, directly across the street from the hospital, rarely has houses come on the market. 

What is true is that most people resist change of any kind. When we proposed putting athletic fields, now known as Harrison Park, in the industrial area on the Berkeley Albany border people railed that this was a terrible place for playing fields because parents would complain about the industrial noise, traffic and smells. Businesses would come under increasing pressure to leave and the more appropriate place for this type of land development would be in a residential neighborhood where it would be more accessible to the people who would use the fields. And the skateboarders, oh my God, even the people running the Homeless Shelter wanted a barrier between those drug dealing bums and their clients. In fact none of the fears materialized and there is general consensus that the playing fields have not only been of no burden to the surrounding businesses (not one parental complaint in five years) but have actually helped improve the neighborhood. And the people at the Homeless Shelter are generally quite pleased with the activity at the park. 

When we proposed playing fields on the west side of the freeway, in Eastshore State Park, every environmental group from the Sierra Club to Save the Bay opposed putting them in THAT location. Athletic fields were going to ruin the park like setting and pour tons of toxic chemicals into the bay. Why not put them in a more appropriate residential location was their cry. We are all now working together and when the Gilman Fields open up this winter, I think many readers of the Planet will discover the area between Gilman and University with its off-leash nature trail and dog park, no dog nature area, and sunsets at the seashore. 

Those of us who have been involved in community land development are fully aware that a change in the way things have been is always met by resistance by those who are fearful of what the change might bring. But rather than trotting out some unsubstantiated social theory as a reason to squash development of a playing field or the Ashby BART station we are all better served by encouraging the community dialogue. What I find most amusing in many of these discussions, like the one presented by Ms. Kowalski, is that there is talk about the need for reduced urban sprawl, reduced traffic, etc. but they oppose, in the case of the Ashby Project, developing housing that is convenient to mass transit—the very development concept championed by people who want to reduce sprawl and traffic. 


Doug Fielding is a Berkeley resident.