One of the easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint is to start using Berkeley’s extensive network of pedestrian footpaths, ramps and stairways. They connect our hilly neighborhoods to commercial areas, Tilden Park, and public transportation and offer endless opportunities for leisurely hikes, scenic rambles, and fitness walks.
It’s hard to say exactly how many paths there are. One hundred thirty-six paths comprise the official system of named and numbered paths, but some of those have more than one section. Other public walkways have no names or numbers, including those crisscrossing the UC-Berkeley campus and the Berkeley Marina and running inside city parks. Others have names but no numbers, like the sections of the Ohlone Greenway and the Santa Fe Right of Way that run through Berkeley.
Developers built most of the paths along with houses in the city’s hilliest neighborhoods during the boom years after the San Francisco earthquake. City planners envisioned a community where the north-south streets followed the natural curves of the topography, and the paths would provide vital east-west connections.
Using the paths, pedestrians could reach parks, schools, and shopping areas as well as the East Bay’s stellar network of streetcar lines, including routes across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco. The arrangement worked well for many years. But as the automobile came to rule transportation, momentum to complete the system waned. Some of the lesser-used paths were neglected, and others that had been planned were never built.
In the end, only about three-quarters of the planned paths were installed. The remaining city-owned rights of way become increasingly difficult to find—let alone walk on—as weeds and brambles took over, and some neighbors extended fences, landscaping, decks, and even dog runs over them.
The 1991 Berkeley-Oakland fire brought new attention to the paths because they enabled firefighters and their hoses to reach the flames. Increasing interest in ecology and physical fitness further fueled the perception that the paths were a valuable public asset and critical for emergencies. More and more residents and hikers began to discover them and wonder about their state of disrepair.
That concern led four Berkeley women to found the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association 10 years ago to preserve, restore, and encourage people to use the paths. The first meeting had 55 attendees. The group now counts more than 600 members.
Although the city maintains the paths it owns, Path Wanderers began to advise Berkeley officials on which ones most needed attention and to lobby for simple repairs to steps and railings. The group also worked with the city to replace missing signs.
Next, Path Wanderers volunteers started to resurrect those long-neglected and lost paths. The group sponsored weekend work parties to clear encroaching vegetation and install timber steps. The successful partnership with the city has led to the construction of two concrete staircases on particularly steep slopes, and the opening of the three-part Glendale Path. Chiefly under the direction of Path Building Chair Charlie Bowen, the group has opened or improved 23 paths.
Perhaps best known for its popular Berkeley Pathways map, Path Wanderers have sold nearly 17,000 copies since it appeared in 2000. Printed on durable, water- and stain-resistant paper, the easy-to-read map was the first one that clearly showed the location of all the paths, both the passable and the impassible. It also included the location of creeks still flowing through Berkeley and the course of historic ones, like Potters Creek, that were diverted into culverts long ago.
The fourth edition of the map, released last summer, adds a street index, shows more paths in adjacent communities and parks that link to those in Berkeley, and marks the location of traffic barriers. The $7 map is available in local stores and through the Path Wanderers website (www.berkeleypaths.org).
The map makes it easy to plan routes along the paths. Walks can be planned to feature interesting architecture, local history, impressive gardens, works of art, or even bird watching. The names of the paths—Keeler, Berryman, Bret Harte, Anne Brower—provide a who’s who of Berkeley luminaries. Regardless of the paths you take, you can enjoy spectacular views and a good aerobic workout. And, of course, making walking the paths part of your routine saves energy and helps the environment.
Path Wanderers also offers two guided walks a month, on first Wednesdays and varying Saturdays.
On Saturday, Feb. 9, the route includes two Berkeley waterfalls and dramatic volcanic rocks. Path Wanderers also hosts public lectures on local history, architecture, geology, and flora and fauna.
Dr. Gordon Frankie of UC Berkeley will speak on the importance of native bees and other pollinators at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7 at Redwood Gardens (2951 Derby St.). All events are free and open to the public. Membership, which includes the group’s newsletter, is just $5 per year.
More information about the paths, their history, and the activities of the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association is available at www.berkeleypaths.org.
Photograph by Mary Lynch.
Path building leader Charlie Bowen checks a step installed by Meredith Kaplan during the construction of Stoddard Path that runs between Miller Avenue and Grizzly Peak.