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Justin Ebrahemi

How Environmental Visionary Dorothy Erskine Helped Protect Bay Area Lands

The Bay Area has transformed significantly since Greenbelt Alliance’s advocacy in the 1950’s, but the legacy of Greenbelt Alliance co-founder Dorothy Erskine still impacts and protects our region today.

Erskine was part of a group of environmentally concerned visionaries that first got together to found Citizens for Regional Recreation and Parks, which later became Greenbelt Alliance.

A lifelong resident of San Francisco, Erskine watched the sand dunes and lupin bushes surrounding her home get replaced by housing to support the City’s booming population following the first World War. San Francisco didn’t have an official planning department, so Erskine set out to create one.

“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.”

Along with Jack Kent and other colleagues, Erskine worked to save the Bay Area’s iconic lands including Fort Funston and Point Reyes, while raising awareness of land-use issues through a publication called Regional Exchange. In 1969, the advocates behind Citizens for Regional Recreation and Parks renamed themselves to People for Open Space to reflect the organization’s growing work to protect more than just parks and recreation spaces, but the region’s farms, ranches, and wildlife in order to more holistically serve the Bay Area’s diverse communities. Erskine is credited for protecting much of these Bay Area lands.

Erskine’s advocacy also resulted in the passing of Proposition J in 1974, a charter amendment that allowed San Francisco to set aside funds to buy its last remaining hilltops to preserve open spaces, which she felt were critical during a time of booming development. Erskine was ahead of her time in protecting open space and greenbelts by redirecting smart growth into existing urban areas—a key strategy of Greenbelt Alliance’s work today.

Over the past 65 years, Greenbelt Alliance has grown and evolved in our advocacy and partnerships to achieve success. But our tireless protection of Bay Area lands remains strong as ever, thanks to the original work of Erskine, who also helped found local organizations SPUR and Save the Bay.

A critical participant across civic planning, bay protection and open space preservation, Erskine’s impact continues to protect our precious lands and communities. On this Women’s History Month, we celebrate Greenbelt Alliance’s 65th anniversary by honoring Dorothy Erskine and her lasting legacy.

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