Chapter 4

By the end of the 1950s the question of open space formed a core of the conservation ethos. Rome notes that attempts to save open spaces was the first time efforts were made to tackle postwar development patterns and would shape how builders had to deal with environmental obligations. (p. 120)

The open space movement was “a critical stage in the evolution of modern environmental movement” (120). Builders failed to provide green spaces, simply seeking to “maximize the number of lots per tract,” even though “the growth of suburbs destroyed thousands of acres of unmatched productivity.” (122-123) The preservation of green space showed the dichotomy between predevelopment and pro-conservation. The 1960s witnessed the growing concerns over the preservations of wetlands. Although this conflicted with private ownership, property owners seemed receptive.

Open space politics were rooted in changes occurring in building practices and regulations after World War II.

  • For the first time, building was dominated by large-scale operations using mass-production to create new neighborhoods. During the 1950s, 15 million new homes were built mostly on the edge of cities. Sizes of lots also increased, which likewise expanded the footprint of metropolitan areas. The U.S. Census noted in 1950 that 5.9 percent of the nation’s land was suburban or urban; by 1960 that figure was 8.7 percent; by 1970 it was 10.9 percent. Rome notes: “Throughout the 1950s, the nation’s cities and suburbs took a million more acres every year – a territory larger than Rhode Island.” (p. 120)
  • Development techniques also changed after World War II. Builders no longer had to work around wetlands or hillsides; with new economies of large-scale construction builders could use any landscape they wanted. Between 1950 and 1970 a million acres of marshes, swamps, bogs, and coastal estuaries were destroyed for urban development. Hillsides also became accessible locations for building; one of the most popular housing styles in the 1950s – the split level – was designed to fit on steeply sloped lots. (p. 121)
  • The result of these changing development techniques was fewer and fewer open spaces as terrain was used up for development. (p. 121)

Open-space advocates also argued that by using up farmland, the nation was losing a resource vital to its productivity. California in particular, lost much of its “vital productive resource.” The acreage loss in California was small compared to the total acreage in the United States, but the argument focused around the wisdom of building on prime land. Rome notes that the issue also came down to culture: in the 1950s around 10 million people left farms, and the outcry against suburbanization in the farmlands was a way to “express anxiety about the social consequences of a profound demographic change – if the city continued to swallow up the country, would Americans forget the ‘agrarian’ virtues which had made the nation great?”1 (pp. 123-124)

Quotes Raymond Dasmann (p. 139) on the “destruction of California”:

Already we have filled the San Francisco Bay basin with housing, industry, airfields, and highways, from the tops of the hills to the edge of the water. The same thing has happened to Los Angeles. In the Central Valley, from the head in the sloughs leading to San Francisco Bay as far east as the Sierra foothills, one housing tract replaces another in a formless mass of suburbs that have been aptly named ‘slurbs.’ If it could end at this it would be bad enough, but reparable. Instead, the process goes on. Housing and industry spread even farther, engulfing farm and forest, marsh and pasture with no end in sight except the dismal one of a gigantic, disorganized metropolis, filling much of the state and depending for its food on distant lands.2

  1. See T.J. Kent, Jr., “The Meaning of Open Space in the Metropolian Environment,” in Frances W. Herring, ed., Regional Parks and Open Space: Selected Conference Papers (Berkeley: University of California Bureau of Public Administration, 1961), p. 12; Luther Gulick, “The City’s Challenges in Resource Use,” in Henry Jarrett, ed., Perspectives on Conservation: Essays on America’s Natural Resources (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1958), 127-128; Raymond F. Dasmann, The Destruction of California (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 124-137; James P. Degnan, “Santa Clara: The Bulldozer Crop,” The Nation 200 (March 8, 1965): 242-245; Rebecca Conard, “Green Gold: 1950s Greenbelt Planning in Santa Clara County, California,” Environmental History Review 9 (1985): 5-18; Tim Lehman, Public Values, Private Lands: Farmland Preservation Policy, 1933-1985 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

  2. Dasmann, The Destruction of California, p. 19.