We must protect People’s Park’s plant life

Four people plant trees at People's Park
Annika Constantino/Staff

On Dec. 28, UC Berkeley cut down dozens of trees in People’s Park. The long-deferred maintenance was initiated to the disappointment of many community members. In People’s Park’s 50th year, we need to speak up to university and city officials and our neighbors to make sure this community landmark is treated with respect.

The trees in People’s Park have legal and historical standing as part of People’s Park’s landmark status, a special status conferred by the city of Berkeley in 1984 to honor People’s Park’s historical and cultural significance. While the landmark status doesn’t entirely protect People’s Park from development, it clarifies the importance of the park to the Berkeley community and to admirers worldwide.

This background is critical; in 1979, the university paved the west end of the park without warning in an attempt to turn it into a UC-only fee lot. The community, in response, occupied the west end, tore out the asphalt and replaced it with plants donated from all over the Bay Area, a festival-like period when people lined up for an opportunity to use shared pickaxes and shovels. Then-mayor Gus Newport restrained the police while the community reorganized the west end into the community garden it is today.

The biodiversity of the east end’s trees is part of People’s Park’s user-developed landmark status and cultural and historical significance. We must make sure future generations are not robbed of this part of People’s Park’s distinctive legacy. Urban gardener David Axelrod’s map and inventory of the native plants indicates that the east end includes 18 separate native plant community groups: the redwood forest section, the closed-cone pine section, the pygmy forest subsection, the palm desert oasis, the Douglas fir forest section, the north coast scrub and sea bluff section, the great basin section, the Sierran forest section, the oak woodland section, the Big Sur bed subsection, the mixed evergreen forest section, the Monterey bed subsection, the Oregon bed subsection, the streamside riparian woodland section, the hardwood forest section, the island scrub section, the chaparral section and the Berkeley Mills bed subsection.

This inventory, available in the landmark application itself, will help clarify which trees have been cut down so that we can begin to replant and honor the community work gone before. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who worked to create this beautiful, educational illustration of California’s native plant communities and documented it so that we have a clear path to restoration. The map shows the effort it took to accommodate different forest groups’ climate needs in such a small area in order to represent an entire state’s native plant groups. The Native Plant Project was a community effort by the People’s Park Native Plant Forum, a project worth admiration years before People’s Park was landmarked in 1984. We need to come together as one voice and require that People’s Park be treated with the respect it deserves today.

After about 40 trees have been chopped down, it is critical that we take action. We need to support respectful treatment of the park and the community that built it. It is clearly time, about 40 trees later, to pick up the phone and discuss our nationally renowned community landmark with the mayor and council representatives. In addition, we need to try again to create a commission at which park issues are addressed with all parties present so that replanting the native plants in the east end is an inclusive project the whole community, including the university, understands, supports and respects.

The university has plenty of nearby available land to build housing, office space, even sports courts without dishonoring crucial urban open space saturated with local anti-war history and the music of almost every important musical icon from the last several decades, including members of the Grateful Dead, Joy of Cooking, Utah Phillips and Country Joe McDonald. The trees the university cut down were beloved by People’s Park’s users and community members, but their most important contribution was the living portrait they painted of California’s native plants — every native plant community from east to west and north to south was illustrated by patient, loving, hardworking community hands, as the map created by Axelrod illustrates well.

Berkeley’s city landmark, People’s Park, is nationally renowned as one of the few monuments to the anti-war movement, a symbol of free speech, a living illustration of user-development and a widely used and beloved community resource. We need to speak up to City Council representatives, commissioners and university officials about People’s Park. Let’s work together to replant the park’s famous, unique native plant communities in the east end to celebrate People’s Park’s 50th anniversary using our community’s creativity, history, hands and our hearts.

Carol Denney is a UC Berkeley alumna, writer and musician and has been a Berkeley resident since 1972.