The Battle of Baxter Creek: Resolving Power Struggles in a Community Green Space

This is a tale of a well-intentioned stream restoration project in a residential park-neighborhood of Richmond, CA that sparked a community power struggle. The unintended consequences of the restoration left the neighborhood divided. Neighbors who wanted to reduce criminal activity in the park were pitted against those attempting to promote local pride with aesthetic improvements. It provides an interesting case study bothfor understandingsuccessful urban creek restoration and neighborhood-level politics.

Booker T. Anderson Jr. Park is a family-oriented green space serving a neighborhood located in Richmond, CA -- a city with high levels of crime. Beginning in the year 2000, an unappealing, blighted, channelized stream crossed the park that separated the park’s community center from a playground, soccer and baseball fields. Lisa Owen Viani, then graduate student at UC Berkeley, developed a project to transform this eyesore to a riparian green space, including a lush thicket of native willows based on regional heritage.

However, as time passed, the design’s obstructed sight-lines resulted in unintended public safety issues. One incident involved a police chase of an armed individual who fled into the understory of the willow thicket as kids were playing in the nearby playground and fields. This situation created a heightened fear of the willows among residents and park users. It also alerted the police to this area as a potential zone forcriminal conduct. Residents also reported increased muggings and drug and sexual activity in the area since the landscape project was implemented.

In the summer of 2007, while the director of the Parks Department was on leave, department staff responded to an outpouring of complaints by commissioning a “city maintenance crew who’d clear-cut everything below about five feet,” according to the Berkeley Daily Planet, which dubbed it the Richmond “Chainsaw Massacre.” While this resulted in improved sight lines that addressed the safety concerns of both the neighborhood and police department, some residents believed this to be a misallocation of limited resources that diminished the positive effects of the restoration.

It is important to understand how this community power play surrounding the stream restoration evolved. The seeds of this battle were sown over a decade ago when Lisa Owens Viani gathered support from a consortium of citizens, scientists, government and non-government agencies, including the Urban Creeks Council (UCC) and the City of Richmond. The UCC and the Friends of Baxter Creek received $150,000 to restore the storm drain to a ‘natural’ creek with riparian vegetation. At the time, typical restoration practice was placed-based. This method restores habitat to an historic state that once existed, from which plant and wildlife succession would follow naturally. Historically in the Bay area, many low-elevation streams were dense with thickets of willows. Using this method, the creek became a thriving ‘natural’ area that benefitted the ecosystem and the neighborhood, as well as providing a sense of identity among organizations from multiple local, regional, and state community interests.

In the ensuing years, the willows began to dominate the urban stream and the project soon became problematic for the community. The dense thicket of trees was no longer perceived as a safe place for children to play along the banks of the creek to catch tadpolesand butterflies. Several public meetings were held during the initial development; however, not all interested parties felt that the city had given them an accurate portrayal of how dense the thicket would become, a factor that contribute to the concerns of both the neighborhood and police department.

In reality, the 2007 “Chainsaw massacre” only destroyed eight willows out of several hundred on the project site, while the remaining trees were merely trimmed to allow for protective sight lines. But, after the uproar, a stakeholders’ meeting was quickly organized by the leader of the original project, Lisa Owens Viani, and supporter Ann Riley, a well-known stream restorationist and staff member of the Water Board. At that meeting, City Council member Tom Butt said that some members of the community desired ‘natural’ growth while others favored surveillance-ready spaces. He pointed to a gap in communication between planners and neighborhood stakeholders such as the local Neighborhood Watch group. This lack of communication ultimately prevented all of the stakeholders from coming to an agreement as to what defined a desirable park.

After the dust settled on Baxter Creek, valuable lessons emerged for planners, restorationists, and the surrounding neighborhood. The traditional historical ‘place-based’ method of restoration is not always the best for a given community. The sociological environment of the neighboring community is a key element in a successful restoration project. Tailoring the project to the needs of the neighborhood is as important as selecting the type of plants and wildlife to returning a creek to an enduring and healthy state. In addition, a plan needs to account for the maintenance of the restoration over time.

As it turned out, the City responded by funding $60,000 to further investigate neighborhood concerns, supplement the willows with a flowering chaparral understory (a novel approach in contrast to traditional riparian planning), and maintain four safety sight lines between the community center, playgrounds, soccer and baseball fields. The UCC immediately began their outreach to residents, which included door-to-door and mail surveys, along with four community meetings held over the course of a year. In 2008, an agreement was reached to construct a written management plan that would address the interests of all stakeholders, any change in maintenance crew protocols, and turnover among governing bodies. Since then the rancor from the Baxter Creek power struggle has subsided.  Good landscape projects require prudent planning. From this experience, future landscape designers can take-away valuable lessons about the need to tailor restorations to a given community and ensure that they will be maintained over time.

Ken Schwab is an undergraduate of the University of California, Berkeley, where he is majoring in Conservation and Resources Studies at the College of Natural Resources. He is currently working an honors thesis, funded by SPUR and mentored by Dr. Vincent Resh, on the longest post-project monitoring of a ‘daylighted’ urban stream which includes: community perception, biological and habitat assessments, and a pioneering economic evaluation. He is actively involved with the Strawberry Creek Restoration, with Dr. Katharine Suding, which received a grant from The Green Initiative Fund (TGIF) -- Fitting Plant to Place: Site-Specific Restoration Planning on Strawberry Creek. Ken can be reached at