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Perspective

The Canyons of San Diego

One of San Diego's most extraordinary assets, its canyons, provides the linkage and the uniqueness that sets this region apart.

San Diego has more canyons than any other city. But it's not the numbers that provide the uniqueness; rather, it is that they are the actual infrastructure for the beauty that makes this region blessed with Mother Nature.

However, the fact that the canyons exist is not enough. It is how we care for them that will prove how smart or foolish we are.

Real estate is the caring of land and properties that earns a proper yield for the risks taken. Reality is how we take time to care for Mother Nature's blessings instead of just bragging about them, as if we had created the beaches and canyons.

Rebecca Morales, Ph.D., a gifted leader of Civic Solutions, assisted me in covering the workshops that brought members of the community together to study and then suggest solutions to make this gift more viable. Together we crafted this report to you.

Like the great climate, beaches and diverse topography, canyons are the defining feature of our landscape. Our extensive network of mesas and canyons feed the watershed, cut through neighborhoods and create boundaries and textures that literally make us different from almost any other place on the globe.

However, in the aftermath of one of San Diego's wettest years in recorded history which caused homes to slide down hills, we've come to understand that canyons can no longer be taken for granted or seen as a void in the onslaught of development. Rather, they are a natural urban form of intrinsic value, which requires special care and offers unique opportunities if we are to understand and cohabit with them.

Piqued by a series of articles by columnist Richard Louv that explored the idea of creating a Canyonlands Park, Civic Solutions hosted two design charrettes (on Dec. 11 and March 3) consisting of planners, designers, economists, landscape architects, environmentalists and neighbors of the canyons.

At the least, there is recognition that canyons are critical to the region's hydrology. If they are not functioning correctly, we will feel the effects -- like homes sliding down hills.

However, the natural purpose of canyons has been treated as an afterthought.

Instead, the canyons have become buffers to development and corridors for carrying water pipes that are traversed by service roads and ad hoc trails.

They are often plagued by invasive plant species, wildlife, domestic animals and transients setting up makeshift shelters. People trash the hillsides and create blight.

There is no one entity responsible for establishing standards or maintaining these precious areas. School kids cutting through the canyons on their way to school cross a mish-mash of public and private properties.

Missed opportunities abound: 1) integrating nature walks and field trips into the educational system will teach the young the treasures that surround them and how to help care for them; 2) creating a system of paths linking communities to the region; 3) capturing runoff water for storage and reuse during the inevitable dry seasons will save money and quality of life.

Here are a few of the ideas that came from the talented people who took the task of restoring our canyons to heart in the design charrettes:

  • Create a conservation easement with tax relief to property owners participating in a canyon plan.
  • Develop a storm water sustainability program for capturing water in cisterns to minimize hillside erosion while increasing water availability.
  • Augment science taught in schools through canyon ecology curriculum. In the future, Civic Solutions intends to prepare an analysis of issues, develop a regional plan and present a demonstration project. We may even help plant community gardens for neighbors -- even gangs -- to care for, appreciate and harvest, as my dad and I did during World War II.

    We take nature for granted, instead of helping to care for it and preserve its lasting resources for coming generations. We waste gasoline by the ton. We must not waste our canyons and their possibilities.

    We've come together twice as disparate neighbors with varied opinions. We created an energy of thoughtfulness and solutions to make canyons better. These are positive examples of what can be done when activists come together to create and harness change. Perhaps it will call attention to long neglected resources that can easily become as important a signature feature as our climate and our beautiful beaches.

    These charrettes were organized and facilitated by a number of fine people. Chief among them were two regional treasures, Mike Stepner and Steve Estrada. They were assisted by community activists Howard Blackson, Tom Carter and Mary McLellan.

    Write me to learn more about how you can become involved in this and other subjects Civic Solutions is discussing, like housing affordability and infrastructure.


    Goodkin has been a business ethicist and housing analyst since 1956. He may be reached at sanford.goodkin@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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