For decades, a small group of stream-loving activists has wanted to surface a section of Strawberry Creek currently confined in concrete pipes underneath Civic Center Park in downtown Berkeley.
The group, called Restore Strawberry Creek, has proposed daylighting, or excavating from underground culverts, a 300-foot-long stretch of the stream — turning up to half an acre on the north side of the 2.7-acre park into a meandering natural waterway akin to the groundbreaking early 1980s project that daylit a downstream portion of the creek in Strawberry Creek Park.
It’s all a pipe dream for now.
A daylighting plan for the creek is an active part of a public process, set to wrap up this summer, for imagining how Berkeley’s Civic Center could be revitalized. But funding for the $100 million-plus project — which would overhaul the park, as well as the Veterans Memorial Building and the old city hall — is uncertain, especially after the failure of Measure L. A June vote will determine the design for the potential project.
A majority of the City Council indicated last week their desire to further study the feasibility of daylighting the creek. The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and Golden Gate Audubon Society have also expressed support for daylighting. And about half of the 600 people queried in a recent city-sponsored survey supported daylighting, with detractors raising concerns about how to weigh the financial and opportunity costs of surfacing and maintaining a creek in the heart of downtown against other potential civic uses for the site.
Even if the daylighting project moves forward, it’ll likely end up a somewhat watered-down version of creek activists’ initial dreams. The city has determined that there’s not enough room in the park for a full-flow, riparian restoration project — an 18-foot-deep creek with a 150-foot-wide creek bed packed with plants — since that would require knocking down buildings. If approved in June, a feasibility study will look at a partial restoration, which would still require closing off Center Street and relocating the Downtown Berkeley Farmers Market. The study would cost between $360,000 and $500,000, and grants are being sought from the Coastal Conservancy and other groups.
The concept of bringing creeks out of culverts has its origins in Berkeley, and it’s not the first time daylighting activists have tried to expose this same downtown stretch of Strawberry Creek.
In the 1990s, some of the same people behind the current effort — including Ann Riley, co-founder of the Urban Creeks Council, and Juliet Lamont, an environmental consultant — persuaded the city to seriously consider daylighting in Civic Center Park, though the effort eventually dribbled out, Lamont remembered, because of backlash to removing parking spots from Center Street.
A subsequent proposal in the early aughts that was praised by San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King and city officials including then-Councilmember Jesse Arreguín was also unsuccessful.
The effort got its start in 2007 when Ecocity Builders, a nonprofit founded by daylighting advocate Richard Register, commissioned landscape architect Walter Hood to design a concept for a pedestrian plaza on Center Street between Oxford Street and Shattuck Avenue that would include a naturalistic water feature to evoke Strawberry Creek. In 2010, Berkeley City Council voted 8 to 1 to adopt that concept as the city’s official preferred one, but the project never got off the ground.
The activists are hoping the time is now ripe to bring fresh life into the heart of the city.
“Why can’t we give all of our community a beautiful vibrant space for nature, and the anchor of that being the daylighting of Strawberry Creek?” Lamont asked.
The urban stream daylighting movement’s origins in Berkeley
The Lisjan Ohlone lived in the East Bay for between 3,000 and 5,000 years before Spanish occupation, with settlements clustered around streams and rivers, including the creek that runs down from the hills into the Bay in the territory of Huichin, which served as both a source of drinking water and food, from steelhead trout and salmon to shellfish and berries.
Corrina Gould, the co-director of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and tribal chair for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Nation, said Strawberry Creek holds a special significance to the Ohlone, as it connects two shellmounds, or sacred burial sites: one in West Berkeley, near where the stream flows into the Bay, and another on what’s now the Cal campus, which was built over by the University of California in the late 1800s.
Much of the West Berkeley Shellmound, which held a ceremonial purpose for the Ohlone long after they left the area, was used by white inhabitants for municipal road paving and local garden projects as the city of Berkeley grew in the mid- to late-1800s.
Between 1880 and 1920, most of Strawberry Creek, rumored to be named after the wild strawberry bushes growing on its banks, was culverted in Berkeley so people could build on top of it and not have to deal with flooding. Berkeley historian Charles Wollenberg said the culvert in Civic Center Park was most likely done by a private developer — perhaps even by Francis Kittredge Shattuck, the gold miner who later became Oakland’s mayor.
The solution made sense at the time, said Robert Charbonneau, who wrote UC Berkeley’s 1989 Strawberry Creek restoration plan. The creek was used by city-dwellers as both a source of drinking water and a convenient place to dump sewage, and it smelled awful.
“Let him take a twilight stroll along the windings of Strawberry Creek and from afar, will be scent that Berkeley’s balmy zephyrs are freighted with the doubtful odor of essences extraneous,” reads a September 1877 article in the Berkeleyan, Cal’s press organ. “A freshman was giving a gentleman directions to the University buildings. Said he, ‘Stranger, go up this creek as long as you can hold your breath, and turn left.’”
Today, most of Strawberry Creek remains underground in Berkeley, with three notable exceptions: on the UC Berkeley campus, at the UC Botanical Garden and in Strawberry Creek Park.
Water has always run on the Cal campus and in the botanical garden, but until the early 1980s, visitors to what’s now Strawberry Creek Park found only an abandoned rail yard.
The Urban Creeks Council, a nonprofit whose founders later started the California Urban Streams Partnership, successfully pushed the city to bring the creek up into the air and make it the centerpiece of the park.
Designed by landscape architect Robert Douglas Wolfe, the project cost around $50,000 in 1984 (about $150,000 in today’s dollars), according to Daylighting: New Life for Buried Streams, a short book written in 2000 by Richard Pinkham. Daylighting itself was cheap; a substantial amount of the budget was used to build the pedestrian bridge over the water.
The Strawberry Creek Park restoration was one of the first of its kind. Its designers worked without modern watershed analysis and fluvial geomorphology tools. Instead, they estimated the stream’s original path by carefully studying the above-ground section of Strawberry Creek on the Cal campus.
“Crews used fill from the dig to create hillocks in upland portions of the park, where they also built in swales to gently carry runoff to the newly opened creek,” Pinkham wrote. “Broken-up concrete slabs from the site’s previous uses now serve as steps down to the water, boulders in the creek bed, and rip-rap protecting the stream bank.”
Once the water started flowing, children would play in the stream and wildlife started flocking to the park. There was an increase in numbers of crayfish, damselflies, garter snakes, mallards, egrets, and gophers, though there was also a rise in feral cats preying on the newcomers.
Initially viewed by some as a reckless way to play with nature, the concept of daylighting flowed out from Berkeley, inspiring similar projects across the nation and throughout Europe.
“Its local impact is out of proportion to its small size — the opportunity to hear the soothing sound of running water is a huge draw for people in the highly built-up environs,” Pinkham wrote, noting that the Berkeley project is “widely considered the archetype of daylighting.”
Other daylighting projects followed in Berkeley. In 1995, a 250-foot stretch of culverted Blackberry Creek with a history of flooding was dug up from under Thousand Oaks Elementary. In 2022, the city cut the ribbon on a $1 million daylighting of a 181-foot section of Codornices Creek.
As the urban streams daylighting movement picked up momentum after the Strawberry Creek Park victory, activists turned their attention to a site about one mile upstream: Civic Center Park.
The proposal garnered significant support in City Hall, and in July 1998, the City of Berkeley hired Wolfe’s firm, Wolfe Mason and Associates, to conduct and present a detailed study outlining five approaches to daylighting and their ramifications.
Though deemed feasible, the daylighting proposal was ultimately dropped due to concerns over eliminating parking spaces on Center Street, according to Lamont, then a commissioner on the Downtown Area Plan Committee.
“The political momentum wasn’t there,” Lamont said. “There were a lot of people who liked this idea, but there were still a lot of naysayers in terms of the importance of ecology … and creeks in general. We had battles all over California [and] all over the country about protecting watersheds, creeks, and wetlands.”
Advocates of daylighting tout range of benefits
Proponents like Riley and Lamont see daylighting as more than just an aesthetic decision.
The culverting of Berkeley’s creeks destroyed the ecosystem, Lamont said, and daylighting can bring a return of life. Open water, she noted, has a cooling effect on hot days, and trees provide shade, their roots holding the banks in place. Daylighting, she said, can even help reduce climate inequities.
“Low-income communities have the least access to nature, open space, healthy clean air and water,” Lamont said.
Another benefit, she said, is avoiding the possibility of culvert failure.
Aging culverts are a major concern in Berkeley, and the city’s hazard mitigation plan notes that an earthquake could cause a culvert collapse — one that could be “physically and economically catastrophic” in downtown Berkeley. Failed culverts have already wreaked havoc nearby: During January’s atmospheric rivers, a collapsed culvert created a major sinkhole that shut down the Oakland Zoo for more than a month.
At a City Council work session on March 21, councilmember Kate Harrison, whose district the park is in, noted that she’s particularly interested in learning more about how a daylighting project could help with flood control from an engineering perspective.
“I have three constituents who walked out one day to find a 12-foot sinkhole in their driveway, because that creek is overflowing [and] is breaking through,” she said. “Does it help with flood control? I don’t know the answer to that, and I don’t think anyone else does at this moment. I only know that in Napa, when they … daylighted, it improved their flood control immensely.”
Gould said surfacing the creek is a way to honor it.
“Water, before it was chlorinated and goes through our treatment plants today, it’s a living being,” she said. A daylighting project could “bring us a reconnection to the lands and waters that we live on, a reciprocity to live in this place that has always been our home, a place for not just for Native people but for everyone to enjoy, [and] a way for us to help combat climate disaster.”
Charbonneau, author of Cal’s 1989 Strawberry Creek restoration plan, thinks a daylighting project would “dovetail beautifully” with the city’s plan to revitalize the park, but he noted that there are tradeoffs.
“The community would need to decide and come to a consensus over how much of Civic Center Park you’re willing to devote to a stream channel versus keeping the park events and gatherings,” he said.
Others are firmly against the idea of surfacing the creek.
“It’s expensive to build, [and] it’d be very expensive to maintain,” said former Parks and Waterfront commissioner Toni Meister in a public comment, adding that she would rather the space remain as an open plaza for civic engagement. “If you want an aesthetic with more trees, let’s plant more trees in the plaza.”
Friends of Five Creeks, a group dedicated to protecting and restoring East Bay watersheds, has long declined to take a position on daylighting Strawberry Creek in Civic Center Park. Susan Schwartz, the group’s leader, would not speak on the record for this story but told a reporter in 2010 that the section of creek that activists want to surface downtown is too small “to make any significant difference to the watershed.”
Lamont said she’s grateful that the idea for daylighting is being discussed open-mindedly.
Her family owns three adjacent homes in North Berkeley along Codornices Creek, and she finished a self-funded major creek restoration project behind the homes last year; the cost was equivalent to a “really nice kitchen renovation in each house.”
She said funding for projects designed to maintain biodiversity, restore habitats and help cities better weather the impacts of climate change is more widely available than it once was. And unlike with Strawberry Creek Park, daylighting projects are no longer a “leap of faith.”
Tom Kelly, another activist pushing to surface the creek downtown, said the fact that the daylighting movement can trace its origins to Berkeley makes him hopeful.
“We have a history of having been the first city to daylight a creek back in 1982 at Strawberry Creek Park,” Kelly said. “It’s in our DNA.”
This story was updated after publication with additional information.