Three women stand, holding a framed proclamation from the California Assembly.
Dorothy Walker, center, with state Sen. Nancy Skinner, left, and former state Sen. Loni Hancock, in a 2011 photo. Credit: Courtesy Gary Kamiya

In the early 1970s, Berkeley Planning Commissioner Dorothy Walker put forward a proposal she believed was critical to address racial segregation.

It called for abolishing zoning rules that only allowed single-family homes in many of the city’s wealthy neighborhoods, including the Elmwood District, which pioneered the zoning category in 1916. Since apartments are less expensive than houses, Walker — who died Saturday at 93 — argued that allowing greater density in exclusive areas would open them up to less-wealthy and non-white residents.

“That completely fell flat,” said author Gary Kamiya, Walker’s son. “No one wanted to hear it in 1972.”

Berkeley voters would instead soon do the opposite, passing a “Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance” over Walker’s strident objections that stifled construction of new multi-family housing for decades.

Half a century later, though, Walker’s ideas have taken root among leaders and activists who have reshaped housing policy in Berkeley and throughout California.

In 2021, the City Council voted unanimously to launch a process that will rezone all of Berkeley’s residential neighborhoods to allow for greater density; lawmakers in Sacramento eliminated single-family zoning statewide later that year.

Walker’s death, after six decades of local activism that included work to desegregate Berkeley schools and install barriers to limit traffic on local streets, elicited an outpouring of remembrances from those who called her an inspiration.

“Dorothy Walker was a force of nature, and in some respects before her time,” said state Sen. Nancy Skinner, who worked with Walker to develop a 2019 law that speeds up the approval process for new housing. “I would really call her the original YIMBY.”

Born in Stockton in 1930, Walker grew up in the Sierra foothills town of Angels Camp. She left in 1948 to attend UC Berkeley, where she met her first husband, Joe Kamiya. They later moved to Chicago for several years, when Kamiya was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, before returning to Berkeley in 1960.

Her marriage to Kamiya meant that Walker, who was white, experienced Berkeley’s residential segregation firsthand: The couple was told they could only live west of what was then Grove Street, now Martin Luther King Jr. Way, because Kamiya was Japanese American.

In 1962, she joined a committee tasked with overseeing Berkeley’s school integration program — the city did not explicitly segregate its schools, but housing discrimination was so deeply entrenched that just sending children to their neighborhood schools was enough to create a segregated education system.

The committee’s solution was an extensive busing program in which students from the flatlands, most of whom were Black and from less-wealthy families, were ferried across town to better-resourced schools in the hills for kindergarten through third grade; white students were bused to schools in West and South Berkeley for fourth through sixth grades.

The integration effort was praised, but Walker came to view it as ineffective.

“We were moving the children around, and that didn’t really solve the fundamental problem,” she told Berkeleyside in a 2021 interview. “This problem is not a problem of the schools — it’s a problem of the neighborhoods.”

She would work over the ensuing decades to advocate for loosening zoning rules in the neighborhoods she had once been shut out of, along with denser development in the city’s downtown core, where she worked on three different plans over the years to encourage more housing in the area.

For almost all of that time, though, Walker’s vision for Berkeley was hamstrung because decisions about housing typically happened at the local level, which meant residents could pressure the city officials they elected to kill projects they didn’t like.

It was an approach that emerged in the pushback to destructive development practices from the middle of the 20th century: Proponents of greater local control argued that residents deserved to have a central role in deciding what was built in their communities, and meaningful input from neighbors would result in better outcomes for everyone.

But Walker, the founding president of the American Planning Association, contended local control was a recipe for deadlock.

“Our ‘community engagement’ processes, ostensibly designed to solicit the values and views of all residents, are instead dominated by those with the time and resources to attend public meetings,” she wrote in a 2020 column for the transportation site Streetsblog. “These voices are, typically, not representative of the community at large, but rather skew toward the wealthy, the white, and the privileged; the needs of would-be residents are never heard. And our cities grow more unequal, more racially segregated, and more unaffordable year after year.”

Speaking to Berkeleyside, she said, “I believe that we need to develop an entirely new system of how land use controls are decided … because the city’s residents usually don’t want to add very many new people, if any, to their town.”

Admirers say Walker’s activism laid the groundwork for such a shift to take place in California.

The state Legislature has, in recent years, passed a series of laws slashing cities’ power to block new housing, from backyard cottages to apartment complexes on BART property. The 2019 law Skinner developed with Walker’s input, SB 330, has been among the most impactful: It bars cities from enacting zoning changes that would limit housing, and caps the number of public hearings projects can be subjected to in a move to prevent costly years-long approval battles.

Meanwhile in Berkeley, a City Council that once fought development has adopted legislation that enacts ideas Walker long championed, such as eliminating requirements for new housing to include parking.

Skinner recalled that she first met Walker as an adversary, when the future state senator was a graduate student activist and Walker was in the midst of a 20-year career at UC Berkeley.

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“We were at odds” when it came to campus politics, Skinner recalled, but “she was one of the women that I most looked up to, and that I most observed.”

Walker rose to become the University of California system’s first female assistant vice chancellor, leading Cal’s work to acquire what is now the Clark Kerr Campus.

In local politics, a 2011 City Council proclamation honored Walker for “leading campaigns to fund new parks and school buildings, protecting neighborhoods from traffic, preserving the waterfront, improving transit, supporting affordable housing and advocating for social and economic justice.”

“Almost every aspect of Berkeley that you can think about, Dorothy was involved in,” said Councilmember Susan Wengraf, her longtime neighbor.

Along with her work to install concrete barricades that block cut-through traffic on local streets, Walker also helped defeat an effort to turn Ashby Avenue into a freeway, and overhauled parking policies at UC Berkeley to discourage people from driving to campus. Taken together with her housing advocacy, Walker’s work on transportation issues appears now to be a forerunner of an increasingly popular strain of urbanist politics that pushes local governments to promote dense, walkable neighborhoods over sprawl and car dependence.

“Dorothy is one of the people that made it [in] vogue with her influence, her tenacity, her persistence and her stridence,” said Mark Rhoades, a development consultant who worked with Walker for decades.

She remained active in local politics into her 90s, writing a letter last year to share her thoughts on the city’s Housing Element, the planning document that calls for Berkeley to build nearly 9,000 new homes over the next eight years. Rhoades recently drove Walker around Berkeley and said she was “in awe of all of the activity in the downtown,” where she had long advocated for dense housing development.

Outside of politics, those who knew Walker said she loved music and theater, and could often be found at the Berkeley Repertory Theater or the California Jazz Conservatory. Walker’s second husband, Robert Walker, died in the late 1990s; she is survived by her four children, two step-children and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

In her 2021 conversation with Berkeleyside, Walker said she was dismayed to see Berkeley’s efforts to block new development over the decades had created a severe affordability crisis that pushed out many of the city’s Black residents, and feared it could not be reversed. But Gary Kamiya said his mother was also proud to see California and Berkeley embrace the housing policies she had long championed.

“She very much felt a sense of vindication and a sense of satisfaction that so many political entities, and even many individuals and politicians, have come around on this issue,” Kamiya said.

Staff writer Ally Markovich contributed reporting.

Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then,...