Can Conserving Open Space Help Unite Polarized Americans?

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published July 18, 2018 in Earth Island Journal.

Bob Sampayan believes in the transformational power of beauty.  Now in his sixties, Sampayan is the mayor of Vallejo, California, a primarily working-class city at the north end of San Francisco Bay that once built ships for the American Navy and for two brief periods in 1852 and 53, was the capital of the state.  Vallejo has been called “America’s most diverse city.” A Brown University study found its population to be one-quarter white, one-quarter African-American, one-quarter Hispanic, and a final quarter Asian or Pacific Islander. 

Sampayan himself is Filipino-American. He grew up in a military family in Salinas. They weren’t so poor that he needed to work as a child, but his dad believed in the value of labor, and by the time he was 12, Sampayan was wielding a short-handled hoe in the lettuce fields near his home.  He studied police science in college and served on Vallejo’s police force for many years. He was elected mayor after he retired. 

“Ever since I was a little kid I have admired nature’s beauty,” he told me, “everything from the coastal waters to the highest peaks.  I carry that philosophy with me wherever I go… When I was young I’d go to Fremont Peak State Park near Salinas. I’d climb to the top for the beautiful view and the sense of peace I felt.  It was my place.  I’d spend nights there, just sitting looking at the stars.”

With his crisp mustache and short-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair parted down the middle, Sampayan is a small man, but muscular, vigorous, and loquacious.  An infectious smile frequently lights his tanned face. Mayor Bob, as he is often called, takes his job seriously, but himself less so. He is sometimes seen in parades wearing a Victorian top hat and aviator goggles, accessories of a style called “Steampunk.” In fact, Sampayan bills himself as “America’s first steampunk mayor.”

But his job is no laughing matter. Sampayan took over the reins of a city that had been hit hard by poverty, unemployment, and drug problems and was nearly devastated by the housing market crash of 2008. Mayor Bob understands the need for economic development and welcomes business, but with a caveat.  “I get business and industry,” he says.  “They keep our city alive, but some companies are gross polluters and I’m not going to stand for that. I want clean, safe and responsible energy, and I’m concerned about our waterways. A lot of chemicals are coming down the Sacramento River. I used to catch striped bass and flounder where the river comes into the Bay, but [the California] Fish and Game [Commission] is saying you can’t eat them anymore.”

Sampayan often takes his grandchildren for hikes in the local hills. They were a lush green after the winter rains and dotted with wildflowers when I visited him in April.  “You get up there on the peaks and you overlook Vallejo,” he says, gesturing with arms opened wide. But his excursions remind him that the lovely natural areas around his city bring ideas of a different kind of green to developers. “There’s a possibility that the dollar will be worth more than the Earth itself, and that scares me,” he laments. “Unfortunately, as the Bay Area has grown, we’re encroaching on our last remaining open space and my prayer is that we don’t. Vallejo hasn’t had good stewardship of open space. We’ve focused on places to play baseball and fly kites.  It’s another thing to have parks that celebrate the beauty of the land.” 

Suburban sprawl has reached into Vallejo’s hills, and its mayor lives at the edge of open space.  Recently, some of his neighbors demanded that he call animal control to do something about the many coyotes, and even cougars, that residents had spotted not far from their homes.  They were afraid for their children and pets. “People freaked out,” he recalls with a grin. “‘Well mayor, what are you going to do about this?’”  His reply: nothing. 

“We’ve taken their land and you’re angry because there are indigenous creatures there,” he told them. “You’re out there with your little dog off the leash. We should say we’re sorry we took their land. It belongs to everything from the red-legged frog to the mountain lion. If you don’t want Fluffy to get eaten, you’d better put him on a leash.”

Some people were angry, but when word got out about Sampayan’s defense of wildlife, he was flooded with mail. “They were writing to tell me, ‘Thanks for saying that!’”  “We have to respect what nature we have left,” he adds, “but most of all we have to celebrate it.”

Given his views, it’s perhaps no surprise that Mayor Sampayan supports And Beauty for All, a celebratory new national campaign to unite polarized Americans around environmental restoration, rural revitalization, and people-friendly urban design, including more parks, and greater preservation of open space and natural areas in and around cities.

In March, Vallejo, with a population of 120,000, became the largest city to officially endorse the campaign, proclaiming that “beautiful places to live, work and play should be a birthright of all Americans, no matter their origin or income,” because “beautiful surroundings and graceful urban design call us to awe and stewardship, reduce polarization and anger, make us kinder and less aggressive, awaken generosity in our hearts, and move us toward justice.”

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