The Beauty of Urban Nature — Lucia Li, BFA ID 2024
Hello, my name is Lucia, and I’m a rising junior in Industrial Design with a concentration in Nature, Culture, and Sustainability Studies. This summer, I will be working as an outreach and educational development intern with Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ), a youth-centered eco-education non-profit based out of southeast San Francisco.
These first few weeks have been filled with much excitement, adjustment, and learning. When I first stepped into Bayview-Hunters Point, the industrial southeast sector of San Francisco, I was immediately struck by how different these neighborhoods were from the rest of the city. Of course SF’s signature steep hills and streets are largely the same, but instead of bustling streets of tourists, shops, upscale restaurants, and dense urban infrastructure, the streets were lined with depots and warehouses — semis and pickup trucks parked haphazardly on cracked asphalt surrounded by concrete barriers and discarded wooden pallets. What little green space I saw was actually yellow — patches of grass and weeds on top of what I later learned to be converted parking lots and brownfields.
Once I oriented myself with LEJ’s facilities, located just down the road from the Candlestick Point State Recreation Area (CPSRA), I stepped into the role of student alongside the organization’s regular eco-education interns, the Eco-Apprentices. Here, I was immersed in the story of San Francisco’s southside — a history of environmental injustice that had taken place right in my backyard.
Bayview-Hunters Point was once a bustling naval shipyard that brought in a massive wave of largely African American blue-collar workers. Post-WWII, residential zoning pushed more African American residents out of other neighborhoods and into Bayview-Hunters Point. Around this time, the neighborhood saw the operation of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory (NRDL), a nuclear research facility that decontaminated ships damaged by nuclear weaponry while also researching the effect of radiation on living organisms. The NRDL was decommissioned in 1967 and the shipyard closed in 1994, but they left rippling waves in the community that can still be felt today. Because of the extensive radiological and heavy metal contamination, the area was declared a Superfund site in 1989. Today, Bayview-Hunters Point is largely isolated from the rest of San Francisco, and with some light industry still running around the neighborhoods, the infrastructure is noticeably older and more run-down than other areas in the city. Currently, environmental activists in the area are working to acquire remediation funds for the areas affected by contamination while also spreading awareness about how communities can protect themselves. Additionally, organizations like LEJ hope to provide community healing by giving local families and marginalized youth the opportunity to engage with green spaces, enjoy outdoor recreation, and just experience the natural world through a lens of care and stewardship.
I’ve also had the pleasure of visiting Candlestick Point — CA’s first urban state park. When thinking of nature, people often picture National Parks like Yosemite, Grand Canyon — grand vistas of wilderness whose appeal lies in their promised escape from everyday city life. We often overlook the importance of urban nature. Urban parks provide an easily accessible place for city-dwellers to enjoy the outdoors, and human-nature interaction is something we will have to increasingly consider if we want to forge a sustainable future for cities. Candlestick is one of the areas that LEJ primarily operates out of, and where they will often hold community events alongside park stewardship and habitat restoration volunteer events.
As someone who is not from San Francisco, much less Bayview-Hunters Point, I took the backseat for much of this early learning period. With each passing day, I’m continually struck with such awe and appreciation that I was lucky enough to step into this experience — it’s been so different from anything I’ve done before, and yet uniquely rewarding. Additionally, it was nice to turn off my “designer brain” for a time and just approach the beauty of urban nature with the same wide-eyed wonder that a child would. There’s also something so incredibly fulfilling about working with your hands — seeing the effect that just genuine physical labor can have on a weed-riddled hillside over the course of a single afternoon. In such moments, I can truly appreciate the work and impact of environmental educators and advocates.