academic environmental studies   macalester college

                               1939                                                           2008                                                             2030?
golden gate expositionTreasure Island from airredevelopment

Treasure Island Redevelopment


Island of Sand: The History of Treasure Island

The Redevelopment Plan

Criticism and Conclusion

References & Resources

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The Treasure Island Plan

Sustainable Development, or Government Mismanagement?

     The vision for the $6 billion plan for the redevelopment of Naval Station Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay sounds too good to be true: a new, environmentally sustainable and economically mixed neighborhood with 8,000 housing units and a 300 acre park, all on an artificial island 10 minutes from downtown San Francisco by ferry, all paid for by real estate revenues and not costing the city’s general fund a penny. San Francisco Chronicle urban planning columnist John King, a prominent supporter of the plan, wrote that Treasure Island could be “the world’s first green urban neighborhood.”
      However, many believe that the proposed redevelopment is too good to be true. While San Francisco’s political, media, and environmental establishments have come out in full-fledged support of the plan, a diverse array of voices has spoken out against it. Their main arguments center around interpreting the science and policy of environmental risks: they question whether the current plan has adequately prepared and budgeted for mitigating against climate change, or cleaning up environmental pollutants on the former military site. These groups predict that the Treasure Island development, rather than being a model of sustainable urban development, will flounder, making money for developers and leaving the city government on the hook. On a public affairs radio show about Treasure Island, Eric Brooks, a member of San Francisco’s Green Party one of the plan’s critics, expressed his uncertainty with the government’s portrayal of science. He said, “We need to pull back, find out what the sea level rise is really going to be, and then we need to develop a plan to remove all the chemicals from Treasure Island, before any further redevelopment plan proceeds.”
     Is Treasure Island a model of sustainable development or government mismanagement? As of now it’s too early to tell; the redevelopment of Treasure Island could turn out to be a boon or boondoggle for San Francisco. The full Environmental Impact Report for the latest iteration of the plan will be released late in the summer of 2010 and it is unknown exactly how much the bay will rise in the future, or how much on-site clean-up will cost. However, it is clear that both those who support and those who oppose the current development plan believe the science is on their side. Government agencies and developers have faith the current development plan does enough to adapt to a rising bay and be safe for future residents, and that new innovative technologies and approaches to neighborhood design can create a model sustainable community. Even environmentalists argue that Treasure Island presents “the opportunity to inspire a new generation to transform their lives through scientific innovation.”  Meanwhile, those who oppose the development doubt that a site with as many environmental challenges as Treasure Island can become a viable neighborhood.
   These different interpretations of science are not uncommon to environmental controversies. As Stephen Bocking writes in Nature’s Experts, “Controversies often stem from divergent scientific views regarding the existence, significance, and responsibility for environmental problems.” (29) Treasure Island proves this: the supporters of the plan take an optimistic view of scientific progress, and view Treasure Island in the larger context of solving global and regional problems such as carbon emissions and sprawl. Meanwhile, detractors focus on a different scale and point out place-specific scientific issues they believe can derail the entire project. These are both examples of groups interpreting science to their own advantage: the government in favor of its planned development, and activists who have historically opposed growth against it. Those opposing Treasure Island continue the tradition of casting doubt upon official science, a common practice ever since Silent Spring sparked the environmental movement. Bocking writes, “This dual character of science – as authoritative knowledge, and as knowledge whose authority has widely been challenged – is central to understanding its place in environmental politics.” (17)
       Debates similar to the one surrounding the development of  Treasure Island will likely continue as more sustainable, emissions-cutting developments are proposed on marginal lands, and as communities across the world attempt to weigh the costs of new development with adaptation to sea-level rise and remediation of environmental contamination. Using local media sources and government documents, this website analyzes how the different political actors interpret and communicate complex scientific issues surrounding the proposed redevelopment of Treasure Island. The second page offers a short history of Treasure Island and the island’s roots in technological optimism. The third page goes through the current plan for redevelopment, and describes how the city government intends to deal with the environmental hazards of future sea level rise and environmental contaminants. The fourth page describes opposition to the redevelopment plan and weighs the strengths and weaknesses of both groups’ interpretations of science concerning the development.

naval station sign
Figure 1: The sign at the entrance to Treasure Island

Last updated:  5/7/2010


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