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Environmental law in Berkeley: People's Park, failed review

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MARCH 06, 2023

As a freshman living in Unit 2 last year, I cherished my dorm room view. The window of my sixth floor triple granted me a westward scene: one that gazed out over a canopy of trees past Downtown Berkeley, the Berkeley Marina and, on days when I was lucky, the Golden Gate Bridge. I no longer live in the dorms, but I can imagine that the view is quite similar with one major exception: that canopy of trees, the foliage over People’s Park, no longer exists.

If you live in Berkeley, you most likely have seen or know about the existence of People’s Park. Located between Haste and Dwight directly east of Telegraph, this 2.8-acre public park is a refuge for many houseless and low-income residents of Berkeley. Although a small plot, the land has an eventful history beginning in 1969, when the park was first occupied by activists organizing protests, gatherings and community gardening to prevent the university from building dorms. In May of that same year, as a response to the grassroots organization, fences were erected by the police around the perimeter followed by the deployment of 2,000 National Guard troops that resulted in a violent conflict.

Since the 1960s and 70s, People’s Park has remained a key gathering point for social movements, as well as a place for houseless people to find shelter. The university has made attempts through the years to develop the land even after the city named the space a cultural and historical landmark in 1984.

Beginning in 2018, the battle for university control of the land began again; this time with increased seriousness. Due to the housing shortage, UC Berkeley proposed a $312 million development plan for a 17-story dorm that would include housing for around 100 houseless people affected by the destruction of the open space. Community organizers fought back against this construction, staging legal battles on top of physical protests.

On Feb. 24, a major decision in this proposed development was reached when the plan was ruled unsuitable in meeting the environmental concerns of construction by a California appeals court. To move forward, UC Berkeley must complete a new environmental study and resubmit their development proposition.

So, what are these environmental standards anyways? And why did the proposed development on People’s Park not pass?

The California Environmental Quality Act is a law meant to impose guidelines on how to reduce and prevent environmental damage in addition to informing the public and policymakers on projects that have possible ecological impacts. These impacts include air quality, noise pollution and transportation.

The Make UC a Good Neighbor and the People’s Park Historic Advocacy Group jointly filed a lawsuit on the development of the park, which led to the ruling that stopped development until UC Berkeley completes another environmental impact report. The court cited that the possibility of noise pollution that comes with student housing wasn’t assessed by the university in their findings.

Policymakers, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, have alleged the court’s rejection of the development the creation of a false environmental issue. This argument is founded on the idea that wealthy homeowners are allegedly blocking housing projects for students for their individual benefit. However, on the other end of the spectrum, the development of the park would displace many low-income people who can’t otherwise afford housing in Berkeley. 

The battle over People’s Park is a key example of how intersectionality in the environmental movement is essential for creating viable solutions to the problem of climate change. The high cost of living in Berkeley is intrinsically intertwined with income and the environmental damages of land development. 

The legal battle over what constitutes an environmental impact will most likely continue as Berkeley searches for solutions to the student housing crisis, which is another climate change related issue that will persist as available land decreases and populations increase.

People’s Park is the perfect storm of environmentalism: sustainable and affordable development, income disparities, land use, noise pollution and even the removal of the tree canopy. It’s also an issue that affects both the student population and the larger community. I encourage you to stay informed on the future of the park as well as see the ways in which environmental concerns aren’t always clear and simple but tend to be snared with a multitude of social and equity issues.

Contact Zoe Campion at 


MARCH 06, 2023