On Thneeds and Needs: Why a Footbridge Matters


May 22, 2008
West Marin Citizen


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Today I received an anonymous email with talking points for opponents of the proposed footbridge to connect the wetlands path to Inverness Park. The contents suggest that the debate already is flipping out of orbit, as controversies tend to do out here. The writer asserts, for example, that kids couldn’t possibly use such a path. Yet there are kids now who have to walk the long way around, along Levee Road, for lack of a route that’s shorter and safer.

The writer also claims that a bridge wouldn’t link Point Reyes Station to Inverness Park to begin with. Yet there are people in Inverness Park who want a bridge because it would provide such a link. The talking points even deny that a path exists now. This will be news to those who use the path regularly, to walk their dogs or just to stroll. (This includes prominent voices in the anti-bridge camp.)

Then there’s the column that appeared in The Citizen last week. The writer gives West Marin Commons way too much credit. We haven’t “spearheaded” a footbridge campaign. We were asked to write a letter and we did. That, plus a column by myself, is pretty much it. As an organization dedicated to the commons, it was hard to stay out of a debate about a common path.

Actually the footbridge effort goes back a long way, to the 1970s at least. In 1988, the West Marin Paths group produced a study for the county that urged just such a bridge. More importantly, people out here have demonstrated the need for one in the most tangible way possible – with their feet.

Decades ago, kids in Inverness Park kept a raft on the creek to ferry back and forth, so they could walk to town. More recently, people of all ages walked across the old seasonal dam. They walked their dogs across and carried bikes; the wood was well worn. Today there are people who walk to town almost every day along Levee Road. They have to dodge the speeders on the narrow bridges. I know. I’ve done it.

I say this because last week’s column pooh-poohs the footbridge as a “thneed,” which is a Dr. Seuss term for an item of commerce produced solely for monetary gain. (The comparison is a stretch but never mind.) That’s her view but not everyone’s. For once the county and the Park would be following in the footsteps – literally – of local wisdom and usage. They aren’t proposing to create a need but rather to serve one.

What about the argument that a footbridge would be a violation of nature? This one could go deep, to First World assumptions based on affluence and privilege. My wife, who grew up in the Third World, where walking was not optional, finds opposition to a footbridge hard to comprehend.

But let’s keep this brief. The wetlands path exists already. It is on a narrow sliver at the edge of the park, about one-tenth of one percent of the area above the creek, in the transition zone between wetlands and human habitation. What else occupies that zone now?

First there’s the speedway called Levee Road. That’s Levee Road—a big dike that cuts through the wetlands, which once extended to Olema. Then there’s the houses along Levee Road, and along the east and west edges of the wetlands too. All that’s okay. None of it violates nature, we are to believe.

But a footbridge to connect an existing walking path in that same zone to Inverness Park would be an egregious encroachment upon nature and serenity and everything else. The logic is not easy to follow. It seems to come down to this: Everything that came after my house and/or that I don’t like is a violation of nature.

Nor is it easy to understand how a common footpath violates the concept of the commons, as the writer asserts. Historically it’s pretty close to the essence of one.

One group in town that heavily supports a footbridge is parents. The future for us is not a lofty abstraction. It is something we live with every day. We see the need for something besides Levee Road for our kids to walk and bike on. (And no, a separate path along Levee Road is not a workable alternative. It would cost more than a bridge, cut into seventeen feet of wetlands, and would be too indirect to invite use.)

We also want our kids to experience a place not entirely in the thrall of the auto-centric syndrome – the assumption that we humans can go only where cars go too. Why do we need a footbridge, the column asks, when we can get to Inverness Park in minutes, “by car or bike.” Exactly. But leave aside the people who don’t have cars, or who, like my wife, don’t drive. Leave aside the kids who have been hurt or killed on bikes along that route.

The car habit is what we have to declare freedom from. When John Littleton started to take the children at Papermill Creek for hikes along the wetlands path, the first thing they wanted to do was build a bridge to the other side. Their minds have not yet been structured totally around the car, and that’s something to encourage – and to try to remember for ourselves.

Design will be the next question. The Park’s current sketch needs to be scaled down, but is just a starting point. There’s local knowledge out here on low footprint design, and we can use it to push in that direction. Let’s give it a try.

Public Comments Due By June 2. Write Don Neubacher, Point Reyes National Seashore, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956 Don_Neubacher@nps.gov

Jonathan Rowe is co-director of West Marin Commons.