Climate change, gentrification, and inequality: UC Berkeley geographer discusses triumphs, failures of Bay Area at Bancroft roundtable

Richard Walker speaking at the Faculty Club
Author and professor emeritus Richard Walker speaks at the Faculty Club last week. (Photos by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

To those who live here, it’s pretty clear: The Bay Area is one of the greatest places to live in the world.

It is a bastion of innovation and acceptance. An island of diversity and earth-saving pluck. Stretching down to Silicon Valley, the world’s center for tech is also one of the richest metropolitan areas on the planet.

But there’s a catch, argues Richard Walker, a professor emeritus of geography. Speaking to a full room as part of The Bancroft Library’s lunchtime roundtable on Thursday, Walker described the contradictions of his beloved home, walking audience members through the story of the Bay Area — all it has accomplished, where it has failed, and how it can do better.

The Bay Area, for example, is one of the greatest creators of income inequality in the country, he said. Its growth has created “billionaires like nobody” but leaves an increasing number of people impoverished and displaced.

“I love this place; it is my home,” Walker told the audience. “I want people to recognize how fantastic and successful it is. But how can we be stepping over all of these homeless people?

“It’s a moral failure of the first order.”

Guests look closely at a bookA guest asks a questions
Top to bottom: Left to right: Jianye He, right, librarian for Chinese collections, gets a closer look at the inscription written to Ma Xiaocheng, left, by the author; Philip Andreini, center, asks a question at the event.

The roundtable centered on Walker’s new book, Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area. The book begins with the Bay Area’s economy and moves through issues of race and class; urban development and the housing crisis; environmental challenges largely prompted by growth; and, finally, the ideology and changing politics of the Bay Area.

To begin his talk, Walker addressed one of the Bay Area’s most notorious problems: gentrification, or the massive reordering of a city as a new batch of wealthy professionals comes in and drives up housing costs — pushing residents out. The housing crisis of the Bay Area is not a question of supply shortages, he argued, but of unwieldy demand.

“We’re building very fast — just walk around Berkeley or Oakland or San Francisco, we’re building hell for leather,” he said. “It’s on the demand side, when you have very rapid growth, very rich people, very high income, and very great inequality.

“That’s what drives up housing prices — you just can’t catch up, ever.”

The book draws on research Walker conducted throughout his 40 years at Berkeley, much of which was done at Bancroft, using resources such as the Oral History Center, photographs of the area’s urban landscape, old maps of Oakland and Emeryville, and archives on industries and developers in the Bay Area.

“For anybody writing about California, the Bancroft always comes in to play,” Walker said. “It is the pivotal resource for anyone writing about California, today or in the past.”

Kathy Neal and a guest chat
Associate University Archivist Kathryn Neal, left, speaks to Joan Gatten after the event. Neal has been coordinating roundtable events for the past four years and will step down from that role this month.  

In the book, Walker makes several calls to action for the Bay Area, and the state of California as whole, with efforts to tackle climate change near the top of the list.

“I feel like we’re standing at a moment of making choices,” said Philip Andreini ’75, an audience member and native Californian. “The ‘gone city’ needs to discuss, how do we get out of this dilemma?”

While California has been a leader in environmental research and water, land, and energy conservation efforts — on which Walker has written extensively — the state has a long way to go, he said. Now, the Bay Area must think about these issues on a global scale and help “lead the country back to sanity.”

Walker also discussed the need for California, and specifically the Bay Area, to more strictly regulate the industries it builds, rather than paving their way. Airbnb, the short-term home rental service founded in San Francisco, for example, was only recently forced by the city to register its housing units, ensuring housing regulations were followed — after which about half of the city’s units disappeared from the market, Walker noted.

“Part of that openness means the ability to start something new, which is the positive side,” Walker said. “Then there’s a negative side.

“I’m always looking at both sides.”

Guests listenMary Elings and others listen
Top to bottom: Left to right: Guests and staff hear about Silicon Valley and its history; Mary Elings, center, assistant director of The Bancroft Library, and others listen to Walker.

Throughout the event, Walker peppered the audience with questions, collecting a range of opinions on some of the reasons for the Bay Area’s historical success. Answers ranged from its public universities and diversity to its legacy as the birthplace of Lee De Forest’s 1906 vacuum tube — the basis of radio communication and the foundation of modern electronics.

For Walker, it’s important to understand the state’s history — and all of the factors at play throughout — to begin to answer questions about the future.

“I’m a historical geographer,” he said in an interview after the talk. “All history is geographical, and all geography is historical.”