Visualizing Futures for Redwood City Salt Ponds

June 8, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, an interesting link came through our Facebook feed: virtualsaltworks.org. There’s not much on the site other than a remarkably compelling video about one of the Bay Area’s most contentious development controversies.

In just under four minutes, the video makes a strong case that almost 1,500 acres of salt ponds in Redwood City are rightfully part of the Bay and ought to be restored, though owner Cargill has been pushing plans to develop a large neighborhood here.

Those plans, with housing for as many as 25,000 people located close to jobs (but on top of marshlands), have split the environmental community: Some groups, like Greenbelt Alliance, have stayed neutral, betting that the benefit of having all those people on the Peninsula instead of the hinterlands will mean a payoff in reduced carbon emissions that outweighs the damage from the largest Bay fill project in a generation.

The maker of this video disagrees, along with Save the Bay and the Sierra Club, who argue that wetlands should be restored and that there are other places to build housing close to Peninsula job centers.

But who is Virtual Salt Works? Turns out the site is the brainchild of Redwood City resident Karin Tuxen Bettman. She says she wasn’t paying too much attention to the development proposals from Cargill and developer DMB Associates until she heard a discussion of the topic on KQED-FM’s Forum radio show a few months ago.

“I got so motivated, and I decided the best way I could help is put something out there that tells a story with mapping and visualization,” she says. “I think it would be selling part of our soul in the Bay Area if we build over that land. Our population is going to grow, but as we grow, we are going to require these types of wetlands. We need housing, but we need wetlands too, and we can build housing other places but we can’t build wetlands everywhere.”

Tuxen Bettman happens to have spent close to a decade working in wetlands as a scientist before she got a job at Google helping nonprofits use Google Earth to more effectively convey their messages. “This is what I do–I help public benefit groups use Google tools,” she says, “but I did this completely on my own time, working nights and weekends.”

She says she has two more videos in the works, and she’ll debut those at city council meetings in Redwood City. The next one will showcase other parts of the Bay Area where wetlands are being successfully restored, including in other parts of former Cargill salt ponds (which are part of one of the nation’s largest and most ambitious habitat restoration projects). The third and final video will focus on the site’s vulnerability to soil liquefaction during an earthquake and sea level rise due to climate change.

Stay tuned to virtualsaltworks.org for more videos. And for a great general overview of the controversy, check out the Bay Citizen’s story Showdown on the Salt Flats by Zusha Elinson.

About the Author

Dan was editor of Bay Nature from 2004 until 2013, when he left to work for SF-based Stamen Design. A onetime professional cabinetmaker, he considers himself a lifelong maker of things and teller of stories. Dan has been working at the intersection of journalism and technology since, at age 16, he began learning reporting, page layout, and database design. His enduring interest in environmental issues crystallized into a career path in 1998 when he assisted former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass in a cross-disciplinary nature writing and ecology course at UC Berkeley, from which Dan received a Masters in English literature. In 1999, he became Associate Editor of Terrain, the erstwhile quarterly magazine of Berkeley's Ecology Center. In addition to editing and art-directing Bay Nature magazine, he was also Bay Nature’s chief technology strategist, fixer of broken things, and designer of databases and fancy spreadsheets. And he was even known to leave the office and actually hike outdoors.

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