Cleaning up Old Oakland one mosaic at a time

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Old Oakland Neighbors (OON) is a neighborhood group founded in 2006 comprised of residents, merchants, and property owners committed to connecting, celebrating, and caring for Old Oakland, a downtown neighborhood near Chinatown and the convention center. 

As part of OON, I’ve spent the last few years leading an ambitious community project to bring together neighborhood residents, local artists and businesses in order to clean up our streets and reduce the amount of litter polluting the bay. We are a small team of dedicated volunteers doing our best to make our corner of the world a little brighter and cleaner. 

We transform blighted trashcans into neighborhood treasures with 3-panel mosaics featuring local birds, native plants and tidal marsh scenes. Ugly trashcans that were once the frequent target of graffiti now delight pedestrians and drivers passing by. They are a refreshing break from the streets and concrete sidewalks and remind us of the natural environment beyond downtown.

Mosaics of hope

But our project didn’t originally start out as traditional anti-litter campaign. It started in reaction to a fatal shooting that occurred 3 years ago this month in the heart of our neighborhood. We wanted to create a community tribute to peace at the corner where the shooting occurred, so I and a few neighborhood volunteers created and completed our first mosaic trash can: a dove carrying acorns of hope. Working on this project, we realized street litter was huge problem and that many more trash cans in our neighborhood were in need of an artistic makeover.

So we partnered with Juan Lopez of New World Mosaics to help us scale our project and mosaic all the trash enclosures in Old Oakland. We created a short video and an online crowdfunding campaign to raise awareness and project funding. We have been funded by online donations from community residents and businesses and grants from Capital Impact Partners, Keep Oakland Beautiful and the Alameda County Clean Water Program.

So far, we’ve completed 14 more mosaic makeovers and more will be added as we raise more money. We believe that the more visible, attractive and memorable our trashcans are, the more they get noticed and used. As a result, there is less littering and less trash ending up in the storm drains and the Bay.

Natural beauty instead of blight

We also hope to increase awareness and appreciation for our feathered friends and our native bay landscape. The Golden Gate Audubon Society, the California Native Plant Society (Bay Area Chapter) and the Oakland Adopt-a-Spot program have been advising us so that we can feature native birds like the California quail, snowy egret, great horned owl, and the endangered Ridgway’s Rail.

I love this project because I hate litter. So much so that I somehow managed to convince my two young daughters that picking up trash with tongs is a fun weekend activity. Our mosaic project has been an invaluable learning opportunity for them. By following our project every step of the way, they have discovered that there are creative solutions to urban problems like littering, that there is a greater impact when a community works together and that every generation has a collective stewardship responsibility to make the world a better place. 

I’m grateful to all of our funders and volunteers, especially Brook Vanderford, who has worked with me since the beginning to make this project a reality. I’m also thankful to all the other trash can mosaic artists in Oakland, especially Vivian Romero of the Adams Point Neighborhood Association who has been an inspiration and project advisor.

I certainly hope we can inspire the next generation to become active stewards of our environment and instill in them the passion to make positive change in their community.

— Tiffany Eng

Tiffany Eng is an Old Oakland Neighbors board member and founder of Family Friendly Oakland, a campaign to create a city for all ages.

Making an Impact : Bay Restoration

Emily Stanford is a sophomore at Oberlin College studying biology. She is interested in becoming an ecologist and conducting research. During her winter break, Emily visited the Bay Area and volunteered her time to help with the horizontal levee project at Oro Loma.

Emily working with Save The Bay staff and volunteers at the Oro Loma Horizontal Levee project.

I first heard about Save The Bay through an alumnus from my school who recommended it as a great place to get experience doing basic field work. As an aspiring ecologist, I decided to travel to the Bay Area during my winter break to volunteer with them to see what I could learn and to make a positive impact on the area.

While there, we worked on restoring a wetland that would provide filtration at the Oro Loma water treatment plant in San Lorenzo. The ultimate goal was to plant 70,000 plants. Every day we alternated work by cutting roots and rhizomes from the plant beds, counting them, and replanting them in the mud. It was very dirty work, but it turned out to be very rewarding. I really enjoyed spending the days outside and it was awesome realizing how much work we had accomplished at the end of each day.

However, the best part about working with Save The Bay was being able to spend time with the awesome faculty and volunteers who came out every day. They were funny, enthusiastic, passionate about their work, and great to talk to. I had many awesome conversations with them and we often had fun by playing games while we worked. All in all, it was a great experience and I hope to come back if I am in the area again. I would highly recommend that anyone come out if they have a free day.

— Emily Stanford

Guest Post | Eelgrass restoration

Eelgrass restoration
Crystal is researching eelgrass restoration in the San Francisco Bay.

Crystal Weaver is a master’s student in the Boyer Lab at the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies at SFSU. She has contributed to research in several coastal ecosystems throughout California, including sandy beaches, tidal marshes, and vernal pools. With a passion for puzzles of all kinds, she is driven to solve pressing ecological questions with an interdisciplinary approach.

Half of the fun of getting to do coastal restoration work is exploring the puzzle of it all. Where will it work? How can we make it more efficient? Or, more challenging yet… where did we go wrong?

As a graduate student at the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies at San Francisco State University, I work at the mercy of the tides to restore eelgrass in the Bay. Eelgrass is an underwater plant that creates a rich ecosystem of marine life, including commercially important species of fish and crabs. It grows naturally in the Bay, but it covers a relatively small percentage of the submerged land that it could potentially inhabit. Thus, my colleagues and I, led by Dr. Katharyn Boyer, tromp out through the mudflat to plant eelgrass at sites throughout the Bay where it could possibly thrive, creating critical habitat for a wide range of marine species.

The thing is, sometimes our transplants survive, but sometimes they don’t. We can explain some of these casualties fairly easily. Maybe we had a heat wave, and the water temperature got too hot. Maybe the wind kicked up for weeks, stirring up sediment in a cloud that blocked the light from getting to the plants. But there are still some things we don’t understand yet, like what’s actually happening in the sediments when we transplant the eelgrass.

My thesis work digs into eelgrass bed sediments – literally – to look specifically at the microbial communities that reside where the healthy eelgrass grows. Because microbes are what break down decaying material and turn it into usable nutrients for the plant, they play a pretty large role in how well a plant functions. We think there may even be groups of specific species of microbes that help transplanted eelgrass survive, sort of like plant-probiotics.

Sampling from natural eelgrass beds, restored beds, and failed restoration sites, we’re piecing together which species of microbes may play a role in “helping” the eelgrass survive. Ultimately, we could culture these microbes and plant them directly with the eelgrass. It’s a tricky and fairly expensive process, using genetic sequencing to sort through thousands of species at a time, but the potential to use this research to improve restoration success is just too exciting to pass up.

To learn more about this research, please visit

Guest Post | Remembering the Honorable Don Edwards

Former San Jose Congressman Don Edwards passed away last week at the age of 100. I first met him in the mid-1980s when I was working on nuclear arms reduction issues in Washington, DC. For years, he inspired me with his intellect, integrity, decency and effectiveness in Congress.

We’re privileged to share this guest blog – a personal remembrance of Don Edwards by another personal hero of mine: Florence LaRiviere.

For decades Florence has led the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge, and she shares how the Committee worked with Rep. Edwards to create the largest urban wildlife refuge in the country, right here in San Francisco Bay. It’s an inspiring example of how elected officials can be responsive to requests from the public, and why Don Edwards embodied hope. The Edwards’ family has suggested memorial donations to the Committee at

– David Lewis

Florence LaRiviere
Florence LaRiviere stands before the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Photo credit: U.S. FWS


I think it was one morning in the late 1960’s that I read a small notice in the Mercury News inviting anyone worried at the great rate the bay’s marshes were being destroyed, to come to an office in San Jose the following day.

That was my fist meeting with Art Ogilvie, a Santa Clara County planner who had the show-stopping idea that we could have a national wildlife refuge here, to save our remaining wetlands!

We went to every conceivable public meeting, showing pictures of our remarkable wildlife, and decrying the rapid destruction of most of the lands along the shoreline.

Then we arrived at the crucial moment — we had to have a member of congress to carry our bill to establish what proved to be a landmark, the first urban wildlife refuge in the nation.

As I remember, Art Ogilvie and Tom Harvey, biology professor at San Jose State, made the fateful visit to Congressman Don Edwards. They went, aware of his civil rights and peace activism, but knowing nothing about his environmental concerns. First, he took that most important beginning step — he listened to them. He recognized saving these lands was the right thing to do, and he had the vision and the political skill to bring along the entire bay area congressional delegation, with no regard to political party. Still, four years passed before his bill was enacted, and President Nixon signed it into law.

That was 1972 — we dusted off our hands, and had a party with Mr. Edwards to celebrate.

We felt pretty smug, in fact, it took us until 1986 to take another look and realize we were sadly lacking in a variety of habitat types. The only solution was to return to our congressman. And we did. His response was an immediate yes! This time, with the wonderful San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge already established, and soon to be named in his honor, the public responded with enthusiasm, and four hundred people came to Ohlone College to support Mr. Edwards at a public meeting on the issue. For once the opposition was wonderfully outnumbered by a large, enthusiastic and vocal group. This time, his bill was enacted the first year he proposed it, another red letter day — in October 1988!

Mr. Edwards’ living legacy is the marshes of San Francisco Bay, the wildlife that inhabits them, clean air and water and places of serenity for the human population.

His was a life well-lived.

– Florence LaRiviere, Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge

Biodiversity & Ronosaurus Rex’s Walk Around the Bay

Ronosaurus Rex, a.k.a. Ronald B. Richardson, recently completed a 350-mile walk  around San Francisco Bay. His journey inspired these reflections on the biodiversity of our region. 

On June 20, 2015, I finished a walk around the San Francisco Bay at every accessible point, including islands, bridges, piers, and docks. I had many incredible vistas, and I saw some wildlife, especially birds—but not as many animals as I would have expected on a 350-mile or more trek. That’s surprising, because the San Francisco Bay is a biodiversity hotspot, which is a biogeographic region rich in biodiversity that is under direct threat from humans.

The Bay is the heart of the California Floristic Province, one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots: biologically rich areas that are threatened. These hotspots cover only 2.3 percent of the earth’s land surface, yet they support “nearly 43 percent of bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian species,” according to Conservation International.

So where are all the animals that rely on the Bay?

Salt ponds at Alviso Marina County Park. Showing the salt pond ringed by a man-made levee covered in invasive black mustard.
Salt ponds at Alviso Marina County Park. Showing the salt pond ringed by a man-made levee covered in invasive black mustard.

To answer that question, we need to take a giant step backward in time. The dinosaurs, as you know, were wiped out, along with about 75 percent of all species, at the end of the Cretaceous Period, opening many biological niches to the mammals, who quickly diversified. What you may not know, however, is that there have been at least five mass extinctions on this planet, and we’re in the middle of the sixth. The current extinction event began around 12,000 years ago and continues to this day!

You do not need to look fearfully skyward to find the cause—no mile-wide asteroids are smashing into the Gulf of Mexico and kicking up vast clouds of dust to block out the sun. No, this time the cause is much closer to home: you have only to look in a mirror.

The Wildlife I Saw—and Didn’t See—On My Walk

On my walk around the Bay, I saw many birds, including snowy egrets, great blue herons, pelicans, cormorants, geese, ducks, sandpipers, turkey vultures, and golden tail hawks. There are a lot of birds on the Bay, and we can thank Save The Bay and other environmental organizations for their numbers.

Snowy Egret on Lake Merritt
Snowy Egret on Lake Merritt

As for mammals, I saw some sea lions, a couple of deer (driven into urban areas by the drought), a red fox (a non-native species), squirrels, cats, dogs, and the carcass of a coyote, but little else. True, I am a loud and clumsy human who tends to scare away wildlife, and many animals, like the coyote and the bobcat, prefer to hunt at night. However on a recent trip to the Grand Canyon, I saw elk and deer everywhere, which shows that protected habitats do help wildlife flourish.

Reclaiming the Bay

The biodiversity of the Bay Area has radically diminished since the arrival of Westerners. One reason, besides overexploitation, is that settlers were trying to tame and reclaim the Bay. For the last 150 years, humans have tried to straighten out the line of the Bay, removing the tidal marshes that they saw as “wasteland”—literally “land that was wasted”—because they were not obviously useful for humans. Tremendous efforts were put into these projects, as well as huge amounts of money.

Tidal marshes and overpasses in Larkspur
Tidal marshes and overpasses in Larkspur

It is only relatively recently that we have grasped the importance of these wetlands. I learned from signs on my walk that salt marshes are the kidneys of the Bay, cleansing the water by removing toxins and filtering trash. They are habitats with distinct plant and animal communities, including over 250 species of migratory birds.

Also, over 30 percent of the Bay has been filled in, reducing its area from 787 square miles to 548. In the mid-twentieth century, there were plans to fill in a full 60 percent of it. Following the Reber Plan, only a narrow shipping channel would have remained by 2020. Imagine the Bay Area without a bay! Not only would this have been a horrendous loss of natural beauty, it would have been a major tragedy for biodiversity.  The Bay fill project was stopped, but unfortunately, about 80 percent of the wetlands around the Bay and Delta had already been filled in or dyked.

Because of the loss of habitat, as well as invasive species like the invasive cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora hybrid (which has dominated many tidal marsh ecosystems, crowding out native species) and pollution (more than 250 million tons of raw sewage have been dumped into the Bay, not to mention all the industrial waste), 90 animals and plant species in the Bay Area are currently threatened with extinction, including the California Coast steelhead trout, California tiger salamander, the Bay checkerspot butterfly, and the Suisun thistle, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Cordgrass “monoculture” in a salt marsh
Cordgrass “monoculture” in a salt marsh

The Ongoing Mass Extinction and the Importance of Biodiversity

The loss of biodiversity in the Bay Area echoes trends worldwide. Currently, the extinction rate is 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the normal background rate at which species go extinct. The current mass extinction, which began about 12,000 years ago, is actually occurring at a faster pace than the one that killed the dinosaurs.

Why does biodiversity matter? Ecosystems are interdependent webs, made up of species that have co-evolved to maintain a specific balance. When one species is lost, it can affect the other species in its ecosystem, sometimes catastrophically. According to “What is Biodiversity” from the National Wildlife Federation, biodiversity offers humans access to foods and materials, thereby contributing to a healthier economy. Many medical discoveries have come from research into new species. Each time one is lost, so is a potential human resource, such as medicine. Biodiversity makes it easier for ecosystems to adapt to disasters, such as the drought California is currently experiencing.

And, as the National Wildlife Federation puts it, we need to preserve biodiversity “simply for the wonder of it all. There are few things as beautiful and inspiring as the diversity of life that exists on Earth.”

Saving the Bay

When I first visited the Bay as a boy, I remember how it stank. Now, sewage must be treated, and industrial waste has been greatly reduced. Much more needs to be done, but feel free to take in a deep breath as you walk along the shoreline.

Yes, there is good news. Many migratory birds have returned to the Bay Area, and of the 90 threatened or endangered species in the Bay Area registered under the Endangered Species Act since 1973, none have gone extinct!

So, don’t you dare tell me that your individual efforts will not have an impact on the future of the Bay and the well-being of this planet. Every action you take affects the environment, whether positively or negatively. It is time for all human beings to come together to end the mass extinction that we have wrought.

What You Can Do

Here are a few things you can do: donate time and money to organizations like Save the Bay working to protect and restore the wetlands around the Bay, including the removal of invasive species and the restoration of native species. Do not dump pollutants into city streets, as they drain into the Bay. Recycle and reuse, as much as you can. Pledge to achieve zero garbage. Support politicians and policies opposed to global warming, as this phenomenon will have a dreadful impact on the Bay and our fragile global ecosystem.

However, my best advice for you is to take a walk around the Bay, even a short one, so you can see, as I have seen, how beautiful and important this grand estuary is to plant, animal, and, yes, human life!

Ronald B. Richardson teaches composition and literature at San Francisco State University and City College of San Francisco. He has written a book on the influence of narrative language on perception and behavior called Narrative Madness, and he has a successful blog at, where he writes fiction, poetry, and nonfiction and writes about metafiction and teaching. You can read more about his walk around the San Francisco Bay under nonfiction.