FOCC Booklet
Water trickling down the rocks

El Camino Real “Grand Boulevard” Plan Should Feature Our Peninsula Creeks
by Matt Leddy

About noon, having then advanced about twenty-three miles, we arrived at a very pleasant and enchanting lawn, situated amidst a grove of trees at the foot of a small hill, by which flowed a very fine stream of excellent water. … We had not proceeded far from this delightful spot, when we entered a country I little expected to find in these regions. For about twenty miles it could only be compared to a park, which had originally been closely planted with the true old English oak.” Captain George Vancouver, November 20, 1792 in the vicinity of Redwood City.

It goes without saying that the San Francisco Peninsula has undergone significant changes since Captain Vancouver rode through San Mateo County over 200 years ago, changes that began with the establishment of the early missions Vancouver visited in San Francisco and Santa Clara. The park-like oak woodlands and streams have been replaced with an eclectic collection of buildings and exotic plants. The resulting landscape we see today as we drive along El Camino Real is a reflection of our society’s values, both past and present.

Our heightened awareness of the El Camino landscape and its effect on our communities is evident in the recent Peninsula Corridor “Grand Boulevard” plan. The goals of this concept plan are to create a boulevard where people could stroll, provide for public spaces with aesthetically pleasing landscapes, and encourage the natural integration of housing, business and public transportation along El Camino. This corridor is ideally suited to such a purpose as it creates a strong central axis running down the peninsula. From a purely design aspect, it is a unifying feature tying the cities together. This strong unifying element makes a stronger statement if it presents distinctive landmarks along its length; landmarks that provide character unique to the peninsula.

Consider the “mission bells” along El Camino. They have absolutely no practical functional value, and yet when they began to disappear, people went to great efforts to replace them. The reason is obvious; the bells are an important part of the unique history of this road. The bells represent a hidden layer of our own history and reflect deep-rooted social values. But the bells are also an important design feature. As landmarks, they create a unique historical character to the El Camino, and create rhythm, breaking up the monotony of a bell-less landscape.

We have another opportunity to create substantial landmarks along El Camino Real. Our native creeks are currently undergoing a renaissance as their value as landscape features and their natural beauty are becoming appreciated up and down the peninsula. Groups such as the Friends of Cordilleras Creek, Heart of the Mountain working on Colma Creek,the San Francisquito Watershed Council and the County of San Mateo are working to preserve our creeks and enhance the native plant communities associated with them. There is citizen interest in Redwood City to “daylight” our creeks as they flow through town. Featuring the creeks as they cross under El Camino would not only create character and rhythm, but also give each city along the peninsula it’s own unique identity. The creeks represent a California even older than the missions, and as a landscape feature, water has a very profound effect on people living in a dry-summer climate.

The “very fine streams” and oak woodlands that George Vancouver wrote about so long ago are still here. Often hidden as they flow under El Camino and through our towns, all of our creeks, Colma, San Bruno, Mills, Sanchez, San Mateo, Laurel, Belmont, Pulgas, Cordilleras, Redwood and San Francisquito cross under El Camino Real only to be daylighted again as they reach San Francisco Bay. The great oaks are still here also, though fewer in numbers as the great monarchs succumb to old age. A valley oak that fell over in Redwood City a few years ago was well over 250 years old. Although Vancouver’s oaks are aging, the environment the trees need to thrive is still here and young oaks can be found. Valley and coast live oaks have seeded themselves where Cordilleras Creek crosses El Camino Real in Redwood City. They are overshadowed by non-native species but it wouldn’t take much to tip the scales in favor of these native oak trees.

Peninsula cities could begin by simply placing a sign at the point where each of these creeks crosses under El Camino. The signs would have a distinctive unifying “Grand Boulevard” logo, the creek name, probably feature the color blue, and perhaps have an additional symbol for historic salmonid creeks. Where possible, civic groups could plant patches of wildflowers visible from El Camino and small streamside parks featuring native trees and shrubs could be incorporated into the “Grand Boulevard” master plan. A blue pavement treatment where each creek flows under El Camino Real would create a strong image of water that wouldn’t be easily missed by drivers.

Incorporating our creeks into the “Grand Boulevard” vision will not only create a powerful design element, but also reflect our changing social values. It is appropriate to initiate a creek awareness program along the El Camino corridor at this time, when the people who call the San Francisco Peninsula home are discovering the aesthetic, environmental and historic value of our creeks.


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Last modified: March 26, 2006