California’s Bay Area has lessons for Taiwan

By Yang Yung-nane 楊永年  / 

Wed, Mar 05, 2014 - Page 8

Former National Science Council minister Cyrus Chu (朱敬一) recently said that when it comes to environmental protection and economic development, it seems that it is possible only to have one or the other, which results in both sides losing out.

Filmmaker Chi Po-lin (齊柏林), who directed the documentary Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above (看見台灣), has similarly expressed concern that Taiwan offers no future for either its environment or its economic development.

I am in California, researching the restoration of salt ponds in the San Francisco Bay Area. Over the nearly five decades since the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission was established, it has succeeded in protecting the ecology of the city’s bay while allowing the local economy to flourish. Taiwan could learn a lot from this organization.

In the early 1960s, the San Francisco Bay seemed like a dump, with the US Army Corps of Engineers planning to fill it in and reclaim the land. This prompted three women who were worried about the loss of the area’s beautiful scenery to set up the commission under the California state government.

The commission unifies the nine counties and more than 40 towns and cities — including San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose — that the Bay Area encompasses. A single county or city government in charge of conservation efforts would not have been authoritative or representative enough to protect the area. Establishing the conservation body under the state government made it possible to decree that all conservation and development projects in the region had to be approved by the commission’s 27 members.

Five members, including the commission chairperson and vice chairperson, are appointed by the state governor, while four city representatives are appointed by the Association of Bay Area Governments. Remaining members are appointed by the State Assembly and local governments. Some members also represent environmental groups. All appointees are volunteers.

The commission includes volunteer design and engineering review boards responsible for technical examinations of conservation and development projects. The commission also has 45 full-time administrative staff.

The commission has given the Bay Area a complete makeover. As well as conserving the environment, it has restored many salt ponds and protected wetlands. In the leisure sector, it has established several large parks and an 800km network of biking and hiking trails that are managed by the Bay Trail Project, which is subordinate to the Association of Bay Area Governments. The commission has enabled the Bay Area to be developed in many functional respects, while taking into account conservation, leisure, flood prevention and rising sea levels associated with global warming.

Although, like California, Taiwan has government agencies for ecological management, such as national park administrations and the Forestry Bureau, they are all part of the bureaucratic structure and are in charge of both management and planning. This makes it hard for these agencies to perform their management roles well and weakens their planning capacities.

The local situation differs from California’s, where the commission plays a managing role and has members from diverse cultural backgrounds. More importantly, all commission discussions are open and transparent. Biweekly meetings are open to public participation and their agendas must be announced 10 days in advance.

The commission’s structure and success offer useful lessons for Taiwan.

Yang Yung-nane is a visiting researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.

Translated by Julian Clegg