Out West student blog

Transforming a neglected urban site into a place of natural beauty

A young woman with blond braids stands in front of a body of water wearing a brown sweater and sweat pants squinting into the camera and smiling.

Photo courtesy of Diana Bazsucki


Diana Bazsucki (she/her)
Hometown: Portola Valley, CA

Major: History ‘24

Internship: American Rivers

Diana Baszucki reflects on the importance of imagination in environmental work and how systemic patterns influence communities’ access to nature

Throughout this summer, my weeks of work have been punctuated by weekend excursions. Coincidentally (or perhaps it was fated), many of these trips have been to rivers. I have gone to the Yuba River, the San Lorenzo River, and the American River to swim and enjoy the natural beauty of these places. The Yuba flows blue and clear over giant granite formations and is the perfect temperature for swimming. The San Lorenzo lies nestled underneath cathedral-like redwood forests and explodes with life. When I think of a river, these are usually the places that I think of: tranquil, natural, and pristine. But as I have learned this summer, this is not the reality in many places. As I have now seen firsthand, many rivers in California’s Central Valley are tightly controlled by levees, stripped of their natural wetland habitat, and un-swimmable.  

This summer, I am interning for American Rivers, an environmental organization that works throughout the country on all types of projects relating to rivers. In my work with the organization, I am supporting a multifaceted project in south Stockton, California. Today, the river-adjacent project site is an abandoned golf course, overgrown with dead weeds and bordered by “no trespassing” signs. My team hopes to transform the project area by creating a world-class park, restoring wetland habitat, and increasing flood protection for the surrounding community. 

When I first visited the site, it was difficult to reconcile what I was seeing in front of me with the vision that my supervisor, coworkers, and project partners have for the space. The area was closed (and subsequently neglected) a few years ago while the other Stockton golf course, located in the wealthier part of town, continues to be maintained. A chain link fence surrounds the area, and it appears as a generally unwelcoming place even though it is located just across the street from residents’ houses. It was daunting to imagine that the site could be a place of natural beauty, one that would connect the community and encourage outdoor recreation. 

Environmental work does not always take place in pristine natural areas. While I have so much appreciation for picturesque, remote rivers, I believe it is just as important, if not more important, to focus on the places where communities have little access to nature due to systemic forces. The community of south Stockton is a historically marginalized community of predominantly BIPOC residents. It is no coincidence that they do not have sufficient access to parks and natural areas; this is a pattern that is apparent across the country. I am glad that my work focuses on community outreach so that the project will benefit not only the environment but also the local community. 

Transforming polluted, mismanaged, and neglected riverside sites into restored places of natural beauty and connectedness can sometimes feel like a futile endeavor. It can take some creativity to look at an urban project site and imagine that it could someday brim with as much life as an undeveloped, remote river. But as I have learned throughout this summer, the visioning step is vital to environmental work. One must be able to believe in the future of what a project could be in order to make it a reality.   

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Photo courtesy of Brandon Kapelow

Every year, the Bill Lane Center awards a $5,000 fellowship to support a journalist illuminating crucial issues about the American West. We are proud to announce Brandon Kapelow as our 2023-2024 Western Media Fellow, and the publication of new work by last year's fellow, Janet Wilson.