BCDC and the Bay Plan: A Watershed in Urban Planning’s Relationship with the Natural Environment

San Francisco Bay, California

The 1960s and 70s witnessed a sharp increase in public environmental awareness and a wave of environmental legislation passed at the local, state, and federal levels. Within this context of evolving policy and popular attitudes, the urban planning profession, long an ally of development, began to take on a new role in advocating for and implementing smart growth policies to minimize negative environmental impacts. An early example of this trend, The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) became the first agency in the US to exercise control over physical development as a way to protect the environment.


This paper argues that the formalizing of the popular movement to save the San Francisco Bay in the Bay Plan and the creation of BCDC represented both an abandonment of popular modernist development paradigms and a watershed in urban planning’s relationship with the natural environment. Recent amendments to the Bay Plan are evidence of the continuing evolution of this relationship, as today’s interest in sustainable development and resilience are reflected in BCDC’s new focus on climate change adaptation.