One Step at a Time
Berkeley’s Public Pathways
By Colleen Neff Berkeley Path Wanderers Association
Photo credit: Colleen Neff and Mary Ross Lynch
Chances are, if you’ve ever walked around the city of Berkeley, you’ve noticed the hidden wooden stairs, shortcut paths, and concrete stairways that connect our streets. This unique pedestrian path network was born of necessity in the early 1900s as the Berkeley hills were being mapped for development. It became clear that the traditional straight-line, grid-pattern of roads was not appropriate for the hilly terrain. Building winding streets along contours of the hills resulted in some very long blocks, and private cars for transport were uncommon at the time. So, pedestrian shortcuts were constructed for residents to walk down to catch the streetcars that would take them downtown and then on to San Francisco. Over time, the City of Berkeley accepted ownership of the existing pathways and also the land in the hills where paths were planned but never built, once private cars became more prevalent and the streetcars were removed. Decades went by with no new paths constructed, and the existing paths were unnamed, without signage, and under-utilized.
In 1998, four path-curious Berkeley women (Ruth Armstrong, Pat DeVito, Jacque Ensign, and Eleanor Gibson) organized a meeting at the Live Oak Community Center and from that exploratory event, the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association (BPWA) was born. The goal was to locate, identify, name, and number all the public paths and stairways in the city (built and unbuilt) and raise awareness of these valued public amenities. With City Councilwoman Betty Olds onboard and providing some early financial support, the first map of Berkeley’s 136 pathways was created by the BPWA. Now in its 9th edition, the updated “Berkeley and Its Pathways” map continues to be the main source of revenue for the non-profit group who then plow the profits back into building new paths. Generous donations from BPWA members, city residents, and fans of the paths also contribute needed funds for handrails, path building materials, and tools.
While many concrete stairways (Rose Walk, Fountain Walk, Indian Rock Path, etc.) were developed as Berkeley grew, over the last 23 years dozens of new paths have been constructed by BPWA volunteers in an unusual public-private partnership with the City of Berkeley. Serving as shortcuts to main roads down to town, recreational walkways, and vital escape routes from the hills in case of earthquakes or fires, the path network has become an integral part of city life in Berkeley.
BPWA’s first foray into path construction began early when a Boy Scout leader approached them about the potential for Eagle Scout projects. The scouts’ previous experience with trail building in parks helped early path building efforts get started. Now, the highly skilled BPWA team builds at least one new path per year with the help of many community volunteers including UC Berkeley students, Girl and Boy Scouts, and path neighbors.
Once an undeveloped path is chosen for construction, all adjacent neighbors are approached in-person to discuss the project. Charlie Bowen, the longtime BPWA path building chair, says this gives homeowners a chance to remove any encroachments, build a fence if desired, move landscaping, or make any other preparations. Over the years, fences, decks, gardens, dog runs, and even a hot tub have been removed from public property to make way for the paths. BPWA pays for a professional survey at each location so all parties know where the property lines are. These surveys typically cost several thousand dollars depending on the length and steepness of the path.
Before the first step can be laid, the path must be designed within the 10-foot-wide stretch of City property. The steepness of the route is measured to figure out how to lay out the series of steps, flat sections, and any switchbacks that might be needed. Clearing the area of plant material (usually ivy, blackberries, bamboo) is often a difficult job, especially when working on a steep hillside. Large trees and bushes are worked around if possible, and designers are mindful to keep the path in the center of the 10 feet, in fairness to all neighbors.
Since building concrete stairs would be prohibitively expensive for BPWA to finance, wooden steps are used. New Life Mill in Richmond supplies the 6” x 6” x 3 foot eucalyptus steps milled from downed City trees. They also drill two holes into the steps to accommodate the 3 foot rebar stakes that get pounded into the ground, anchoring the steps into the soil of the hillside. The cost of each step (including rebar) is about $30. Recent installations have been well over 100 steps each, so materials can cost thousands of dollars per path. If there is loose soil adjacent to the steps, 2” x 12” boards are installed as retaining walls.
When building the stairways, care is taken to keep the step spacing consistent at a 6” rise and 12” to 14” run, which is more challenging when the steps curve up a hillside. Work parties are held for the volunteers while the paths are being built, and BPWA supplies workers with tools, gloves, buckets, and levels. Very steep sections require switchbacks to remain within the City-owned 10-foot-wide property.
On steep paths, BPWA pays for a City vendor to build metal handrails for safety. But--the cost is very high. Recent handrail installations have cost between $20,000 to $30,000 per path depending on whether the stairway has curves, switchbacks, or is a straight run of steps. The total cost for one recently completed path (Lower Halkin Path) will be nearly $35,000.
Once everything is completed on the new pathway, the City puts up a street sign with the path’s name. If a path starts or ends in the middle of a street block, the City also puts up a sign with the name of the cross street, which is very helpful for walkers.
After paths are built, they must be maintained. Since the City does not manage that, the BPWA holds regular work parties for volunteers to clear plant debris, remove weeds, and sweep up dead leaves. Old, worn out, or rotted steps on existing paths also need replacement as they age. Some paths’ maintenance is regularly done by the adjacent neighbors, which is encouraged and greatly appreciated. Two paths currently slated for construction, Hilgard Path and Columbia Path, are in the preliminary planning stage. A pilot program is also being considered to install lighting on some paths for ease of use at night in case of emergency evacuation. With recent regular droughts and fire concerns, the public path network in Berkeley becomes ever more valuable for residents to use for emergency evacuation.
Berkeley’s public paths might still be unknown by many residents, but to those who use them often, they are, as founding BPWA board member Paul Grunland wrote, “leafy corridors of quiet, removed from the world of noise beyond.” BPWA and the four women who founded it are true practitioners of the Berkeley spirit: if you see something that needs doing, don’t wait for someone else – roll up your sleeves and get busy. If you’d like more information on how to help maintain the paths or build new ones, become a member, or buy a new map, please visit BerkeleyPaths.org.