San Diego is home to a unique collection of canyons and some run through the region’s most urban neighborhoods. By connecting canyons together through a series of trails and creating a regional parks system, San Diego can increase accessibility to nature and promote healthy living
Eric Bowlby wants to make San Diego’s canyons grand. They hold tremendous promise for open space and parkland - but only if they can be improved and made accessible. That’s been his longtime mission and passion. He’s been working to improve the canyons for more than a decade and helped found the nonprofit San Diego Canyonlands, where he serves as executive director.
Bowlby and the San Diego Canyonlands hope to improve the canyons near urban areas so communities can access natural landscapes. One of the group’s objectives is to bring the county’s canyons under a regional parks system called the San Diego Regional Canyonlands.
“San Diego has hundreds of large islands of natural, open space scattered throughout the city, and there’s an opportunity to restore, rehabilitate and provide safe access for surrounding urban areas,” Bowlby said.
The ultimate goal is to connect all the canyons with bike and walking trails.
The San Diego Foundation, in its Our Greater San Diego Vision report, identified the creation of a regional system of connected parks and trails as one of the big ideas that could help shape the future of San Diego. It’s also donated more than $380,000 to Bowlby’s organization, including a recent $40,000 grant. “We believe the work they do is important,” said Emily Young, senior director of the Foundation’s environmental program.
Realizing the Foundation’s vision will take time, Bowlby said. The first step is to concentrate on each individual community, which his organization is already doing, he said. The San Diego Canyonlands is working on a project in City Heights, which has the least amount of parks and open space in the city. In addition to being underserved, it is disadvantaged economically, which is why Bowlby wants to help.
“We’re focused in these urban areas where the needs are the greatest,” he said. “We’ve really transformed the canyons from dangerous, neglected areas to cherished community assets.”
In addition to City Heights, he has focused the most attention on Chollas Creeks and South San Diego, he said. “The cities need these resources to convert and take back these open spaces that should be enjoyed by the people but have been neglected,” he said.
In May, the California Strategic Growth Council awarded San Diego Canyonlands $365,000 for The City Heights Canyons Loop Trail. The project includes restoring four canyons located between the Manzanita, Hollywood, Swan and 47th Street communities. It will link 90 acres of open canyon spaces to provide a five-mile system of nature trails throughout the city. Bowlby’s group is adding signage, native plants and local art to lead people to the canyon corridors. The funds will help a coalition called the City Heights Canyons and Communities Alliance, which has been working to rescue the canyons for the past five years.
Bowlby said the idea of bringing the city’s canyons under an umbrella called the San Diego Regional Canyonlands was the brainchild of Richard Louv. Louv, who was a U-T San Diego columnist for more than 20 years, has written eight books about the connection between family, nature and community. He’s best known for his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”
“Richard said we should really celebrate our canyons by declaring them and naming them as the San Diego Regional Canyonlands Park,” Bowlby said.
Studies like the one in Louv’s book show that children who have access to nature are healthier and less likely to have depression, hyper-activity and attention deficit disorders. Youth who have access to nature during their formative years also have a better chance to develop stronger cognitive skills.
Even though City Heights is becoming greener, a lot more communities still need improvement, Bowlby said. Making these projects happen takes a collaboration between citizens, politicians and organizations.
“You’ve got to get a handful of community leaders who are willing to take on the care of their neighborhood canyon,” Bowlby said. “It’s a combined community effort between city hall, community members, educational institutions and even police.”