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Walnut Creek Magazine

Celebrating 50 Years: The History of Walnut Creek’s Open Space

May 23, 2024 02:57PM ● By Pam Kessler

(Photography by Kyle Luman, Walnut Creek Open Space)

One of Walnut Creek's most cherished treasures lies within its 2,700-acres of breathtaking Open Space. Once home to Native Americans, these lands offer miles of hiking trails, vibrant wildlife, diverse plant life, and panoramic vistas.

But how did the city manage to prevent the encroaching tide of urban sprawl in the 1970s? This is a story of fierce community spirit and unwavering determination.

As Walnut Creek transformed into a suburban haven, a small group of passionate citizens rallied to protect the environment. Their unwavering efforts preserved the natural splendor of Lime Ridge, Shell Ridge, Acalanes Ridge, and Sugarloaf, for future generations. 

Photo credit: Shell Ridge 1947, "150 Years in Pictures," by Brad Rovanpera

 The Intersection of Roads

The journey dates back to 1850 when California’s capital briefly resided in San Jose. Legislators traveling from Martinez to San Jose traversed the dirt roads of Contra Costa, dubbing the place where the roads intersected “The Corners,” known today as Walnut Creek.

Drawn by fertile farmland perfect for fruit and nut trees, settlers migrated to the area. The arrival of Southern Pacific Railroad in 1891 and the opening of a train depot spurred further growth. In 1937, the new Caldecott Tunnel connected San Francisco to the Diablo Region, igniting a suburban boom.

“People are flocking here. They will shop here if the shops offer what they want. They will look for entertainment here if it is available,” remarked Dean Lesher, a 45-year-old newspaper publisher in 1947. “This growth offers Walnut Creek both an opportunity and a challenge.” 

At the time, the community numbered just 2,400 residents within a 4-square-mile area, yet it was situated in the heart of a vast trade region with over 100,000 inhabitants.

From Orchards to Subdivisions

"Subdivisions and Orchards Rancho San Miguel," 1961, Photography by Les Sipes.   

The ensuing boom years saw the opening of the Broadway Shopping Center in 1951, followed by the construction of the I-680 freeway and BART station. By 1965, Walnut Creek’s population had surged to 12,000, making it the fastest-growing city among 160 in California. 

Walnut Creek, 1971, Mark Harrigan

Rapid Development Spurs Community Action

However, as the valleys filled and developers eyed the hills for new homes, citizens began to resist unchecked development. In 1970, a proposal for a 200-acre residential project at the end of Walnut Boulevard galvanized a small group of Walnut Heights homeowners into action. They formed a grassroots movement to save the open space from development.

 “They planned on building 400 houses on Shell Ridge, cutting into the hillside. They even wanted a 7-Eleven in the subdivision,” explains longtime resident Audrey Bramhall. Along with Joann Hanna, Bramhall led the effort to protect not only Shell Ridge, but all Open Space in Walnut Creek. Together they established a recreation district and self-imposed taxes to purchase the land.

Walnut Creek Residents Pass Bond Measure to Purchase 2700-Acres of Open Space

With support from City Council members including Margaret Kovar, Robert Schroder, and Jim Hill, a Citizens’ Open Space Action Committee was formed. They crafted a strategy for Open Space acquisition and preservation, which was approved in November 1973 and incorporated into the city’s two-year General Plan.

In June 1974, a two-thirds majority of Walnut Creek voters passed a bond measure, agreeing to tax themselves $6.75 million to buy 1,800 acres of undeveloped hillsides, ridgelines, and park sites. The bond measure launched a 25-year land acquisition program, resulting in over 2,700 acres of publicly-owned open space for walkers, hikers, horseback riders, and bikers.


“These undeveloped ridge lands were purchased with the intent that they remain in a near-natural state in perpetuity," says Bramhall. "They must be watched over and preserved." 

The city's Arts & Recreation Department, park rangers, and nonprofit organizations like the Walnut Creek Open Space Foundation manage the Open Space today.

Celebrate 50 years of Walnut Creek Open Space on Thursday, June 6, from 4-6 pm at the Shadelands Ranch Museum, 2660 Ygnacio Valley Road. Admission is free.


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