This summer we made our annual trek to Camp Mather for our family week in the mountains. Camp Mather’s legacy stems from a time when our city Fathers had the foresight to understand the importance for their city residents to have ready access to the great outdoors. While systems such as Denver’s Mountain Parks are strategically conceived park systems, Camp Mather resulted more as a result of happy circumstance than strategic vision. A left-over camp from the heroic Hetch Hetchy Dam construction project, the 330-acre 1924 construction camp – complete with cabins, a gravel pit lake, and rustic dining hall – all sit amid the natural assets adjoining Yosemite National Park. The camp was turned over to the SF Parks and Recreation Department upon completion of the dam, and it comes alive every summer for 12 weeks as San Francisco families gather to spend a single lottery-secured week.
As we spent our week at Camp Mather, I reflected on how many of the things we strive to achieve in sustainable communities was taking place organically at Camp Mather. For starters, like so many of sustainable community ‘envisionings’ I’ve been part of, Camp Mather has solved the evil of the car. You drive in, drop your stuff at your cabin, and then park the car in a remote lot. After initial arrival, everyone is car-free for a week. Walkers, strollers and bicyclists dominate all modes of transportation, and no one seems to mind a bit.
Next, living simply has evolved into a fine art at Mather. The cabins are the barest of finishes and size, but it becomes an annual ritual and friendly competition to see how people creatively use the small space, while adding signature flourishes and comforting touches. This year, as the four of us bunked down in our 200 s.f. cabin (yes, I measured it!) we encountered two days of rain. The re-arranging of bunk and queen beds, and commandeering of a small card table and four chairs gave us a simple and delightful ‘game room’ that made the not-so-large cabin live quite large.
As a place where our daughter has grown up, each year is accompanied by an increasing sense of independence. But her greatest joy upon arrival is to grab her bike and take off – for the lake, the general store, the dining hall…anywhere. Because she can. In the city, there are always the worries of getting hit, getting lost, strangers. But Mather is a community where kids feel safe because we all look out for each other. And that bestows an incredible sense of independence for them and for us.
Chance encounters aren’t just a catchy design term at Mather. Each evening folks stroll by one another’s cabin where informal cocktails are shared and new friends are made. This works because people are strolling, not driving. They are relaxed because they feel safe. They are open to meeting new people because they share a common bond – not one of economics or profession (because Mather is as diverse as San Francisco) but because we are all part of this same community for one week of the year, and share our larger City the rest of the year.
Meals are taken together in the refurbished dining hall. While it’s a pleasure not to cook or clean up, the best part of the meal is sitting down and eating in a communal fashion. I’ve never been big on the whole ‘group meal thing’, but there is something that happens when you stand in the food line. Finishing a happy hour drink in one hand, with a bottle of wine to share over dinner in the other, conversations begin. You get your food, (which being San Franciscans has to be pretty darn good) and then find a place to sit together. Conversation lingers on well after the food is gone, and people actually get to know one another.
The week ends with some good, old fashioned events to cap things off. Movie night is always pretty great…sitting outdoors under the stars. How much do ‘community life’ programmers pay to create this kind of atmosphere, when it comes free at Mather? At the talent show, everyone shows up to see kids take the stage. It doesn’t really matter how good they are…because by now they are kids you know and you want them to do well. The Friday night dance brings everyone together for another round of conversation and connection before the community departs.
So what does all of this have to do with sustainable communities? What I saw this year was the working magic of what I’ve been characterizing as the ‘software not hardware’ of community. There is no special technology for renewable power. There are no slick green living campaigns. But what happens at a human level – through strolling, shared meals, good conversation, and new friendships – creates the beating heart of sustainability. Enabled by the right mix of natural surroundings, a simpler way of life, and removal of day-to-day stress portends what we might accomplish if we just work a little harder at creating community right here at home.