A century and a half ago, the area that is now the Google campus in Mountain View, California—sandwiched between the bay and oak savannahs—was made up of wildflower-filled meadows, wetlands, scattered oaks, and sprawling willow groves.
Part of the land was later farmed, and by the 1990s it became an office park. In 2003, Google moved in. Now, the company is rebuilding pieces of the former landscape, with a vision of helping reconnect critical habitat for species like snowy egrets and burrowing owls throughout all of Silicon Valley.
"We think of the Bay Area as a place where we're testing this thinking, that there's so much potential in urban and suburban areas," says Audrey Davenport, who leads the ecology program at Google. "If we could overcome the fragmentation of how our outdoor landscapes are managed in these areas, we could really bring vibrancy and function back to them."
Davenport began working with Google's real estate team three years ago, expanding the company's focus on health and sustainability inside office buildings to what was happening in the landscaping outside. As she looked for guidance on how to begin, she couldn't find it. There were plans for restoring the wetlands along the bay, and plans for the larger parks up in the hills, but not for the urban and suburban spaces in between. So she began working with outside experts to create a science-based approach for landscape architects to use as they created new designs for the campus.
Using resilience science—the new study of how wildlife can adapt to a changing climate—the team created a set of principles that could be applied in any area, and then began exploring how those principles could work in practice in Silicon Valley.
"We translated the vision into resources, like habitat guidelines," says Davenport. "Those get down to a much more detailed level, detailing the exact species of plants and trees we'd like to see planted, the structure and diversity of how to plant them, even down to the detail of the spacing between plants, so that we get habitat value out of our landscaping effort."
In one project, the team began working with the City of Mountain View to expand a small willow grove called the Charleston Retention Basin, to help begin to replicate the massive groves that once crossed the area.
"One missing element of the landscape today are these willow groves—these large, wooded wetland areas that were associated with high groundwater, and provided a lot of food resources throughout the year for a lot of species," says Robin Grossinger, director of the resilient landscapes program at the San Francisco Estuary Institute, one of the organizations Google partnered with on the project. "They really helped get us through the drought."
As droughts increase because of climate change, the expanded willow grove can help wildlife in the area survive.
In another project, Google is working with its partners on a "re-oaking" project to bring back valley oaks to the area, along with the wildlife that depends on the trees. In company parking lots, 134 parking spaces were removed to make room for habitat expansion. So far, a total of 50 acres on the campus have been converted to more native landscaping, with even more currently in the design phase.
Because the corporate campus sprawls over a large area, the company's own landscape redesigns can begin to reconnect paths for wildlife.
"If you think about the vegetation and the species that rely on it, most of them can move through landscapes if you give them just enough connectivity," says Davenport. "So even though we don’t own tracts of land that connect perfectly, this same approach to the planting and design can start to create permeability in these landscapes. Migratory birds that have lost almost all of their habitat along the bay's edge could start to stop from the air again in these pockets of willow groves . . . that's what's missing from these landscapes."
The ultimate vision is for others—from other businesses to nonprofits, the city, and even homeowners—to begin to practice the same kind of landscaping, so wildlife can travel through it to larger parks on the edge of Silicon Valley suburbs and cities.
"Around much of the edge of the lower San Francisco Bay we have these commercial, light industrial neighborhoods that weren't really designed with ecology in mind," says Grossinger. "And, to some extent, weren't designed with the human experience in mind. So as they're redeveloped and redesigned, there's an opportunity to make that edge of the bay be a lot better for native wildlife than it is currently."
The frameworks that Google and its partners create will all be open-source and available to anyone.
"This is about making investments in science . . . and about building coalitions of like-minded organizations, landowners, NGOs, who want to help implement this shared vision for the urban landscape," she says.
[All Photos: courtesy Google]