Imagining A Future Where Humanity Embraces A Water-Filled World Of Rising Seas

The rise of the oceans doesn’t have to mean a post-apocalyptic Waterworld scenario. What if humanity merely adapted to a much wetter world? A new exhibit shows how we might do it.

As it becomes increasingly clear that climate change threatens the stability of coastal communities, urban centers have started to scramble to prepare for rising seas. There are proposals for sea walls and home buyouts, storm surge barriers and sand dunes. But all of these ideas are predicated on the idea that we need to somehow battle rising waters instead of dealing with them head-on.


In a series of installations at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Future Cities Lab imagines an alternate, oddly optimistic future: one where sea-level rise has been embraced–and where a prickly, blob-like lime green robot roams the Earth, cataloging information about lost species and allowing passersby to browse the history of species past.


The Future Cities Lab installations are, appropriately enough, part of an exhibition called Dissident Futures. The first sign of dissidence comes immediately upon looking at the hand-sewn Hydraspan installation, a 40-foot long, quarter-scale model of the San Francisco Bay Bridge’s west span. Today, the bridge is used as, well, a bridge. But as we walk around the installation, Future Cities design principal Nataly Gattegno explains that this fictional future bridge serves a number of other purposes.

Fog-catching ribbons hang down from the bridge, harboring an entire world within–there are a series of living units for humans, systems that catch fog and rain and turn it into usable water, and fish farms for food. Humans also live on top of the bridge, but in more nomadic configurations. “It’s more like camping.” says Gattegno. Transportation units on the side of the bridge bring supplies up and down from the water and mainland.


Next, I walk with Gattegno and Future Cities designer Jason Johnson to the Hydramax Port Machines project–a proposal to utilize the water as it rises above San Francisco’s waterfront. “We want to rethink the edges of San Francisco. Here, we treat the edge like a soft wetland. We let the water infiltrate city architecture,” explains Johnson.

A huge robotic structure harvests fog, feeding water to hydroponic farms and aquaponic tanks. There are wildlife refuges, parks, and community gardens, all perched in the spot where the water meets land. By accepting water as a part of the city, the city grows and becomes more useful.

Instead of keeping the waterfront as a static tourist destination, this proposal “turns the edge of San Francisco back into an intensive landscape,” according to Johnson. It’s a place to produce resources–a way of taking the inevitably of climate change and mining it for possibilities.


Theatre of Lost Species

The final piece in the Future Cities series is the Theatre of Lost Species–the aforementioned prickly green robotic blob. Gattegno and Johnson imagines that the robot is constantly scanning information about various species as it roams the Earth. The white protrusions sticking out of its “body” are both scanners and viewing cones, where inquisitive humans can look at a database of creatures from the past. Despite its somewhat threatening spikes, Gattegno says that the Theatre is “something accessible that you could walk up to.”

The Hydraspan, Hydramax, and Theatre of Lost Species projects all take place in San Francisco, but as Gattegno points out, every major city is a waterfront city. These projects are relevant around the world. And, says Johnson, “there’s nothing here that couldn’t be built right now.”

Dissident Futures runs at the YBCA in San Francisco until February 2, 2014.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more