6 Ideas To Transform The Bay Area And Stall The Climate Apocalypse

From floating villages to recontouring the waterfront, these ideas could help the region safeguard itself from natural disasters and climate change.

6 Ideas To Transform The Bay Area And Stall The Climate Apocalypse
[Image: courtesy BIG + One + Sherwood/Resilient by Design]

Unfortunately, it usually takes a natural disaster to remind cities how vulnerable they are–and how urgent long-range resiliency planning is. The San Francisco Bay Area, however, isn’t waiting for the next big one. This year the Rockefeller Foundation announced a $4.6 million grant to jump-start the Resilient by Design competition, the West Coast’s answer to the post-Sandy Rebuild by Design program. Now, the proposals are finally live and open for public comment.


The Bay Area is one of the most scenic, desirable regions in the country, but the very things that make it beautiful also pose the greatest risks to inhabitants. Sea levels in the region will rise an estimated 3.4 feet by 2100. Scientists predict chronic inundation and flooding in areas near the shoreline. Earthquakes shaped the bay’s rolling hillsides and mountains, and the specter of the next “Big One” looms large. The area’s natural ecosystems face myriad negative impacts stemming from development and pollution, too.

Resilient by Design asks experts to envision how the region should adapt. The 10 design super-teams are diverse, including internationally renowned architecture and engineering firms, MacArthur Foundation fellows, local landscape architects, Ivy League research groups, National Design Award winners, and more. Each team independently investigated the social and ecological vulnerabilities in the Bay Area and designed solutions addressing the core challenges of sea level rise, flooding, ecological health, and social enrichment, but focused on different problematic sites around the bay region. As a result they each created dramatically different solutions–everything from autonomous vehicle infrastructure to a new Transbay tube to artificial wetlands.

The competition winner will be announced in 2018, but all of the proposals contain insights into how coastal cities can adapt over the coming decades. And perhaps one, or many, of these ideas will take hold to reshape the Bay Area.

The Bay Cushion [Image: Public Sediment/courtesy Resilient by Design]

1. Sling Some Mud

Public Sediment, a team that includes MacArthur Fellow and founder of the landscape design firm SCAPE Kate Orff, took a deep dive into the sea level rise in the Bay Area and they hit pay dirt–literally.

Their solution involves recontouring the entire region by restoring the natural hydrologic cycle, which has been interrupted by many manmade interventions like paving over creeks, damming rivers, and diking off portions of the bay. All of that has made the region more susceptible to flooding.


The Bay Cushion [Image: Public Sediment/courtesy Resilient by Design]
Public Sediment proposes “softening” the edges along the bay with marshland that lets tidal waters flow more naturally and less forcefully. In the South Bay, much of the tidal marshland has been converted into salt ponds or diked off and filled in for development. The team proposes harvesting sediment deposits that collect at dams upstream from the bay and using that mineral-rich material to regrow the tidelands that have been lost. The team estimates that this change could mitigate about four inches of sea level rise while adding much needed habitat for birds, sharks, and small mammals. They also envision creating new infrastructure that lets sediment–usually trapped by dams–flow to the bay.

The region’s creeks, which naturally transport sediment, have also been paved over, fenced off, and rerouted. Instead of viewing creeks as heavy infrastructure, Public Sediment imagines transforming them into recreation space that both filters stormwater and contributes to the region’s long-term health.

[Image: P+SET/courtesy Resilient by Design]

2. Act Socially

Most resiliency projects require millions–even billions–of dollars of investment and take many years to develop and implement. But to the design team P+Set, the most urgent need isn’t infrastructure, it’s a culture of resilience.

Rather than waiting in limbo while bureaucrats debate what to build, P+Set believes that community outreach should be a top priority and this work should begin immediately. In their minds, infrastructure usually fails–and it’s the networks of people who are able to pool their resources and rebuild their communities that need to be the strongest.

P+Set proposes public workshops and seminars that will train residents to become “community resilience ambassadors” so that leaders in the most vulnerable communities have a seat at the table during discussions about public investment. They can also help their communities acquire the skills and networks needed to bounce back after a natural disaster, like a flood or an earthquake.

[Image: The Field Operations Team/courtesy Resilient by Design]

3. Get Highways Low

As in many regions, the Bay Area’s highways are destabilizing forces in neighborhoods. They isolate communities and use a lot of land, but still serve a valuable mobility purpose. Two design teams in the competition proposed burying large stretches of highway and reclaiming the space for housing, parks, and other development.

The Field Operations Team focused on ways to boost environmental and economic resiliency. For the former, the team is proposing seawalls to reinforce Oakland’s inner harbors and estuary and also offer more waterfront access for pedestrians. It suggests building a new Transbay tube to shuttle trains between Oakland, Alameda, and San Francisco, which would increase mobility for the region’s residents with the hope that increased transit options would widen access to economic opportunity.

Alongside the underground tube, the Field Operations Team imagines building a below-grade highway–for sections of the current stretch of 980–that will then free up land for development in the West Oakland area, which is currently physically separated from downtown. The team also proposes sinking portions of Amtrak’s train lines and interstate 880 and building green boulevards that support multimodal transportation.

Another team, Bionic, proposed a similar solution for Highway 101, in the North Bay city of San Rafael. It believes sinking the highway will create opportunities for housing and greater connectivity to the waterfront, which would be redeveloped into a recreation space that also insulates surrounding communities from flooding.

[Image: courtesy BIG + One + Sherwood/Resilient by Design]

4. Bring Neighborhoods Into The Water

The traditional flood-management strategy is to move as far away from water as possible–but two Resilient by Design teams suggest building neighborhoods on top of the water.


The team composed of BIG–the Danish firm that’s designing Lower Manhattan’s post-Sandy “Big U” infrastructure–One Architecture + Urbanism, and Sherwood proposes transforming the South Bay into a network for floating villages that bleed into the bay itself. The All Bay Collective also proposes floating neighborhoods for East Palo Alto, a city struggling with an extreme housing shortage and wide inequality gap.

Mare Island Park [Image: P+SET/courtesy Resilient by Design]

5. Nurture Postindustrial Neighborhoods

Mare Island–a peninsula west of Vallejo–is home to a decommissioned Navy Yard. P+Set proposes transforming this area into the sustainable and resilient neighborhood of the future by constructing wetlands that can help mitigate flooding and sea level rise; building affordable housing for vulnerable populations; installing solar and wind farms; and cleaning up polluted brownfields that have only been capped.

Team Uplift–which includes the National Design Award-winning landscape architect Margie Ruddick, the architecture firm Gensler, and the engineering firm Arup–suggests redeveloping large swaths of West Oakland, an area adjacent to the Port of Oakland that’s home to industrial uses, residential neighborhoods, and lots of heavy rail. It suggests covering the railyards and tracks and building mixed-use development on top that includes housing, commercial areas, parks, and more.

Redwood City [Image: Hassell+/courtesy Resilient by Design]

6. Flood Parks

One of the most consistent suggestions from all teams and for all sites around the bay is to create recreation space that can also flood in the event of storms or rising tides.

For example, the Home Team suggests a marsh-as-recreation area for the East Oakland waterfront near the Coliseum and for North Richmond. In addition to boosting the ecological health of the bay by adding habitat, and boosting community health through opportunities for running, walking and biking, it also offers a sea level rise buffer for development further inland. Hassell+ suggests a similar approach for Redwood City’s waterfront.


The proposals from the 10 teams are ambitious, and not without their drawbacks. Funding a project that attempts to redesign the region’s entire watershed is surely astronomical and moving sediment around could pose risks when it comes to invasive species. Bringing new development to neighborhoods that have struggled economically does not necessarily mean current residents will welcome it, or that adding supply will help alleviate the high costs of housing without other policy changes. Burying a noisy and dirty freeway sounds enticing, but considering the region is susceptible to freeway-collapsing earthquakes it’s likely to be met with skepticism. Filling in the bay at all is a long-standing controversy. Some of the plans emphasize connecting fragmented regions in the Bay Area–a move that seems intuitive–but many communities, like those in the North Bay, are purposefully insular. Most of the plans are nudging the region as a whole into service-based economies, and make no mention of industrial and manufacturing industries, which are important to keep in the mix.

The toughest hurdle for Resilient by Design won’t be dreaming up visions for a more resilient future; it’s finding ways to combat the region’s antidevelopment, NIMBY-centric reputation.

See the full list of proposals here.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.