Visionary Solutions to Bayfront Inundation
By Mary Catherine O’Connor
SF Public Press
20 April 2017
Photo courtesy Nate Kauffman
Image: Nate Kauffman’s Live Edge Adaptation Project “categorically rejects postures of avoidance and resistance, and puts forth a bold new vision for a better Bay.”
The changing climate and shifting weather patterns are affecting each region of the globe differently. Not all coastal cities are going to experience sea level rise in the same manner. Municipalities, ecologists and planners do agree that robust wetlands are key to adapting to rising sea levels, and, if done correctly, will migrate upland to accommodate the level of the bay, which could rise a foot by 2050 and 5 feet by the 22nd century, according to some projections.
In June 2016, voters approved regional Measure AA, a parcel tax that will put $500 million toward improving wetlands over the next 20 years. However, unless it is done in combination with other innovative, potentially disruptive baywide adaptation measures, restoring wetlands will be like siphoning a few drops from a brimming bucket, said College of Environmental Design alumnus Nate Kauffman (MLA ‘14), a landscape architect and urban planning consultant.
Kauffman’s vision, called the Live Edge Adaptation Project, combines large-scale engineering, such as the construction of offshore landforms that would act as barrier islands and absorb wave energy, with tidal marshes that would form behind them. Leading up to the shoreline would be another engineered landform, such as a wide, sloping levee made of constructed wetlands to absorb storm surges, similar to the horizontal levee project in Hayward.
Why is this plan important? Kauffman states that implementing the plan would have “huge resource and enormous economic implications” but that the concept is also his “vision and argument for a different way of doing things.”
“Systems designed and built 100 years ago are not sustainable, and increasingly less so as we add more people to the area,” he said.
Beginning in April, an incentive program called Bay Area: Resilient by Design Challenge will bring together local governments, designers, planners and other stakeholders to generate 10 design solutions aimed at addressing sea level rise in specific Bay Area communities. The program, inspired by a similar challenge in New York and New Jersey in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, is being underwritten by a $5.8 million grant, led by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Past design challenges aimed at sea level rise have floated audacious ideas, such as building levees across the Golden Gate to separate the Pacific Ocean from the bay. What sets this challenge apart is that rather than starting with design concepts, which may or may not have realistic applicability, it seeks out cross-discipline teams willing to delve into vulnerabilities of localities and communities. The goal is to generate adaptations that are visionary but also realistic, replicable and affordable.
Gabriel Kaprielian, who co-directs the Design and Innovation for Sustainable Cities (DISC*) summer program at CED, notes how we frame the expensive, complex tasks related to sea level rise adaptation is vital. “Can we think about these problems as opportunities to redefine a new urban edge?” he asked. When it comes to redefining that space, the hardest part might not be designing and engineering, but rather changing policy.
Take, for example, the Port of San Francisco’s 100-year-old, 3-mile-long seawall that runs under the Embarcadero, absorbing the brunt of tides, boat wakes and storm swells. It is far from an adequate defense against rising seas, but remaking it in its current design could mean separating the city from the bay with a large concrete wall. And, making the port more resilient might mean changing its mandate, Kaprielian said. He endorses a redesign in which structures along the waterfront are raised, perhaps even floating so they can rise with the tide. Paying for such a change might entail creating public-private partnerships along with adding commercial and residential spaces.
In considering environmental justice and the need for baywide solutions, Kauffman said people leading the region’s adaptation efforts should reflect the diversity and needs of the region, which is predicted to add 2 million people by 2040. Groups that have long been in the vanguard of efforts to protect the bay should accept that they need to make compromises to adapt to rising seas, Kauffman said.
Adding fill to the bay has always been antithetical to groups such as Save the Bay, since the 20th-century extension of the urban shoreline disrupted the functioning of natural ecosystems. But under his concept, filling parts of the bay would be required.
“We’re all going to be way dead before the more dramatic parts of this start to manifest,” Kauffman said, “so it’s easier for those environmentalists to keep fighting as they’ve always been than it is to reinterpret their mission or method for saving the bay. The net effect of all these people trying to protect pieces of the bay will mean that nothing happens and all of the bay is in worse shape.”